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.

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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.

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WTD: Harry Price – Ghost Hunter (2015)

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.

There is something deeply satisfying about the on-going relevance of Harry Price. Price was born in 1881 and died in 1948 meaning that his career as a ghost-hunter straddled a period in which British ideas about ghosts transitioned from the earnest sub-Christian spirituality of the Victorian era to something more fluid and complex. This relevance is satisfying because, if you consider Price’s career and his various writings on the subject of ghosts, you will find ideas and attitudes consistent with every single point on the spectrum between absolute scepticism and utter credulity.

Harry Price was a passionately idealistic cynic and a laughably credulous sceptic at the same time except for those moments in which he was the opposite. His life and actions are peppered with so many lies, reversions, rebuttals, and inconsistencies that it is almost impossible to work out where genuine belief ended and cynical pragmatism began.

When viewed from a historical perspective, Price’s inconsistencies are fascinating as the contradictions in his thoughts and deeds often serve to highlight tensions that are still present in the beliefs of people who claim to believe in ghosts. For example, Price’s tendency to double down on his own claims whilst rigorously debunking the claims of others reflects the way that people who believe in the paranormal will often make a great show of their own studious scepticism. I mean… sure… I believe that the spirit of my dead grandmother is feeding me the week’s lottery numbers but at least I’m not a credulous imbecile like those Bigfoot wankers! When viewed from a dramatic perspective, Price’s inconsistencies and reversals are almost unfathomable. How can you make sense of a man who seemed to believe both in everything and nothing at all?

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is a 2015 TV movie inspired by a series of novels by Neil Spring. The film tried to account for Price’s ideological mercuriality in terms of lingering trauma, financial necessity, and something far more engagingly pragmatic. The result was a short film that really should have become a longer series as its vision of Price was just as compelling as its willingness to engage with the idea of spiritualism as a form of ersatz psychotherapy.

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REVIEW: Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

First published in 2007 and based upon a series of threads posted on the old Story Games forum, Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe is a book about how to use improvisation to run RPG sessions. Only 74 pages long, the book is short on detail and substance but long on wisdom and insight.

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On “The Transition of Juan Romero” 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.

Sometimes an evocative title goes a long way.

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REVIEW: The Drooler in the Dark

The Drooler in the Dark is a 5-page PDF designed to function as long-term background colour for an on-going campaign with a fixed location. Originally written in 1992 by Michael LaBossiere, the text has been updated a number of times including for the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. It can be downloaded from DriveThruRPG for free but the pay-what-you-want suggested contribution is 50 cents.

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GHR: Gangbusters

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Decades before The Wire, TSR was putting out games that tried to model the political realities of American policing.

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REVIEW: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

This book will come to be seen as a foundational work of 21st Century literary horror.

Past reviews have found me musing somewhat on the economics of genre publishing and how the industry flooded the markets with so much shit that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to put literary horror back on a sustainable artistic footing.

While the genre is in better shape now than it has been for many years, this is not the first time that people have tried to rekindle mainstream interest in scary novels. However, because the publishing industry is full of bowtie-wearing imbeciles, the preferred method for rekindling interest in literary horror has long been to compare people to Stephen King.

I have always viewed this as somewhat unfair as Stephen King’s biggest successes were back in the 1970s and not many people compare well to the dude who wrote The Shining.  I mean… The Duma Key is not a bad novel but the guy who wrote it is no Stephen King. Indeed, the last person I saw being compared to Stephen King for publicity purposes was Ian Nevill and while I have read and re-read The Ritual more than almost any book in the last ten years, he’s no Stephen King let alone a Stephen King.

Nowadays, the author who appears to be collecting the most comparisons to Stephen King is Stephen Graham Jones and, for once, those comparisons feels entirely justified. In fact… if horror is due for a return to mainstream success then let this work be the tip of the spear and the yardstick by which all other works are judged because this novel fucks on every conceivable level.

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