REVIEW: Berlin – The Wicked City

Yes… I know I said that I was going to start backing away from reviewing Call of Cthulhu supplements. Yes… I know that my experiences reviewing Call of Cthulhu setting books have not exactly been brilliant. I am making an exception for Berlin – The Wicked City as a) I happen to own a hard copy and b) while I was not entirely sold on Cthulhu Dark Ages it did spark enough ideas to make me take a further look at the more recent suite of setting books put out under the auspices of 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.

Long story short: While I’m still not convinced that Chaosium know how to produce setting books, David Larkins, Mike Mason, and Lynne Hardy have crammed so many fascinating ideas into Berlin – The Wicked City that the book transcends its formal limitations. They key to getting the most out of this supplement is not to view it as a setting book but rather as a short campaign set in Weimar-era Germany.

I have been sitting on this book for a while because reading Secrets of New York, Secrets of Los Angeles, and Secrets of New Orleans left me with little faith that Chaosium could produce a book about Weimar-era Germany without tripping over their own dicks and tumbling head-first into bad politics. It’s not even a question of being more racist or regressive than the rest of the gaming industry, it’s more a question of Chaosium having a long history of lax editorial standards on material that was already under-imagined. I can’t remember Chaosium having a corporate motto but for the last couple of decades at least, the company’s entire ethos has been ‘this will probably do’.

I sat on this book as I fully expected it to be an exploration of lazy centre-right ideas about the rise of Nazism. I was expecting not just stuff about degenerate art being a sign of corruption but also a load of stuff about Weimar-era progressivism being a kind of Lovecraftian accelerationism whereby people challenging traditional attitudes to sex and experimenting with gender-reassignment protocols turns out to be some kind of orchestrated cultish provocation designed to enflame salt-of-the-earth German and thereby trigger the rise of Nazism Mercifully, these fears turned out to be baseless as that is not what this book is about.

I sat on this book expecting it to be a series of really lazy and tedious historical opinions but it surprised and delighted me by articulating a Lovecraftian vision of Weimar-era Berlin that is rich, detailed, evocative, and very close to genuinely progressive. However, much like Cthulhu Dark Ages, this is a book full of lovely ideas that are let down by some weird ideas about how to put together a setting-specific sourcebook.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Berlin – The Wicked City”

REVIEW: Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

I took an unusual path to this book.

A little while ago, someone who knows of the disdain in which I hold Fantasy novels recommended that I check out The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. The book, I must say, did not convert me to reading Fantasy but I did finish it because while I found the plot under-cooked and the characters somewhat generic, I loved the writing and the imagery. A couple of months later, I happened upon an amiable  haircut with a YouTube channel who spoke in glowing terms of Those Across the River and while I didn’t necessarily trust the recommendation, the plot synopsis combined with my respect for Buehlman’s sentence-by-sentence writing were enough for me to give him another chance, and I am very glad that I did.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman”

On “The Doom that came to Sarnath” 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.

Everything louder than everything else.

Continue reading “On “The Doom that came to Sarnath” by H.P. Lovecraft”

REVIEW: Cthulhu Dark Ages

Sandy Petersen once observed that while Chaosium may have agreed to publish an RPG based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, there were always more interested in the idea of a historical adventure game inspired by the kind of golden age pulp magazines that would habitually refuse to publish Lovecraft’s work. While the names at the top of Chaosium may have changed a few times in the intervening decades, there remains an institutional bias towards the historical and against the horrific. This is obvious in the company’s habitual production of globe-trotting adventure campaigns, in the tendency of sourcebook to resemble Lonely Planet guides to 1920s cities, and in the range of topics covered by their experimental range of monographs.

Chaosium’s innate bias towards historical Simulationism was also influential on non-Anglophonic versions of the game produced by third-party publishers who would often attempt to localise Call of Cthulhu by providing sourcebooks designed to help you play in your native country. Indeed, many of my early experiences with the game involved scenarios set against a background of a France still recovering from the trauma and chaos of World War I. While a lot of these localisations were content to swap currencies and provide male adventurers with differently-shaped hats, some local publishers proved a touch more ambitious.

For example, back in the early 00s, the German games company Pegasus Spiele were publishing a Call of Cthulhu-related magazine entitled Cthulhoide Welten when they received an English manuscript by Stephane Gesbert about running games in dark ages Germany. Pegasus translated the manuscript into German and released it as a special edition of Cthulhoide Welten entitled Cthulhu 1000AD. In 2004, Chaosium took Gesbert’s ideas and used them as the basis for Cthulhu Dark Ages, a game designed to support Call of Cthulhu campaigns set in dark ages England. Successful enough to prompt the publication of several supplements released through Chaosium’s slightly iffy monograph series, Cthulhu Dark Ages is now on its third somewhat chaotic edition.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Cthulhu Dark Ages”

REVIEW: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

Given that this site is primarily about RPGs, you might be forgiven for thinking that a book about psychogeography is some distance ‘out of my lane’.

My justification for covering this book is two-fold: Firstly, I wrote about Coverley’s more recent book Occult London and found it to be a really good fit for the type of stuff I have been writing about. Secondly, my recent attempts to review Call of Cthulhu supplements left me feeling that I needed to have a bit of a think about the creative processes through which real-world cities are turned into venues for Horrific and Fantastical stories, and that process of re-invention and re-imagination is precisely what psychogeography is all about.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley”

The Gardens at Taskerland v3.0 – Year Two

The Gardens at Taskerland is the series in which I talk about this blog, the direction it is headed in, and any tweaks and alterations I feel like making. The rest of the series can be found here.

I was planning on making a minor course correction based around what I was enjoying writing about but then I looked at my schedule and realised that this post would have coincided with this blog’s relaunch on June 12, 2021.

To be honest, I am not sure how this lines up with when I decided to start this blogging project as I do schedule stuff a couple of months ahead of time and am actually writing this post on Easter Sunday. Regardless of the actual dates and timelines, this post will go live around the first anniversary of the blog’s relaunch and I am amazed that I have not only stuck with it but stuck with it whilst maintaining a steady two-posts-per-week rhythm. Yay me!

Continue reading “The Gardens at Taskerland v3.0 – Year Two”

REVIEW: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Stories about haunted houses tend to fall into two broad approaches:

Firstly, there are the stories that are all about the haunting and which use their characters as viewpoints through which to explore the haunting and victims through whom the haunting’s destructive power can be felt. This style of story is quite popular in horror films but it also forms the backbone of the occult detective and paranormal investigation sub-genres where the tendency is always to show the audience something frightening and then let that horror blossom through a process of rational contextualisation whereby the spooky thing in the old house becomes a horrific truth about the world.

Secondly, there are stories where the focus is on the human characters rather than the haunting itself. In this style of story, the haunting is not required to make sense as the point of the exercise is to show you a human mind imploding under unimaginable pressure. In some ways, having a haunting not make sense only adds to its power because the characters’ inability to see the edges of the haunting only serves to make it harder to endure.

I refer to these groups as approaches because a lot of great works move between the two. For example, Ghostwatch shuffles back and forth between the approaches, hinting at hidden lore before focusing on the little girl and then moving back to the lore as the true nature of the horror is revealed. Similarly, The Exorcist presents itself as a lore-filled possession story but in reality the power of the film owes less to Catholic myth than it does to the film’s interest in the experience of the little girl and the relationship she has with her mother. Naturally, there are great examples from either form and many of the best works do employ elements of both approaches but the hauntings that stay with me tend to be of the more psychological variety. For me, the greatest ghost story of all time remains The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a novel in which the exact shape and source of the horror are a lot more vague than the beautifully-drawn portrait of a vulnerable woman descending into outright madness.

While any comparison to Hill House is going to be unflattering, Cassandra Khaw’s novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth is clearly a story that is more interested in the haunted than the haunting. More’s the pity then that the story’s human elements never quite snap into focus.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw”

On “The White Ship” 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.

I am too principled to experience happiness.

Continue reading “On “The White Ship” by H.P. Lovecraft”