On “Nyarlathotep” 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.

What if Tesla… was Black?

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REVIEW: The Vessel by Adam Nevill

After an absurdly long fallow period, literary horror is showing signs of a return to commercial success and cultural visibility.

As you might expect of a cultural milieu that is only just starting to re-imagine itself as a thriving creative community, critics and literary historians have looked back to by-gone eras of commercial success in search of insights into what went right and what went wrong. For example, see Grady Hendrix’s Paperback from Hell for a wonderful overview of the publishing industry’s increasingly desperate and doomed attempts to ride on the coat-tails of Stephen King.

As wonderful and satisfying as this narrative may be, it is worth bearing in mind that there have been a number of failed attempts to re-ignite popular interest in horror literature and most of them ended in failure. Multiple generations have discovered and re-discovered King’s work but the industry has always struggled to find a second or third author towards whom King’s readers might be channelled.

About fifteen years ago, Adam Nevill (a.k.a. Adam L.G. Nevill) was the next big thing in literary horror. It turns out that fifteen years is a long time.

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REVIEW: Scream of the Mandrake

It is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of Call of Cthulhu adventures tend to fall into one of two camps: Either they are vast sprawling campaigns that will take years to complete, or they are stand-alone adventures with settings so precise that it is all but impossible to fold them into any kind of on-going campaign.

This is because the nature of available Call of Cthulhu adventures is shaped by the market and the market is informed by the reasons for people buying Call of Cthulhu adventures in the first place. In truth, if you are in the market for Call of  Cthulhu adventures then you are either looking to pay top-dollar for a luxury product produced by Chaosium, or you are looking for a single-session adventure that you might be able to squeeze into a break between D&D campaigns.

While I have gone back-and-forth on their product a few times, I think it’s fair to say that Type40 are in the business of publishing terrible adventures with really good production values. If you buy a Type40 product, you will get some really good hand-outs, some pre-generated characters, a more-or-less evocative idea for a scenario, and very little else. Sure… there’s usually a basic plot and writer Allan Carey might come up with an interesting puzzle or set-piece but there’s usually no real plot and most ‘adventures’ amount to little more than an initial set up, a dramatic conclusion, and a few notes to help you guide your party from Step A to Step B. It’s shitty, it’s lazy, it’s grotesquely over-priced, and it’s utterly devoid of anything approaching creative ambition, but it is accessible and therein lays the rub.

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REVIEW: Vaesen – Mythic Britain and Ireland

Back in October 2022 I arrived late for a party. After falling out of a taxi with a bottle of vodka in hand, I ventured into the universal love fest that was the critical reaction to Free League’s Vaesen and announced ‘Eh… not for me’.

Vaesen is one of the most disappointing RPGs I have ever purchased… The problem was that I loved almost everything about it: I loved Johan Egerkrans’ quirky and humane artwork, I loved the production quality of the book itself, I loved the idea of a game set in 19th Century Scandinavia, I loved the elements of base-building that come from having you level-up the group’s headquarters alongside their characters, and I loved the idea of a game that was about industrialisation and the conflict between modernity and tradition.

While I loved all of these things, I loved the last of them the most and that is where I felt that Vaesen let me down. Just as Vampire the Masquerade was a combat-heavy urban fantasy supers game that presented itself as an introspective gothic story-telling RPG, Vaesen presents itself as a meditation on tradition, change, and the growing pangs of modernity but in reality it’s a game about travelling to the countryside in order to hunt and kill fairies.

Both games are examples of what people in video-games studies used to refer to as ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’: That is to say that there is a tension between the narrative told through the game’s story and the narrative that is told through the actual gameplay.

The dissonance in Vampire the Masquerade was born of market forces: The intent may have been to produce a game about exploring transgressive desires and the limits of humanity but the punters wanted books with lists of magical powers and so the minor dissonance of the original rule-set slowly grew into an unceasing howl of discord between what the game professed to be about and what it actually was about. Vaesen’s problem is born not of market forces but of a failure to do the work required to produce a game that engages with its intended themes.

Vaesen’s problem is that it has a great set of themes but it has no system for dealing with the conflicts that arise from those themes. Vaesen’s story is all about trying to resolve the conflict between modernity and tradition but the only relevant rules for conflict-resolution are some hand-wavy stuff about rituals and a combat system. So while the game may profess to be about the growing pangs of modernity it is actually a game about Swedish people murdering fairies in order to make the world safe for commercial farming and strip-mining. Had the game included some rules for resolving conflicts through any means other than conflict then it might have been true to its bittersweet themes but instead the game is nothing more than a series of bug-hunts. This lack of thematically appropriate conflict-resolution rules could have been ameliorated with solid advice on adventure design and tonal control but the GMs advice and most commercially-published adventures all point to a game about Swedish people travelling the countryside, tracking down the local fairies, and murdering them in cold blood.

Vaesen is basically the ideological opposite of Werewolf the Apocalypse; it is Princess Mononoke written from the point of view of the humans who want to wipe-out the forest spirits in order to expand their mining and logging operations. It is a game about the mundane and the profitable waging genocidal war against the magical and the bizarre.

So why did I go out and buy a supplement? Well… turns out that I’m an absolute fool as The Mythic Britain & Ireland supplement for Vaesen is somehow even more slapdash and disappointing than the original game.

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REVIEW: Ghost Hunters by Ed Warren, Lorraine Warren, and Robert David Chase

Ghost Hunters is wonderfully strange piece of writing, even by the standards of books on the paranormal.

The book recalls a series of psychical investigations conducted by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens were a pair of American ghost-hunters who first shot to fame in the 1970s based on their involvement in the infamous Amityville haunting. Their lives and exploits then went on to form the basis for the interlocking Conjuring and Annabel series of horror movies. Ghost Hunters is actually the second in a series of six books, all of which were published in the 80’s and 90’s, after the couple’s star had begun to fall.

The first intriguing thing about this series of books is the weirdness of the format. Books about the paranormal are in and of themselves an interesting edge-case when it comes to categorisation: Are they fiction? Are they non-fiction? Are they memoir? Depending upon the rhetorical style adopted by the author, there’s actually a good deal of variation in how information is presented and, by extension, which literary genre the books most closely resemble.

This book presents as a series of case files from the Warrens’ archives that are basically self-contained short stories. Despite supposedly being co-written by the Warrens, different stories contain either extended quotes attributed to the Warrens or weird little vignettes where someone is asking them questions. Once you move beyond the Warrens’ own words (more on which later), the book is not just well-written but written with a good deal of literary panache. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Ghost Hunters works better as an accessible horror short-fiction collection than it does as a book about paranormal investigation.

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On “From Beyond” 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.

A truly classic piece of horror fiction that speaks directly to the fears and anxieties that made Lovecraft the man he was.

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Thoughts on Clerics, Hierarchy, and the Joys of ‘Levelling-up’

This morning I did something that I have not done for a long time: I disappeared down an internet rabbit-hole. I could not tell you how I got there, but I found myself reading the Wikipedia entry for Holy Orders in the Catholic Church.

What drew my attention is the fact that, from the third century right up until the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic Church had an internal hierarchy that included both higher and lower holy orders.

The higher holy orders were pretty much what we think of today when we use the term ‘Holy orders’: they start with Sub-deacons, then it’s Deacons, Priests, then finally Bishops. This structure is then complicated by the fact that in addition to those four levels, you also have offices (like Cardinal or Archbishop) and titles like Monsignor that started out as offices before becoming terms of address and honorifics that are kind of the Papal equivalent of a knighthood. Paul VI apparently tried to get rid of papal orders entirely before settling on this weird compromise whereby you only get to be called a Monsignor if you’ve distinguished yourself as career bureaucrat who has served in either the Curia (the sinister motherfuckers who administer the Vatican) or the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. Similar to the way that the British royal family only gives the title ‘Royal Highness’ to members of the family who ‘work’ by opening supermarkets or appearing in public whilst wearing a crown for the purposes of opening a new Lidl or whatever it is those parasites call work.

While I will never not be amused and fascinated by the way that the Catholic church manifests institutional power, what really got me was this Wikipedia graphic of the different colours of hats and number of tassels associated with the different orders:

The comedian Denis Leary once had a bit about how Catholicism is a religion of hats. The closer you get to God; the larger the head-gear and, quite frankly, where is the fucking lie?

I then moved on to reading the page about minor orders and noticed something fun. There were originally four lower orders: Porters, Lectors, Exorcists, and Acolytes. The Porters were literally the bouncers at the church door while the lectors were the people responsible for reading aloud excerpts from the scriptures or the liturgy. Things get a little bit more interesting once you reach Exorcist as Exorcists were people who had made it to the third level and so were granted the power to expel demons. Level up from being an exorcist and you became an acolyte who not only lit the candles in the church but also administered the Eucharist to the faithful. In other words: Every time you go up a level, you get fancier clothes, you take on more responsibilities, and you gain more spiritual powers.

Is it just me, or does this sound exactly like a cleric in D&D?

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FR: The Witch Farm

For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.

Early in 2021, the BBC launched a series of podcasts written and presented by someone called Danny Robins. At that point, Robins was already a playwright and he had helmed a series of episodic podcasts called Haunted. Though well-produced and centred on the UK, Haunted was not all that different to any of the hundreds of paranormal podcasts that remain scattered across the internet: You had an attempt at re-creation, you had interviews with people who may or may not be disturbed, and you have the familiar paranormal framing device of pretending the whole thing is some kind of open-minded scientific investigation whereas in fact it’s just an excuse to tell ghost stories. Haunted was not a huge success but Robins’ connections and the series production values were enough to turn some heads at the BBC and so Radio 4 commissioned what would wind up becoming a bit of a break-through hit in so far as lots of the people who listened to The Battersea Poltergeist would not otherwise listen to a podcast with paranormal themes.

 In hindsight, it is pretty obvious why The Battersea Poltergeist became a global success: The production values were superb, the dramatizations included serious acting talent, and Robins himself was an engaging active host who pushed the series relentlessly on social media. However, over and above the formal successes of The Battersea Poltergeist, I think the series real success lays in the way that it reached beyond the merely paranormal to the psychological forces at work within the family. To this day, I frequently think of the way that the girl who was once at the centre of the hauntings seemed to just ‘grow out’ of ghosts and went on to live a normal life while the professional ghost-hunter spent years returning and returning to the house in the hope of re-establishing contact with what was manifestly nothing more than a pre-teen girl’s need for attention. I actually wrote something about The Battersea Poltergeist last year and my feelings about the series have only grown warmer with the passage of time.

Robins launched another podcast named Uncanny for Halloween 2021. It returned to the episodic structure of Haunted and failed to re-capture that broader audience. To be honest, I listened to the first few episodes and rapidly lost interest as the format of dramatic re-creation, interviews, discussion, and frequent online calls to action seemed to overwhelm the content and served to compress each story down to the point where everything felt really insubstantial and rushed. I also found the constant musical stings and Robins’ attempts to drive audience engagement quite irritating.

For Halloween 2022, Robins has ditched the stand-alone episode format of Haunted and Uncanny in favour of the more sustained examination of a single case that worked so well on The Battersea Poltergeist. However, despite again boasting some real acting talent and showing signs of evolving the formula, I don’t think that Robins’ The Witch Farm is anywhere near as fun or as thought-provoking as The Battersea Poltergeist. It all feels a bit too… well… glib for my liking.

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On “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti

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 Thomas Ligotti which I will slowly be working my way through.

A bit of housekeeping before I talk about the story: When I decided to start working my way through Lovecraft’s fiction in chronological, I was able to do so because all of Lovecraft’s fiction is available in the public domain and because a load of nerds had already done the work of determining which stories was written when. This was simply not an option for me when it came to writing about Ligotti.

Ligotti first started getting published in the early 1980s and his work is nowhere near the public domain. This poses two distinct sets of problems: Firstly, despite being a canonical horror author, Ligotti’s works have a nasty habit of dropping out of print and even when they’re brought back into print, it is often under the auspices of small presses that seldom print more than a thousand copies. This means that physically getting hold of Ligotti’s work is not always as easy as you’d think. Secondly, while Ligotti has a devoted fan-base and his personal website dates from the era when the internet was still about people with similar interests coming together to share resources, there simply has not been time for obsessive nerds to do the kind of sorting-and-ordering work that has already been done for writers like Lovecraft.

As a result of these two practical considerations, I’m going to proceed by working through books and collections in rough order of publication. When stuff becomes too hard or too expensive to get hold of, I will skip it and hopefully circle back around once I am able to gain access to it. This will make it a lot harder for me to attend to the development of ideas and mentality in the way I have been doing for Lovecraft, but it seems appropriate that I adopt a different set of methods anyway seeing as Ligotti is still very much alive.

Despite being the first story I’m going to cover, “The Frolic” is arguably one of Ligotti’s better known works in that it has both been adapted for the screen and referenced in a number of other works. The story first appeared in the March 1983 edition of Fantasy Tales (a magazine edited by David Sutton and Stephen Jones) before being re-printed in Ligotti’s first collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1986 by Silver Scarab Press before being re-published in 1989 by Carroll and Graf who took the opportunity to revise and expand the stories to what is now considered to be their correct, author-preferred form. It would be interesting to know what exactly changed between the two editions but the Silver Scarab Press version of the book is now insanely expensive and nobody appears to have done the work of cataloguing the changes. The Carroll and Graf edition of the book also formed the basis for the Penguin Classics single volume edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, which is the edition that I happen to own.

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REVIEW: The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

Having immersed myself to the point of diminishing returns in the story of Gary Gygax and TSR, I have recently been enjoying thinking about the differences between US and UK RPG culture and how Britain reacted to the invention of RPGs.

My first attempt to investigate the question was somewhat frustrating as Livingstone and Jackson’s Dice Men turned out to be a desperately mundane business memoir by a very nice man who made some money selling table-top games only to then go on and make a whole lot more money making and selling video games. I don’t regret reading Dice Men, it was interesting in its own way but I realise if I am going to make any inroads into the history of the British RPG scene, I really need to look at histories written by obsessive nerds and those are precisely the words that spring to mind when I think of Mark Barrowcliffe’s rather charming memoir The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing up Strange.

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