REVIEW: The Spirit by Thomas Page

The Spirit is a short (but not particularly lean) novel about two ostensibly very different men coming together to hunt Bigfoot. In terms of genre topography, the novel owes less to traditional horror and more to the kinds of films that used to be made by people like Walter Miller. Think Deliverance, Rambo: First Blood, or Southern Comfort and you have the precise vibe of this novel. This is a book of low budgets, simmering male rage, and just enough insight to lend a sense of gravitas and poignancy to what could so easily have wound up feeling like a load of ludicrous nonsense.

The Spirit was first published in 1977 and is one of a number of weird-and-wonderful novels to have been re-discovered and re-released after receiving a positive mention in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. I mention this as awareness of the book’s publication history is really useful when trying to understand what it is that this book set out to achieve. Indeed, while The Spirit can definitely be understood as a Bigfoot horror novel, the book is a lot more interested in the men doing the hunting and how Bigfoot mythology is shaped and re-shaped by the needs of different sets of people.

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REVIEW: Sigil & Shadow

Like most milieus, the RPG scene is subject to the winds of fashion and one of the areas in which changes in fashion are most visual is the balance struck between what is colloquially known as crunch and fluff. For example, while original D&D may have had a setting that was implied both by the rules and by the inspirational source material, there was no ‘official’ setting in which D&D campaigns were supposed to take place and so people built their own dungeons, their own towns, and eventually their own worlds. Fast forward a few decades and the balance between crunch and fluff had shifted so radically that people in the 00s would often buy RPG books and read them like novels, knowing full well that the books would never translate into actual game sessions.

The movement between these two extremes of fashion and design philosophy is so pronounced that people entering the hobby at one point in its history can often be quite surprised by approaches taken in the past. For example, someone raised to expect a balance of fluff and crunch similar to that built into the World of Darkness games would most likely be appalled by the dryness of a GURPS manual while someone used to the focused design philosophies of 21st Century story games would probably be appalled by the amount of useless background and setting-cruft that filled the pages of RPG books from the late 1990s. Fashions change, people change, and perceptions of games change with them.

As someone who first encountered the scene in the early 1990s, I have come to expect a certain amount of fluff as a means of providing GMs with some sort of steer when it comes to the kinds of adventures they might want to run with a particular game. A game doesn’t need to do a lot but it does need to tell me what kind of stories it is intended to help me tell and provide a few setting details to help inspire me to write my own adventures.

While Sigil & Shadow was first published in 2021 by Osprey Games, the book’s acknowledgements make it clear that the game started life in 2014 as an attempt to create a contemporary occult RPG from the distillation of two distinct systems, one devoted to fantasy and the other devoted to espionage. I mention this as Sigil & Shadow is a book so dry that it feels like a weird hybrid of 1970s writing and 2020s desk-top publishing.

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On “Poetry and the Gods” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Someone tell Howard to log-off… he’s posting cringe on the APAs.

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INSPO: The A-Team

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

I am not clear on where we currently stand in the cycle of fashionable attitudes regarding the A-Team. Are we on ironic appreciation, nostalgic re-appropriation, or overly-sincere adoration? To be perfectly honest, I am not clear on where my own attitudes towards the original series lie. As with many of these kinds of series, I suspect I like them more in theory than I do in practice but the theory is so sound that it makes a great subject for a series of articles about using non-horrific media as inspiration for a horror RPG.

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Into The OSR: Gygax ’75 (Week 2) – Rosemere

Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here

Last week I wrote a bit about how I was using the Gygax ’75 framework to provide some structure for the work I am doing on a new OSR campaign that I am going to be running next spring.

Week 2 of Gygax ’75 is all about drawing a map that is of a particular size and which has a certain number of features. While I could have drawn the map in a notebook, I decided to use this week as an opportunity to acquire some new skills and so I downloaded and taught myself to use Cone of Negative Energy’s neat little map-drawing app Hex kit.

While I may yet wind up writing a proper review of Hex Kit, I was really surprised by how easy it was to use as I have tried downloading mapping software before and found those apps way too complicated for a brain addled by too much speed and Japanese pornography.

In truth, my only complaint so far is that I really regret using the Fantasyland tile set as the intense vibrancy of the colour palette has produced something that looks less like a map and more like a clown’s jizz-rag. I used to think that the limited colour scheme of maps in old school war-gaming was a failure to be evocative but I now realise that this simplicity was just a product of wanting something that was easy to parse without being overly busy and I think my map of the island of Rosemere demonstrates the wisdom of those design principles.

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WTD: Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

The website TV Tropes often talks about tropes originating in particular properties and then being codified by others. What they mean by this is that while some ideas have been around literally forever, their cultural presence can often be traced back to one particular use of said idea that proved so hugely popular and influential that everyone wound up using the idea in the exact same way.

I am still not sure how I feel about the assumptions and social-mechanics informing the TV Tropes website, but I do enjoy the way that these kinds of discussions often wind up feeling like people discussing the lineages of race horses, pedigree dogs, or Royal houses. Even serious literary scholars codify and legitimise cultural scenes by trying to come up with lists of literary ancestors, influences who did the same thing in another place and another time. But if we can talk about ancestors, can we not also talk about orphans?

For example, we can talk about occult detectives and how the sub-genre was ‘sired’ by Sheridan Le Fanu and then ‘codified’ by Bram Stoker but can we not also talk about the extinction of that particular cultural line? Consider for example the way that the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film turned up at a time when the Occult Detective series was almost completely dead on its arse. In fact, the sub-genre had so little salience at the time that both the film and the TV series spent a lot of time dunking on traditional Occult Detectives in the form of the Watchers. One could even say that the central meta-textual theme of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a popular feminist take on the idea that stories about Occult Detectives are lame compared to stories about teenaged super-heroes and it’s time for the dusty-old detective dudes to step aside. Thus the Occult Detective sub-genre was broken down for parts and separated from its roots in Horror and Crime Fiction so that its ideas could be cannibalised and resold under the guise of Urban Fantasy. In other words, Buffy was a series that made orphans… it was so popular and so influential that it made the Occult Detective genre disappear and made it impossible to tell those kinds of stories without magic swords, lightening-bolts, and bantering heroes in trench-coats or leather trousers.

Kôji Shiraishi is a director with the power to make orphans. Best known in the West for his films Noroi and Occult he tells Occult Detective stories with such a clear and timely vision that it is difficult to imagine telling similar stories without at least acknowledging that sensibility. In fact, at this point, the only thing preventing him from launching a new golden age of Occult Detective stories is the fact that his films and TV series are almost impossible to find in English. I was lucky enough to stumble upon full subtitled run of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi uploaded to YouTube but they now appear to have disappeared again.

Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi is everything you want from both Japanese horror and an Occult Detective series: It is weird, it is visually striking, it is mind-bending, and (like many of Shiraishi’s other films) it ends with a spiral down into conspiracy theories, cosmic horror, and really quite unpleasant depictions of mental illness. This is the Occult Detective genre stripped back to its basics and made new again.

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ZC: TNHC Zine, Issues I and II

Zine Corner is an occasional series in which I talk about individual issues of zines I have come across on my travels. Some of these will be about RPGs, some of them will be about horror, some of them will be about folklore, and some of them will just be weird and cool. The rest of the series can be found here.

It is fascinating to me (as someone who has long had an interest in the worlds of science-fiction, horror, RPGs, punk rock, and photography) to see how the world ‘zine’ is used in different sub-cultures.

For example, the annual Hugo awards have long had a category honouring the year’s best fanzine and this category has long been a site of conflict: Nowadays, fans get unhappy when professionals use their clout to get nominated in fan-related categories. Before that people who published amateur digital magazines with distinct issues got unhappy when people started getting nominated for their blogs. I suspect before that there was an issue regarding whether or not your amateur magazine had be available in the form of a physical copy.

In the worlds of roleplaying games and photography, people have been quick to reach for the term ‘zine’ to describe self-published work because ‘zine’ has counter-cultural credibility but the steep prices of these zines combined with their larger print runs, expensive papers, and upscale production values suggest that when people in RPGs and photography talk about publishing a zine, they are actually talking about putting out a chapbook. The TNHC zine is named for The Nottingham Horror Collective and while it is printed on nice paper and has really quite incredibly high production values, the brevity, casualness, and personal nature of the articles all speak to a zine-making tradition that is a lot closer to what the worlds of punk and SFF used to call a fanzine.

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Into The OSR: Gygax ’75 (Week 1)

Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here

One of the things that has surprised and delighted me upon returning to the hobby has been the sheer amount of RPG-related stuff that people have been uploading to YouTube.

Don’t get me wrong… wanting access to RPG-related stuff was one of the primary engines behind my first forays online in the late 1990s. There have always been RPG-related blogs and websites but one of the more interesting things to emerge from the rise of RPG-adjacent YouTube has been the willingness to internalise YouTube’s fondness for how-to videos. As a result, you don’t just get reviews and opinion-pieces delivered to camera, you also get introductory videos addressing such perennial questions as ‘how to write and adventure’ or ‘how to start designing your own campaign setting’.

I got the idea for this series of posts from the YouTube channel Questing Beast who made a video about writing your first campaign and referred to a document known to the OSR community as Gygax ’75.

Gygax ’75 is based upon an article written by Gary Gygax less than a year after the original publication of D&D. Back then, the hobby was growing so quickly that the need for instructional content was outstripping both the material made available by TSR and the hobby’s ability to ‘teach-by-doing’. As a result, Gygax wrote an article listing a few ways in which you might get the ball rolling and start designing your own campaign world. This article was re-discovered under the auspices of the OSR and passed back and forth a few times before being updated and codified into a document by Ray Otus (downloadable here).

While this is not my first romp around the paddock when it comes to designing campaign settings and writing my own adventures, I have decided to take my cues from the Gygax ’75 workbook as a way of giving myself both a bit of structure and an excuse to acquire some new skills that I would probably try to skirt around if left to my own devices. While I won’t necessarily be in a position to post one of these every single week, I am going to try to abide by the work-rate suggested in the document.

Week one is all about basic ideas and sources of inspiration.

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On “The Street” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

If you live… on racism street… here are the simple-minded reactionary caricatures that you might meet…

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REVIEW: Woom by Duncan Ralston

I decided to write about Woom in an effort to think my way through certain tensions that exist within my knowledge and appreciation of horror. Woom is a short novel with a reputation for being rather extreme in both its themes and its imagery. It is this extremity that attracted me whilst also giving me reasons to pause.

 I would be surprised if mine was the first review of Woom to start in such terms as we are living in times when even the people who are not bothered by extreme imagery and transgressive themes feel obliged to bracket their appreciation with a variety of caveats and pre-emptive apologies designed to ward off the evil eye of social media. My issue is not that I feel guilty or worried about expressing an interest in transgressive media; it’s more that many previous attempts to find works of extreme and disturbing horror have often left me feeling rather bored.

Part of the problem is that, as a child, my parents showed no interest in moderating my access to media and so I’m pretty sure that I started encountering works like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before I was even a teenager. While this meant that, by the age of 18, I was pretty much impossible to shock, it also meant that a lot of genre horror wound up sitting in a mental drawer marked ‘adolescent’. In fact, it wasn’t until my interest in art-house film lead me to the works of people like Gaspar Noe that I re-discovered an interest in horror-inspired imagery and associated transgressive themes. The problem with this approach to extreme imagery is that if you re-discover transgressive imagery in the context of films with a degree of psychological and thematic sophistication then it’s kind of difficult to stay interested when that imagery leads you into trope-driven narratives involving cannibals and serial killers.

While I would never say that literary extreme horror is nothing but stories about generic cannibals and murderers, that approach to extreme horror is far more common than the approach taken in something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next-Door, where the extremity of the visuals are rooted in a set of themes and psychological observations that make the darker parts of my brain light up with pleasure. Even recent well-received works with extreme imagery like Nick Cutter’s The Troop left me rather bored as hundreds of pages of disgusting shit is actually quite tedious when the book manifestly has very little thematic heft. All of which to say that I approached Ralston’s Woom with a degree of trepidation as I wanted it to be disgusting but I also wanted it to be smart.. And I must say that Ralston definitely manages to pull it off albeit not in a way I had either expected or hoped for.

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