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.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Drooler in the Dark”

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.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones”

REVIEW: Game Wizards by Jon Peterson

Jon Peterson is rapidly making a name for himself as the foremost academic expert on Dungeons & Dragons. This rise to prominence may have started back in 2012 with a book about the history of Wargames and RPGs before a momentary detour into D&D-themed art books but the last couple of years have been spent doing serious groundwork not only into the history of Dungeons & Dragons but also the early years of the RPG hobby.

Game Wizards is not the first long-form history of D&D, it isn’t even the only book on the early history of D&D to be published this year, but its desire to move beyond the broad narrative strokes of cultural memory lays down a gauntlet for all future RPG historians: You must be at least this rigorous to pass muster.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Game Wizards by Jon Peterson”

REVIEW: Sorrow in Tsavo

First published in 2020, written by Bridgett Jeffries with editing and layout work by Jared Smith, Sorrow in Tsavo is a single-session Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1890s Colonial Africa. The PDF is 43-pages long and includes six pre-generated characters with specific ties to the story so it cannot be easily integrated into a campaign. Thoughtfully written and full of lovely touches, Sorrow in Tsavo is undoubtedly one of the best recent Call of Cthulhu adventures I have discovered on DriveThruRPG.

I have in the past remarked that Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks all too often feel like sourcebooks for a 1920s adventure game that just happens to contain elements of Lovecraftian horror.

This certainly rings true when you consider the way that setting books struggle to strike a balance between historical accuracy and game-relevant content meaning that sourcebooks dedicated to places like New York wind up feeling like Lonely Planet guides to a version of 1920s New York that was identical to our own except there’s a bunch of ghouls living in an old building.

To make matters worse, while Chaosium are undoubtedly more interested in history than horror, their engagement with the stuff of history is usually paper-thin and often amounts to little more than over-researched set dressing. Rare is the adventure or sourcebook that looks at a historical period and uses Lovecraft as a means of emphasising certain themes and ideas. Bridgett Jeffries’ Sorrow in Tsavo is a rare and refreshing exception to that depressing rule.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Sorrow in Tsavo”

REVIEW: Refractions of Glasston

Written by Sam Guinsatao, Carson Jacobs, Joy Lemont, Elijah Oates, Rayce Patterson, Emily Pawlowski, and J. Tucker White, Refractions of Glasston was first published in April 2019 as a scenario for 1920s Call of Cthulhu. 46 pages long including illustrations, maps, hand-outs, and pre-rolled characters, this two session scenario is currently available to download from DriveThruRPG for free.

Set in Northwest Indiana, the adventure revolves around a glass company that claims to have created an unbreakable jar. Having arrived in town, the characters are encouraged to wander around talking to people and noticing things until they come to realise that the town’s booming glass industry has sinister underpinnings.

Okay… so that summary makes this adventure sound a little bit silly and that intuition is not without its merits. However, while Refractions of Glasston may have a few rough edges and boasts a number of perplexing creative decisions, both the peculiarity of its origins and the rigour of its execution make it an interesting piece in its own right and a fascinating counterpoint to Stygian Fox’s somewhat similar Under a Winter’s Snow (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago).

Continue reading “REVIEW: Refractions of Glasston”

REVIEW: Dark Hollow by Brian Keene

Contrapoints once observed that the alt-right told on themselves when they adopted the term ‘cuck’ as their favoured insult.

What that choice revealed was a deep well-spring of insecurity. A lot has been said and written about the darker corners of the internet and how lonely, isolated men wind up stumbling into some weird, distasteful, and generally misguided ideas about women. For some, women are puzzles to be solved using a variety of techniques. For others, women are sadistic tyrants with standards so astronomically high that most men have no hope of ever finding love. Regardless of which variety of online misogyny you stumble into, they all share an understanding of women as territory that needs to be conquered and held. If this is how you see women then it follows that there is nothing more depraved and debased than a man who would willingly allow another man to have sex with ‘his’ woman.

The decision to place cuckolds in the lowest level of rhetorical hell speaks of sexual insecurity: A fear that your weaknesses (both physical and psychological) might translate into an inability to pleasure and hold onto a female partner and an even deeper fear that you might actually enjoy seeing your lover reach a level of pleasure and fulfilment that you could never hope to provide. The alt-right spit the word ‘cuck’ at each other as a way of warding off their own demons as well as their own hidden desires.

While the dark corners of the internet may encourage and amplify these fears beyond the point where they erupt in violence, fear of sexual inadequacy runs deep through all forms of toxic masculinity. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, part of the package when you start to internalise those values and forms of self-perception. To be a man is to be fearful that one can never be man enough.

While I love a monster story as much as… well… the next man… my preferred forms of horror are more psychological and rooted in the day-to-day. All speculative fiction is born of asking what if a particular thing were true, or false, or more exaggerated but the best horror takes real fears and turns them into something more concrete and threatening. That desire to make unspoken fears real is what drives Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Dark Hollow by Brian Keene”

REVIEW: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

Unlike a lot of people who write about horror, I will admit that I am not that widely read within the genre. I may have read a load of Stephen King novels as a teenager but I would say that my love of horror comes primarily from the artier end of cinema than literature.

When I decided to start reading horror novels as inspiration for my regular game, I went to a handful of big book-related websites and had a look at their semi-regular posts of books that the publishing industry expects us to get excited about. Based upon these recommendations, I made a few purchases and immediately remembered why I don’t often read books by people who write predominantly for children. There’s nothing wrong with writing books for kids, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Having read and been disappointed by two such novels, I decided to seek out something a bit more… edgy and I am so glad that I did.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Cipher by Kathe Koja”

REVIEW: Under a Winter’s Snow

Written by Nathan Ross, Under a Winter’s Snow was first published by Stygian Fox in February 2020 as a scenario for what is referred as ‘Classic Era’ (i.e. 1920s) Call of Cthulhu. Twenty pages long and illustrated with an array of drawings, photographs, and hand-outs, this single-session scenario is currently available for download from DriveThruRPG for the entirely reasonable sum of $4.95.

Set in small-town North Dakota in the midst of a snow storm, Under a Winter’s Snow invites players to investigate the source of a mysterious and lethal pandemic. Long on investigation and short on monster-stomping, the scenario is timely, thematically rich and full of human tragedy. The only thing that lets this scenario down is the disordered and incomplete nature of the text.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Under a Winter’s Snow”