REVIEW: Tickets Please for Call of Cthulhu

Tickets Please is a self-contained Call of Cthulhu adventure that is part of Type40’s ‘Adventure Seed’ series of scenarios. Like the other instalments in the series, Tickets Please is short and relies on superior production values to convince buyers that a series of really quite sparse notes are actually a viable adventure.

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REVIEW: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Nearly sixteen years after her untimely death, Octavia Butler is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, a concerted effort has been made to re-discover and re-claim the legacy of the first ever science fiction author to receive a MacArthur fellowship.

It is not hard to see why this would happen… Though widely-respected and a winner of various awards during her lifetime, Butler’s name has started to fade from view for the simple reason that she was never one of the four or five (predominantly white and male) authors whose continued sales keep the lights on for genre publishing. The institutions of SFF publishing are barely interested in live mid-list authors, so why would they give a shit about dead ones? Especially when the dead mid-list authors in question write books as difficult, problematic and profoundly unfashionable as Fledgling.

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On “The Terrible Old Man” 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.

This is basically the 1920s equivalent of a right-wing Gran Torino meme.

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REVIEW: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Given that I didn’t think that much of The Twisted Ones, I was surprised to find myself reading T. Kingfisher’s second horror novel The Hollow Places.

Perhaps I am growing generous in my old age but I did quite enjoy some of that book’s characterisation and while I felt that Kingfisher lacked the stomach to engage the book’s darker themes and images, I was at least impressed by her ability to locate these themes in the first place. Sadly, The Hollow Places is not an improvement on The Twisted Ones as while the worse bits of that novel are (thankfully) not replicated in this one, this relative easing of the reader’s burdens comes at the expense of much of what made The Twisted Ones interesting. Like islands on the Danube, my interest in this author’s output has now slipped beneath the waves.

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REVIEW: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis Zarate

Much of what passes for social justice is actually nothing more than the effects of the market. This is quite evident in the realm of representation where calls for greater inclusivity inevitably come with unspoken caveats about the kinds of stories and the kinds of sensibilities that people want to see represented.

Indeed, people will get worked-up about gay kisses and non-white faces in Marvel movies but they would never take it upon themselves to seek out the work of non-white LGBT writers and directors. People will spend years obsessing over sexually ambiguous glances between characters played by straight male actors but they would rather shit themselves in public than sit through a film by someone like Lino Brocka.

I say this not to ‘gate-keep’ concerns over queer representation but to stress that while people may be interested in stories about gay characters, they are only interested in certain kinds of stories told about certain kinds of gay characters in certain kinds of ways. Indeed, stories about gay men told by straight men and women are going to be very different to stories about gay men told by gay men. The ideas that straight women have about gay men are likely to be far more palatable to straight women than the ideas of gay men about themselves. This is why straight men watch girl-on-girl porn but might not watch the films of Lisa Cholodenko. This is why straight women will spend hours reading Yaoi and BL comics but will not necessarily think to seek out the novels of Christopher Isherwood.

While we all like what we like and there’s no accounting for taste, it is interesting to think about the differences between the representation of people and events and the different sensibilities that can inform that representation. Where do those sensibilities come from?

Jose Luis Zarate’s The Route of Ice and Salt is a Mexican novella set aboard the ship that transported Dracula to Whitby in Bram Stoker’s original novel. It is about yearning, loss, and the predatory nature of the male gaze.

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INSPO: Crimson Rivers

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.

Based on a 1998 French crime novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé,the Rivières Pourpres or Crimson Rivers franchise offers us an interesting snapshot of French genre film-making as well as the forms in which it makes it is allowed to make its way out of France and into English-speaking homes. In order to understand how and why this series exists, it is first necessary to know a bit about the market for French film.

French situation has a reputation for being a lot artier than the films produced in either the US or the UK. While a lot of that is down to the ongoing legacy of the French New Wave and how it inspired the American new wave whose collapse in the late 1970s laid the foundation for the corporate hell-scape that is contemporary Hollywood, a lot of it is down to the fact that the backbone of the French film industry is made up of smaller dramas and comedies rather than billion-dollar franchises. The reason for this is that French cinemas and TV stations are legally obliged to carry a certain percentage of French-made films and so the French film industry has been forced to actively maintain an audience for low-budget films and it does this by producing a steady stream of well-written, well-acted, and well-shot dramas and comedies that regularly fill cinemas and draw decent ratings but rarely travel beyond the borders of French-speaking Europe.

There is no denying the artistic and economic successes of this model but it is not without its detractors and the late 1990s in particular saw the emergence of a group of directors intent upon pushing-back the boundaries of what was expected of French cinema. In some cases, this involved challenging the insipient bourgeois whiteness of French cultural institutions, and in others it involved making greater use of genre elements and trying to produce films that could be viewed outside of France. Looking back on this period, its most enduring successes include the horror films of the New French Extremity but there were also a number of intriguing thrillers including Matthieu Kassovitz’s adaptation of Jean-Christophe Grangé’s Les Rivières Pourpres.

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REVIEW: The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos by S.T. Joshi

As someone who has been writing quite a bit about Lovecraft of late, it occurred to me that I should probably try and familiarise myself with some of the scholarly discourse surrounding his work and its legacy.

Aside from Lovecraft’s racism, the most obvious point of entry seemed to be the question of whether Lovecraft’s stories merely overlap or whether the referencing, shared names, and recurring settings amount to anything akin to an extended literary universe or ‘mythos’.

As a Lovecraft reader, my assumption has always been that while Lovecraft had this list of Named Entities that he would return to in story after story, said Named Entities were never deployed in a particularly coherent or consistent fashion.

I assumed that whenever Lovecraft needed one of his characters to read from some mind-shredding book of forbidden lore, he’d drop a reference to the Necronomicon because having the Necronomicon feature in a load of different stories strengthened its symbolic power as a representation of ‘forbidden lore that will melt your shit’. I did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had a clear idea as to what the Necronomicon actually contained.

Similarly, when Lovecraft made repeated references to Arkham or Kingsport, I assumed it was because he wanted to set the action in either a coastal town or a mid-sized city and rather than using real-world places that he could ‘get wrong’ he used made-up places which, though inspired by the real world, could be bent and twisted to suit the needs of a given story. It did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had these fictional towns all planned out in his head like Tolkien drawing maps of the Shire. In other words, I assumed that, for Lovecraft, a commitment to coherent world-building was much less of a priority than producing stories that ‘worked’ and hit specific thematic and affective beats.

The first inkling that maybe people were not reading Lovecraft in the same way I was came when I started encountering Joshi’s repeated angry references to the so-called ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ and while I had always assumed that the term was just a means of referring to the content of Lovecraft’s stories, it is a term that has actually been subject to a surprising amount of discourse. This somewhat frustrating book purports to describe the rise and fall of one very specific vision of that mythos, but it does so using entirely the wrong set of critical tools.

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REVIEW: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

While it is interesting that people feel the need to explain the continued popularity of horror, my favourite account is that people choose to subject themselves to scary things as a form of vaccination. The idea being that you watch a horror film or read a horror story because that way you experience a little bit of negative emotion in what are otherwise perfectly controlled conditions. That way, when you encounter things that are legitimately scary, your brain is less likely to get overwhelmed.

The neat thing about this theory is that it also accounts for the different levels of abstraction found in horror-based media. Scary monsters might make you jump, but at the end of the day they do not exist and even if they did exist they would not really change that much about the world. Under the above theory, scary monsters are ontologically distant from the real world and so much easier to process than something like a serial killer and a serial killer is a lot easier to process than a character like the next-door neighbour in Jack Ketchum’s The Woman Next Door. The closer we get to the real, the harder the horrors are to process and the scarier they become. This also goes some way towards explaining the continued popularity of cosmic horror as even if big rubbery monsters like Cthulhu don’t actually exist, you still have to deal with the possibility that the universe is an inscrutable well of pitch-black suffering that is utterly indifferent to our existence.

Originally published in Dutch but re-published in English in 2016, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex is one kind of horror novel masquerading as another: The title and cover suggest that this is a novel about a witch but maybe that’s not what should be scaring us.

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On “The Statement of Randolph Carter” 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.

You never know who is on the end of the line…

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