Archive for Not a Comic Book

Dark Dungeons

DangerousGames

Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds by Joseph P. Laycock

Long, long ago, back in the ancient junior-high days, I played Dungeons & Dragons. This was back in the old boxed set era — what I still think of as the glory days of D&D — and I’ll freely admit it was a weird game. Most game sessions involved exploring underground dungeons populated by nothing by seemingly random collections of monsters living in squalor but surrounded by treasure. Wizards weren’t allowed to wear armor or carry weapons more significant than a dagger, and their spells disappeared from their minds as soon as they were cast — unless they’d memorized the same spell more than once. And there was some sort of armadillo that had somehow evolved the ability to cause metal to rust.

But the weirdest thing of all was how many people believed that playing a game of pretend could cause you to worship the devil.

I was lucky, because while my parents surely thought D&D was weird, they never believed it was evil, and they never told me I wasn’t allowed to play. But there were lots of people who bought into that ridiculous story. But why did people believe it? Why did people push it? What were they getting out of pushing something so utterly deranged?

That’s what this book is about — why was there a huge moral panic about D&D (and roleplaying games in general), why were people so eager to believe that bookish teenagers were devil worshipers, who were the people helping to fan the flames, and what benefits did they gain from inventing conspiracy theories that made no rational sense?

Laycock’s book is exhaustively detailed, detailing the history of the game and the panic from the beginning, setting down the names of a vast number of conspiracy theorists, and analyzing not just the motives of the theorists, but the many ways they were actually very similar to the teenagers they were targeting.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Let’s start out with this, though — this isn’t an easy, two-nights-to-finish pop-psych skimmer. This is a pretty serious academic work. There are hefty chunks of the book devoted to professorial discussions of play, religion, and the imagination. Those may sound easy and fun, but when you’re analyzing the research into these academic areas, they can be a bit of a slog to get through. There are pages of this book you may have to force yourself to get through, particularly if you’re not well-versed in these academic areas.

This may sound like a bad thing, but it ain’t really. You learn stuff going through these sections, and learning this stuff helps you appreciate Laycock’s analysis later in the book. This is the nature of academic works, and it don’t make it bad just ’cause it ain’t easy.

What are some of the things we learn in Laycock’s analysis? One of the key discussions is about play and imagination — particularly when it’s healthy and when it’s unhealthy, and what happens when people can’t tell the difference between their imaginations and reality. I don’t think it’ll come as a great surprise to anyone who’s followed this phenomenon before, but there are some serious similarities between D&D players and the conspiracy theorists who persecuted them. D&D players played at being brave heroes battling against monstrous horrors to save the innocent. And the conspiracy theorists like Patricia Pulling, William Dear, and Jack Chick also played at being brave heroes battling against monstrous horrors to save the innocent. Now which ones do you think knew they were playing a game, and which ones do you think had mistaken their game for reality?

Even then, there are some items in here that still surprised me. I never really imagined there were people who were actually opposed to anyone using their imagination — because imagining things means thinking of things that God didn’t create. And this distrust of the imagination actually extends back centuries — some Greek philosophers didn’t trust fiction or the arts at all, and even Thomas Jefferson hated novels because he thought books should only convey things that were true, not falsities and fictions.

There’s so much more I could go through — because there’s a lot of excellent stuff to learn in this book. If you’re an old-school gamer with a taste for the hobby’s history, if you’ve got an interest in moral panics, if you love learning new things about how humans use and abuse play and religion, you’ll probably really enjoy this book. Go pick it up.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Spacelore

It’s almost Christmas! But there’s still time to do some last-minute shopping! So let’s dive back into the Holiday Gift Bag to look at J.B. Zimmerman’s Spacelore.

Spacelore

I previously reviewed Zimmerman’s first book, “The New York Magician,” a modern urban fantasy novel, a couple years back. This one collects a bunch of his short science fiction stories, and they’re pretty dang keen.

Among the stories we get here are:

  • “Radar Ghosts and Dead Cosmonauts” – A motley band of techno-shamans try to save the lives of astronauts who died long ago.
  • “The Screams Grow in Green Ice” – An astronaut lost in space, a secret military space station, and something deeply terrifying make for an astonishingly tense sci-fi thriller.
  • “Universal Destructor” – Sometimes, when you get the right genius working on the right project, the whole universe can open up for you.
  • “Notes from the Long Dark” – Deep space exploration sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s best when you’re a willing explorer. And when you’ve got more than just your brain tethered to a spacecraft…
  • “The Bleeding Machine” – A salvage crew encounters a wrecked spaceship, but once on board, they find themselves being attacked and separated by unseen forces. Who’s trying to kill them? And why?
  • “A Trembling in the Sun” – A group of AIs seek to solve the mystery of what’s killing the sun before all life on their planet is ended.
  • “Elevation” – A religious pilgrim in a primitive society undertakes a quest to climb a massive rope into the heavens — but where does the rope really lead?

Verdict: Thumbs up. You get over a dozen fantastic science fiction stories in this book — and they’ve got a serious classic feel to them. I think when we all discovered science fiction for the first time, what brought a lot of us in was a fascination with outer space, rocketships, astronauts, robots, and science so wild it’ll break both your brain and the laws of physics. Zimmerman grew up with the same fascination, and the result is this collection of space-based wonder.

And space-based horror, too. Quite a few of these tales feature strong elements of terror, fright, and suspense. Spaceships that keep themselves lubricated on human blood, voices of long-dead astronauts whispering through the radio, space zombies, and more remind us that space can inspire us — but that doesn’t make it safe.

But there’s also adventure and humor and science and daring men and women exploring the galaxy and fighting aliens and performing miracles with newly invented propulsion systems and doing all the things we’ve always dreamed of getting to do out there in the vast, cold, wonder-filled darkness between the stars. There are stories that’ll scare you, but there are also stories to excite you and make you laugh and make you wish we were focusing more of our efforts on making our science fiction dreams come true.

If you know someone who loves science fiction and great writing and the glories of space travel, they’ll definitely love this book. And hey, it’s late enough that you can’t get anything shipped on time, and the malls are just ridiculous, and you still need a good stocking stuffer — well, you can get this one on the Kindle, and it’s inexpensive enough that you can surprise the sci-fi fan with a little extra present without breaking the bank. So go pick it up.

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Sailing the Seas in Lost Carcosa

WhileTheBlackStarsBurn

While the Black Stars Burn by Lucy A. Snyder

Y’all know by now that I’m a fan of Lucy Snyder’s books, and she’s got this new collection of short stories that just came out. As expected for a horror specialist like Snyder, there’s plenty of scary stuff. There’s also a number of stories from other genres, particularly science fiction and medieval fantasy, and there’s even a story about a time-traveling alien doctor who runs around in a police call box…

Some of the stories we find inside are:

  • “Spinwebs” – a weird little fantasy tale about a family encountering prejudice because of the giant telepathic spiders that live in their home.
  • “The Still-Life Drama of Passing Cars” – a quiet tale of a woman and her children driving in the car — but something isn’t right about any of them…
  • “Through Thy Bounty” – an old favorite — the aliens invade, and a captive is ordered to cook for the invaders. Their favorite dishes? Let’s just say they prefer all kinds of human meals.
  • “Cthylla” – the untalented daughter of a computer genius and a celebrated actress befriends an artist marked for death by a doomsday cult.
  • “While the Black Stars Burn” – a talented but tortured violinist is used to open the way for the terrible King in Yellow.
  • “Jessie Shimmer Goes to Hell” – in which the lead character of Snyder’s Jessie Shimmer novels goes to Hell, faces a monstrous demon, and must claw her way back home.
  • “Fable Fusion” – a story originally written for a Doctor Who fiction anthology, this features the Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace investigating creatures of myth running around Prague.

Verdict: Thumbs up. If this collection has a theme, it’s the disintegration of families — and Lovecraftian monsters.

Lovecraftian horror tends toward the nihilistic — but in this case, what really carries that nihilism banner is the rampant destruction of family units. Sometimes, the ends of these families are deeply sad — the families, no matter how small or poor, were loving and caring, and the survivors will be left without their loved ones and the people who they turned to for support. And in other cases, the destructing families should’ve been put to the torch years ago. Sadistic fathers, cultist parents, two-faced spouses, and more. And the end of those families still leave the survivors in bad places — and the non-survivors in much, much worse places, too.

But there are plenty of great monsters in here, too. And while not all of them are Lovecraftian, quite a few are. And actually, more than you’d expect have deep connections to Robert W. Chambers’s “King in Yellow” mythology. Chambers’s turn-of-the-century surreal horror has been a big thing for the last few years, and it’s great to see that Snyder is able to make lost Carcosa’s favored son work so well. I’ve been a huge fan of Chambers for years, and it’s always a thrill to see well-done stories about the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, and all the associated figures.

On top of all that, I’d just like to say that, as a non-Doctor Who fan, I really enjoyed the Whovian “Fable Fusion” story.

So you like grim nihilist horror? You like the King in Yellow? You like Jessie Shimmer and Doctor Who? Go pick this up.

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Superhero Road Trip

RoninGames

Wearing the Cape: Ronin Games by Marion G. Harmon

Hey, it’s the latest chapter in the best damn superhero fiction series on the planet! What’ve we got this time?

Once again, we’re well-acquainted with most of our characters already — Hope Corrigan is our lead character, better known as the superstrong superheroine Astra. There’s Shell, the techno-ghost of her late best friend, now residing in a robotic exoskeleton as the hero Galatea, though she spends much of this story disguised as a cat. There’s also Shelly, Hope’s late best friend now returned to life, and a completely separate person from Shell. There’s Jacky, the thoroughly badass vampiric superhero Artemis. And there’s Ozma, who claims to be the exiled Princess Ozma of Oz.

Hope has been infected for a while by dreams caused by the mysterious superhuman called Kitsune, but the dreams are different now — they’re focused solely on a single tree, and it appears that their highly magical nature could mean that Hope could be drawn completely into the dream, disappearing from the rest of the world for all time. Clearly, Kitsune should be able to clear this problem up, but no one knows where he is — until a government contact reveals that Kitsune works periodically as an agent of Japan, and they’re unwilling to let anyone know that. Unfortunately, superheroes aren’t allowed to travel to Japan without permission, so Hope and her friends will have to disguise themselves and sneak into Japan — an act that could get them all thrown in jail.

Of course, there are plenty of problems. Their secret entry into the country is spoiled, and they barely avoid capture by the national superhero teams. They’re forced to serve as ronin — vigilantes unaffiliated with the national superteams, and thus operating illegally. They battle Chinese supervillains, the Yakuza, and even a hyper-powered metahuman god manifesting as a school of omnipotent goldfish. But even after escaping from the goldfish’s realm, Astra gets captured by the government, with the very real possibility that she’ll be unmasked and thrown out of the superhero biz. Can Astra escape from captivity? Can she find Kitsune and get her dream curse lifted? And can Astra, Artemis, and Ozma help repel an invasion of kaiju?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Yeah, I always enjoy this series, but this one seemed particularly fun. The characters are out of their comfort zone, the action is, as always, amazing and grand, and the plot points are resolved with cleverness, humor, and the occasional beat-down.

One of my favorite things about this novel is that it reduces the number of characters we have to keep track of. Listen, this series has a lot of characters, and it’s not at all difficult to lose track of who everyone is. And while there are still quite a few characters in here, after a certain point in the story, most of them go offstage for a while, letting us focus on the ones we’re most familiar with — Hope, Jacky, and Shell — and the one everyone seems to want to learn more about — Ozma. This is a very, very good thing. I might not want every story to focus on just four characters, but it’s a nice change of pace.

I think by now we’re all very well aware of how much I love this series, so let me just say it’s a great book — go pick it up.

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Super Awesome Awesomesauce

TheAwesome

The Awesome by Eva Darrows

First of all, could we please gather together to sing hymns of praise for this glorious cover (by artist Pye Parr)? May I also note that, in addition to this fantastic cover, the edges of all the pages are black, so it looks for all the world like you’re reading a chunk of obsidian coated with a lurid neon green skull? What’s the title of this book again? “The Awesome”? Why, yes, it is.

Our lead character is Maggie Cunningham, a teenager who is learning the art of monster hunting from her mother, Janice. The problem for Maggie is that she’s advanced as far as she can as a monster-hunting apprentice because she’s a virgin, and the smell of virgin blood makes vampires in particular react like someone just combined a mosquito, a shark, and a porcupine into one creature — they often go into a mad, desperately dangerous feeding frenzy that makes them terribly difficult to kill. So to become a fully-bonded and licensed monster hunter instead of just an apprentice, Maggie has to have sex.

Wait, wait, there’s the other problem for Maggie: Though she is a badass monster hunter and an expert in weapons and martial arts, she’s never been the type to care about fitting in with kids her age. In other words, her social skills aren’t really gonna help her a lot in snagging a boyfriend.

Oh, and one more problem for Maggie — while testing her out to see if a drunken makeout session was enough to qualify her as “no longer a virgin,” Maggie and Janice are forced to terminate a fledgling vampire — and the kiddie vamp actually had a very important sire, and the Cunninghams are in serious, serious trouble. Will Maggie and Janice manage to survive? And will Maggie ever get to home plate?

Verdict: Thumbs up. The plot’s fine, but aside from the fantastic setup, you’re not going to remember this for its plotline. What’s gonna make you love this book is the characters, particularly Maggie and Janice, who are gloriously badass, gloriously white trash, and gloriously in each other’s faces almost constantly.

These three facets of their personalities are really important to both of them — but they’re far from age-separated twins. While both Maggie and Janice embrace their white-trash, trailer-park lifestyle with nary a qualm — living on the outskirts of polite society makes it easier to be a weapon-slinging badass — their quasi-antagonistic relationship feels very true-to-life for a couple of strong-willed women, particularly with a close family relationship. Janice is always egging Maggie forward, partly to make her a better monster hunter, partly because she just enjoys pissing Maggie off. Maggie is mostly willing to take it, but she clearly dislikes being the junior partner.

And Janice’s occasional recklessness always seems to turn up when she thinks she’s let her daughter down — of course, that just gives Maggie a reason to try harder to be a bigger badass than her mom — to be the most Awesome she can be…

It’s a fun book, sometimes raunchy, sometimes action-packed, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but always rooted firmly in great characters. Go pick it up.

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The Eyes Have It

SupernaturalEnhancements

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Seems like it’s been ages since we reviewed a novel, so here’s one I picked up a few months ago. Y’all know I love haunted house stories, and I’ve got a serious weakness for turn-of-the-century ghost stories — so this one easily drew me in, and then gave me some serious surprises, too.

This tale is told through a collection of documents — letters, video and audio transcripts, notebook conversations — as a young European referred to only as A. learns that a cousin he’s never heard of has died and left him a spooky mansion in Point Bless, Virginia. When he moves to America to take over the house, he brings his close friend Niamh, a mute punk girl from Ireland, and they both buy a collie named Help for a little more companionship in the mansion. And they start doing research about the weird history of eerie old Axton House.

The previous owner of the house — Ambrose Wells, A.’s mysterious cousin — committed suicide by throwing himself out a window — and at the very same age and from the very same window as his own father had committed suicide. Wells maintained secret, coded correspondence with a number of unknown people, and A. soon becomes obsessed with decoding the secrets of Wells’ secret society, and he begins having a number of vivid, bizarre, frightening dreams. At the same time, it becomes clear that Axton House is haunted, which is just one more thing messing with A.’s rapidly fraying sanity.

Is A. doomed to the same fate as his cousin? Will he and Niamh ever discover the secrets of Axton House? And what horrors await them when the Society joins together at the Winter Solstice?

Verdict: Thumbs up. An extremely enjoyable book with plenty of surprises, twists, and turns. Yes, it starts out looking like an old-school ghost story, then turns into a mystery before finally morphing into an occult action-adventure thriller. I thought it was just amazingly readable — the chapters were generally pretty short, which helped drag you deeper into the story, and it was hard to quit reading when you knew every few pages could reveal some new mystery or unveil something you never expected.

There’s a lot to be said for how great the characters are in this — A. makes an excellent protagonist, and the all-too-brief visits with Ambrose Wells’ butler and with the Society members are wonderful. Even Help, the dog, is a joy in every scene he’s in.

But the best character, the one that guarantees that this book gets my recommendation, is Niamh. She has more pure personality than everyone else in the novel put together. Her inability to speak doesn’t keep us from learning more about her, thanks to her ever-present notebooks, as well as A.’s descriptions of her. She’s got twice A.’s brains, ten times his charm, and 100 times his courage. She’s a hilarious badass wrapped up in a perky punk package, and she’s pretty much my favorite fictional character ever.

If you love supernatural mysteries, thrills, and adventure — along with a number of excellent characters — you’ll definitely want to pick this one up.

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God Plays Dice

TheBones

The Bones: Us and our Dice, edited by Will Hindmarch

Do you remember your first set of polyhedral dice? Mine came in the old mid-1980s Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. They were a ridiculous baby-blue color and were almost ludicrously ugly. I couldn’t keep them with the boxed set, so I put them in a plastic baggie and stored them in a dresser drawer for a few decades.

A couple years ago, I decided to dig my original dice out — it turned out that I’d actually lost two of the six dice at some point. The fact that I’d managed to lose two of my original polyhedrals sent me on a dice-collecting binge for about a month. I still can’t bring myself to keep my original dice with my newer ones — I still hold out a vague hope that I’ll find the two lost ones someday, and I’ll be able to return the originals to my dice bag in triumph.

Please keep in mind, this is all coming from a guy who never gets a chance to play any roleplaying games. But I’m still obsessed with my dice.

And that’s what this book is about: dice. The history of dice, and our relationship with dice.

We start off with a few history lessons from Kenneth Hite and Irving Finkel (and a cartoon history from “Dork Tower” cartoonist John Kovalic), all about the very first dice — known as astrogaloi, the anklebones of a sheep, which had four sides that could be labeled and thrown, either as gambling implements, toys, or prophetic devices. There are other essays about randomness in games — and about randomness in computer games — as well as an interview with the inventor of the magnificent Dice-o-Matic.

After that come a number of essays, remembrances, funny stories, and entertaining ruminations on dice, games, and the ways they impact our lives. We get work from Wil Wheaton, Matt Forbeck, Jesse Scoble, Paul Tevis, Jeff Tidball, Monica Valentinelli, Ray Fawkes, Keith Baker, and many, many more.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I’m really a bit amazed how much fun this book was.

The historical articles at the beginning, outlining the development of dice and gaming from ancient times to today, were genuinely eye-opening, and the analysis by gaming guru Greg Costikyan on randomness-vs.-skill in games was similarly fascinating. The interview with the guy who invented a Lego machine designed to roll over a million dice every day, just to keep players in play-by-email games satisfied that their digital rolls were actually random, was both informative and funny — there’s little statistical difference between computer-generated random numbers and the rolls of six-sided dice, but gamers are more accepting of the randomness of dice.

The shorter essays filling the rest of the book are great, too. Some of them are fun because they’re slightly alien to me — see, a lot of them discuss the rituals gamers use to keep their dice lucky, or to punish them for not being lucky. Praising dice for good rolls, scolding them for bad ones, destroying them for consistent bad rolls. I’m very big on accepting the randomness of the dice rolls — unless the dice are designed to give crooked rolls, which few polyhedral dice are, some rolls will be good, some rolls will be bad, a lot of them will be fairly middling. But it’s interesting to read about all the dice rituals out there.

A lot of the other essays are great, too. We read about a wedding themed around dice, a story about actress Daryl Hannah, a tribute to six-sided dice, a tale about a set of homemade metal dice, and essays on dice and divination, dice as weapons, lost (and found) dice, the scarcity of modern polyhedral dice in third-world nations, and much, much more.

If you love games, if you love roleplaying, and if you find yourself sometimes obsessing over new dice, old dice, and the long-vanished 12-sider from your first RPG, you should go pick this one up.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Sentinels of the Multiverse

Still more time for some great holiday gift recommendations! Today, we’re heading over to the gaming side of the store so we can look at Sentinels of the Multiverse!

SentinelsoftheMultiverse

This is a cooperative card game by Greater Than Games, where a team of superheroes battles a supervillain, usually in a wildly chaotic setting. Each player has their own small deck of cards controlling a single superhero, while the villain and the setting itself also have their own decks, but no one plays them — their cards are automatically flipped during each turn. The villain usually has a ton of hit points — way more than any of the heroes — so you’ve got to whittle them down while preserving your heroes and trying to prevent the bad guys from getting to their own victory points.

You’re not playing generic heroes either — you get comic-style art on every card and usually some little bit of flavor text that helps create a real personality for the character. And each of them have their own special roles they bring to the fight. You’ve got the Superman-esque Legacy, who specializes in absorbing damage. You’ve got the battlesuit-wearing Bunker, who lays down the firepower. You’ve got the Wraith, a jill-of-all-trades vigilante who can damage enemies and support allies. You’ve got the technokinetic Unity, who creates robot minions. And you’ve got a heck of a lot more than that, too.

SotM-Cards

Now, they’re not in every version of the game. The main game features 10 heroes, four villains, and four different environments, ranging from the big city to a Mars base to a dinosaur-filled jungle. There are several other expansion sets — Rook City, Infernal Relics, Shattered Timelines, and Vengeance — all with new heroes, villains, and environments to play in. You can set up a pretty vast variety of super-battles with every combination of good guys vs. bad guys.

Verdict: Thumbs up. There are a slowly growing number of superhero board and card games out there, but this is the one that originally led the pack, and nothing yet has managed to top it.

It’s really great how varied every game can be. Sometimes you’re dealing with a villain who can drop untold mini-minions on you, sometimes with a straight-up brute, sometimes with someone with a special victory condition that means you have to avoid attacking them directly.

The variety of abilities that your heroes get are also very impressive — some healers, some gadgeteers, some bricks, some blasters. And even when one hero gets knocked out, they’re still able to contribute. They may not be able to play cards and powers, but even defeated, the heroes have special abilities that provide small benefits to their allies. It lets everyone contribute, even if only in small ways, so they’re not sitting around bored watching their friends play.

It’s also very cool how strong the comic-book flavor comes across in this game. A lot of it is the art, the quotes, and the flavor text on the cards. These aren’t just cards, with attacks and debuffs and heals — they’re heroes with great one-liners, victories and defeats, and even their own (fictional) comic series. The game publisher has even created a few promotional comics starring the characters — and it would be pretty keen if there was a regular series about the heroes, too.

About the roughest thing about the game is that it can get a bit predictable after a while. Sometimes, you’ll recognize certain attacks by the villains, and everyone playing will immediately know what to do to counter the danger. Once this happens a few times too many, a lot of the suspense starts to leave the game. I’ve found that it sometimes helps to assign the heroes randomly, so everyone sometimes has to deal with a powerset they’re not accustomed to. Of course, this can sometimes stick you with a bunch of healers instead of damage-dealers, which is also a bit less than ideal.

Long story short: It’s a really fun game for anyone who loves superheroes. And you can buy the game for a friend — and then you can play it, too! A true win-win situation! Go pick it up!

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Holiday Gift Bag: Small Town Heroes

Time to check inside our Holiday Gift Bag again, to see some more ideas you can get for the person in your life who loves comics and superheroes. Today, we take a look at Wearing the Cape: Small Town Heroes by Marion G. Harmon.

WearingTheCape-SmallTownHeroes

If you’ve kept track of this series, you know most of the main characters already. Our lead is, as always, Hope Corrigan, better known as the superstrong superheroine Astra — she’s now leading the Young Sentinels branch of Chicago’s Sentinels superteam. There’s Shell, the techno-ghost of her late best friend, now residing in a robotic exoskeleton as the superhero Galatea — and there’s Shelly, her late best friend now returned to life, and a completely separate person from Shell. There’s Jacky, the vampiric (but also alive) superhero Artemis.

Hope has been having weird dreams — not normal dreams either, as they’re being telepathically sent by a maybe-hero, maybe-villain called Kitsune. The dreams warn of the fiery destruction of a small town in the Midwest that no one can seem to identify. Hope’s attempts to figure out where the town is and what the dreams mean put her in touch with some of the Sentinels’ contacts with the federal government — and that leads to Hope being recruited into the Department of Superhuman Affairs. They’ve got some serious secrets hidden at Guantanamo Bay — namely a little town that can’t possibly exist called Littleton. Can Astra keep a secret hyper-science town from its foretold destruction?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Y’all know I love the stuffing out of this entire series, right? I’m pleased to announce that this one maintains the high quality we’ve come to expect from these books.

Really, pretty much all the stuff I loved from the previous books is here in this new one, too. Excellent characterization, bone-rattling action, realism and superhero fantasy that fit side-by-side without breaking either one.

It’s rare that you get superhero fiction that doesn’t end up turning dark and grim, or just focusing on the supervillains, all for the sake of faux-maturity — but this series sticks to the idea that superheroes are the good guys, it does it unironically, and it makes the entire thing work like a dream.

Do you have someone on your shopping list who loves superheroes, especially ass-kicking female heroes? You’ll definitely want to pick this one up for them. And if they haven’t read this series yet, you may want to get the rest of the “Wearing the Cape” series for ’em, too.

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Retail Hell

Horrorstor

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

I love a classic haunted house as much as anyone. There’s something wonderful about an old abandoned house (or mansion or castle or hotel or insane asylum), dilapidated, decaying, overgrown, crumbling, filled with creaking doors, dark shadows, creepy dolls, and something sinister that whispers from the attic.

But there’s also a place in my heart for a modern, clean, brightly-lit building that’s nevertheless crawling with the unquiet spirits of the dead. The suburban home built over an Indian graveyard, the supermarket with bloody handprints appearing mysteriously on the freezer cases, the trendy nightclub plagued by unusual deaths and fashionable vampires. Horror writers love this stuff, too — you can find horror wrapped around modern suburban and retail settings in films like “Poltergeist” and “Dawn of the Dead” (and many other early-outbreak zombie movies) and in books and stories like Stephen King’s “The Mist,” Anne Rivers Siddons’ “The House Next Door,” and Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.”

And now there’s also this book, “Horrorstör,” a short horror novel (with strong humor elements) written by Grady Hendrix and published a few months ago. Its focus is on a haunting at an IKEA-style big box retail store.

The lead character in the story is Amy, a slacker in a thoroughly dead-end job working retail at ORSK, a furniture and housewares store designed from the ground up to look and feel like an IKEA store. It has the same winding pathway through the store, the same “Magic Tool” required to put every piece of furniture together, the same style of faux-Scandinavian names for all the products. Amy wants to transfer back to the ORSK store she used to work at, mainly because she thinks she’s about to get fired by Basil, an assistant manager and gung-ho ORSK fanboy. But as it turns out, Basil actually wants to ask Amy and another co-worker, Ruth Anne, an older long-term employee who lives for her job, loves stuffed animals, and is adored by everyone on the staff, to take on a special duty — patrolling the store at night.

You see, the store has been suffering unusual vandalism. Some of the glassware has been broken, furniture has been soiled, and there are odd smells in the building. Basil wants Amy and Ruth Anne to join him on a secret late-night patrol, after everyone has gone home, to see if anyone is breaking into the building. They soon find some interesting problems. There are rats in the kitchen showcases, even though there’s no food there and no water hookups. Everyone keeps getting lost, which might make sense if they were just customers and not employees trained to find their way around the store quickly. And the mysterious grafitti messages in the restrooms referring ominously to “the Beehive” are multiplying rapidly.

And they do find some unexpected interlopers. Matt and Trinity are a couple of fellow co-workers at ORSK who have sneaked into the store because Trinity thinks there are ghosts in the building and wants to start a career as a reality-TV ghost hunter — and Matt is there because he’s got a lot of camera equipment and wants to get into Trinity’s pants. And there’s also a homeless man, Carl, who has been secretly living in the store for a few weeks.

So Carl is obviously the vandal, right? He’s in the store all night, frustrated by his low position in society, maybe he goes and craps on the occasional sofa and busts up a cabinet, you know? But no, Carl insists he’s not the culprit, and he doesn’t seem to be a particularly malicious guy. So what’s going on?

Trinity has an idea. She still thinks there are ghosts in the building, and what’s the best way to contact ghosts? Let’s everyone hold a seance!

And how do they keep the circle intact, to keep everyone connected and to create an interesting visual for the tape Trinity and Matt want to shop to cable TV?

They use handcuffs.

And then everything goes straight to hell.

Because the ORSK store wasn’t built over an Indian burial ground. It was built on the site of an ancient, notorious prison, run by Josiah Worth, a warden obsessed with his personal punishment fetish, believing that the way to turn the wicked to goodness was to torture them, no matter how minor their offense, to keep torturing them past the span of their sentence, and ultimately to torture them forever.

And Worth now has a foothold back into the corporeal world so he can use his own eerie abilities, his other-dimensional dungeon, and his army of tortured, mind-crushed minions to bring the miracles of his prison, his beloved Beehive, to the hapless wage slaves of ORSK.

Can Amy and her coworkers survive the night shift at ORSK? Can they escape the store? Or are they doomed to toil forever in the stone walls and iron restraints of the Beehive?

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Verdict: Thumbs up. I really enjoyed this book. I burned my way through it as quickly as I could, and a couple nights, where I made the mistake of reading it too close to bedtime, it actually kept me up late. I did think that the very best parts of the novel were fairly early on, when the scares were subtle and more creepy than heart-stopping. The seasoned employees getting lost in their own store? That was weirdly realistic — you could imagine it happening, but you could also see why it would be really unnerving. The odd sounds after the store closes, combined with the sudden unfamiliarity of the environment of the store was also spooky — and definitely familiar for anyone who’s ever had to work late in their office, where darkness and emptiness make the comfortable surroundings feel strange and dangerous.

Even better than that was the graffiti in the restroom. The dozens of scrawled names and scratched-out years, all referencing the mysterious Beehive, feel intensely eerie, a perfect element to place in a modern retail ghost story. There are also some very effective moments when the employees discover that the purely decorative doors in the showcases now open into dank, cavernous hallways leading deep into the earth.

And everyone getting handcuffed together for the seance? That may have been a monumentally stupid move on the part of the characters, but it’s an original and wonderful thing to have in a horror novel. It’s simultaneously terrifying — because you know what’s going to happen — and hilarious — because you know what’s going to happen.

Once Worth makes his appearance, and especially when he captures Amy for the first time, the story starts moving away from being a ghost story and edging more into torture porn. The story shows some serious cracks in this section, in part because it’s too long — I just don’t enjoy reading multiple pages about someone being strapped into a torture chair that tightens to the point where she loses sensation in her limbs and can barely draw a breath. (This may also indicate that I have never enjoyed torture porn.) But it’s also a bit too short — we’re told that Amy’s mind breaks almost entirely not long after she’s strapped in, to the point where Stockholm Syndrome sets in and she starts worshipping Josiah Worth. And then, when she’s released from confinement, it’s not too many more pages before her mind has completely recovered to its previously healthy state — and even improved, as she’s much braver and more resourceful for the rest of the novel.

The characters are mostly well-done, interesting, and charismatic — but we never even find out what happened to two of them at the end of the novel. It may be more realistic — when the Hellmouth opens up underneath you, you may end up losing track of some of your coworkers in the chaos and never see them again — but it still feels like the story is unfinished because of the lack of closure.

It must be said, though, that one of the real selling points of this novel is the fantastic graphic design by Andie Reid and illustrations by Michael Rogalski. The book cover looks like one of the big, glossy IKEA design catalogs — with a few subtle and not-so-subtle differences to give some visual cues to the horrors within — and each chapter opens with a page from the fictional ORSK catalog spotlighting one of their products, complete with IKEA-style art, a faux-Scandinavian name, and upbeat flavor text. But after the supernatural terrors start climbing out of the woodwork after the seance, all the featured furniture gets replaced with medieval torture devices. It makes the story a lot more fun and a lot funnier, while still giving a nice dose of the chills to readers.

All in all, it was pretty fun. Go pick it up.

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