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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a tendency for journalists to write in the passive voice. This is most obvious when journalists are writing about atrocities and crimes perpetrated by those allied to or acting on behalf of the status quo: The police never kill an unarmed Black man just as the Israeli military never shoot peaceful protestors. Instead, the unarmed Black men are always killed after someone calls the police. Similarly, Palestinian protesters wind up dead after a tense encounter with the Israeli defence forces.
The problem is that active voice implies not only cause-and-effect but also guilt and responsibility. To say that the police killed an unarmed man implies that the police took out their guns and murdered a man who posed little to no danger. Similarly, to say that the Israeli military killed hundreds of peaceful protesters implies deliberate cold-blooded murder. It’s not that these things do not happen (because they manifestly do)… it’s just that saying that they did can be both legally and politically embarrassing.
This critique is not new, people are well aware of the tendency to report the actions of institutions in the passive voice, but what of using the passive voice to describe the actions of a single person? What about a life described entirely in the passive voice? Are we responsible for our actions or do things just happen to us? This is a question raised by the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award. Written by the South Korean author PYUN Hye-Young and translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
In May 2000, Lucie Blackman and Louise Philips left the UK for Japan. Friends since childhood, the pair had been working as flight attendants and when that career path didn’t work out, they decided to take some time and travel around Asia. Their first port of call was Tokyo where they secured work as hostesses in a bar where Japanese men would pay to get drunk in the company of beautiful Western women. Two months after taking the job in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, Lucie Blackman left for a meeting with a client. That evening, Lucie called home to inform her flat-mate that she was visiting the sea-side with a client. She was never seen again.
A few days after Lucie’s disappearance, Louise was contacted by a man who claimed to be a member of a cult that Lucie had recently joined. According to this man, Lucie had embarked on a new stage of her life and wished to have no further contact with her old friends and family. Seven months later, Lucie’s dismembered body was found in a cave 200 yards from the home of Joji Obara, a once-phenomenally successful property tycoon whose phone Lucie used to call home the evening of her disappearance. When the police searched Obara’s home, they found detailed records of Obara’s sexual history including references to somewhere between 150 and 400 women who had all been befriended, drugged and raped as part of Obara’s fondness for what he referred to as ‘conquest play’.
Written by the Times’ Asian editor Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness is the story of Lucie’s abduction, her family’s search for justice, and the weird Japanese demi-monde that first put Lucie in contact with Obara.
Games Workshop occupies a bit of a weird space in my relationship to gaming history: On the one hand, I have always really loved the art design of Games Workshop products and I remember loving the idea of Warhammer 40K and Space Marines long before I ever became aware of RPGs or even miniature-based games. Having grown up in Britain in the 1990s, it was not possible to be interested in this kind of stuff without encountering the vibes and visuals that radiated off of Games Workshop’s products. On the other hand, I became aware of RPGs a little too late to remember the days when Games Workshop were a presence in the RPG landscape and so, as far as I am concerned, Games Workshop is just that place on the high street that sells really well-designed but horrifically overpriced miniatures used in a series of really rather dull and uninteresting war-games.
Because of this slightly weird relationship with Games Workshop, I did not buy Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop out of a sense of nostalgia but rather out of a desire to learn a little bit more about the early days of the British RPG scene. It turns out that this was a bit of a mistake as while Livingstone does mention RPGs, it is merely as part of a list of products produced by a company that Livingstone happened to set up. Those expecting insights into the RPG industry or even social history are doomed to be disappointed as Dice Men reads less like a personal slice of geek history and more like a polite and really rather mundane business memoir written by a man who entered and exited the world of table-top games without much in the way of emotional attachment one way or the other. While this is a bit of a disappointment, it is also a refreshing change from the high-pitched melodrama that tends to echo through the pages of every published history of Dungeons & Dragons. This being said, the book is not without its own brand of quiet revelations.
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.
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.