REVIEW: Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Perry

The original vision for this blog was a place for me to write about ‘hauntings’ in the most expansive sense of the word. What I mean by that is that while I definitely wanted to write about ghosts and ghost-stories, I also wanted to write about memory, trauma, and all the ways in which the past imposes itself upon the present and helps to shape the future. While this original vision may have never come fully to pass, I remain deeply fascinated by this more expansive conception of the haunting. Evidently I am not alone in this fascination as Ghosts of the Tsunami is a book about just such a form of haunting written by the Asia editor of the London Times.

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REVIEW: The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel

Depending upon who you ask and where you look, the Mothman was first spotted either by a crew of grave-diggers or a bunch of teenagers hanging out near the dis-used munitions storage facilities on the outskirts of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Both sets of sightings describe a large man-sized creature with glowing red eyes and huge bat-like wings. The first sighting of the Mothman was in November 1966 and dozens of near-identical sightings would follow before dropping off almost completely in December 1967.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to account for these sightings; Wild-life experts have claimed that when the residents of Point Pleasant claimed to have seen a man-sized bat-winged creature with glowing red eyes, they were actually seeing either large barn owls or a type of crane with distinctive red plumage on its head. Psychologists have claimed that regardless of what it was that the original witnesses saw, many of the dozens of subsequent reports were results of either hoaxing or a kind of mass-hysteria wherein everyone decided that they too wanted to be part of something that was garnering national attention. The debate still rages at a level sufficient to have established the Mothman as a solid second-tier cryptid: Sure he’s no Bigfoot or Nessie, but he’s easily bigger than the Skunk Apes of Florida or the Ogopogo lake monster.

The thing is that while Mothman is a cool creature and the weird mass-hysteria following the initial sightings is interesting enough to sustain the occasional fresh book or documentary series, the Mothman himself is really only the tip of a much larger and weirder iceberg.

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REVIEW: The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos by S.T. Joshi

As someone who has been writing quite a bit about Lovecraft of late, it occurred to me that I should probably try and familiarise myself with some of the scholarly discourse surrounding his work and its legacy.

Aside from Lovecraft’s racism, the most obvious point of entry seemed to be the question of whether Lovecraft’s stories merely overlap or whether the referencing, shared names, and recurring settings amount to anything akin to an extended literary universe or ‘mythos’.

As a Lovecraft reader, my assumption has always been that while Lovecraft had this list of Named Entities that he would return to in story after story, said Named Entities were never deployed in a particularly coherent or consistent fashion.

I assumed that whenever Lovecraft needed one of his characters to read from some mind-shredding book of forbidden lore, he’d drop a reference to the Necronomicon because having the Necronomicon feature in a load of different stories strengthened its symbolic power as a representation of ‘forbidden lore that will melt your shit’. I did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had a clear idea as to what the Necronomicon actually contained.

Similarly, when Lovecraft made repeated references to Arkham or Kingsport, I assumed it was because he wanted to set the action in either a coastal town or a mid-sized city and rather than using real-world places that he could ‘get wrong’ he used made-up places which, though inspired by the real world, could be bent and twisted to suit the needs of a given story. It did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had these fictional towns all planned out in his head like Tolkien drawing maps of the Shire. In other words, I assumed that, for Lovecraft, a commitment to coherent world-building was much less of a priority than producing stories that ‘worked’ and hit specific thematic and affective beats.

The first inkling that maybe people were not reading Lovecraft in the same way I was came when I started encountering Joshi’s repeated angry references to the so-called ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ and while I had always assumed that the term was just a means of referring to the content of Lovecraft’s stories, it is a term that has actually been subject to a surprising amount of discourse. This somewhat frustrating book purports to describe the rise and fall of one very specific vision of that mythos, but it does so using entirely the wrong set of critical tools.

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REVIEW: The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight

Back in the 1950s, thinkers such as Timothy Leary argued that human relationships tended to stabilise around four different dynamics or life-scripts. Over time, this idea collided with a similar suite of ideas coming out of mid-Century psychoanalysis and went on to inspire works such as Eric Berne’s Games People Play and Thomas Anthony Harris’ I’m Okay, You’re Okay.

Loosely inspired by these ideas, Robert Anton Wilson commented in one of his books that the Hippie Movement corresponded to the dynamic known as friendly weakness or ‘I’m not okay, you’re okay’. Building on this idea, Iain Spence argued in 1995 that all movements in popular culture could be understood in terms of particular life-scripts and that popular culture evolved by processing through different dynamics before settling on one of the four major life scripts. Unfortunately Spence’s so-called Sekhmet hypothesis faced two major problems: The first was his insistence that popular culture followed an eleven-year cycle that corresponded to cycles in solar energy, and the second was that aside from the Friendly Weakness of the Hippies and the Hostile Weakness of Punks, nobody can agree on what constitutes a phase of popular culture. Since first articulating the Sekhmet hypothesis, Spence has backed away from the astrological elements of the original idea.

While I don’t necessarily buy into the idea of there being a tonal cycle to popular culture, I do think it’s interesting to look at trends in popular culture in terms of their being either a departure from or a reaction to that which came before. I mention this as I am old enough to remember the 1990s when both conspiracy theories and the paranormal were part of the mainstream. It would appear that, thirty years later, these ideas are now cycling back into fashion.

Based on a long article published in the New Yorker in 2019, Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau is the kind of book that would simply not have been published ten years ago. In fact, as recently as five years ago I suspect this book would have crept to market through a small-press publisher rather than on a wave of newspaper-supported hype coupled with prominent positioning at the front of every brick-and-mortar book shop you happen to venture into. Regardless of what you think about this book – and, to be blunt, I am disappointed – there is significance to the fact that it was published amidst a wave of hype in May of 2022. Things out there are getting spooky and The Premonitions Bureau is a book about an earlier time when the mainstream started to take an interest in the paranormal.

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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.

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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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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.

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REVIEW: The Ultimate RPG Backstory Guide by James D’Amato

Back in 1955, Lawrence Olivier appeared in a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. His performance was so iconic that it defined how both the character and the historical figure would be seen for generations to come. By the time the 1980s rolled around, people in British theatre started to realise that they were going to have to start pushing back against the 50s epics lest they lose the characters forever. If every rendition of Richard III turns into an imitation of Lawrence Olivier, why bother going to see a live performance?

For their 1984 performance of Richard III, the Royal Shakespeare Company brought in an actor named Anthony Sher and gave him carte blanche to re-think the character from scratch. Years late, Sher would write a (thoroughly excellent) book entitled Year of the King describing his efforts to create a new Richard III. According to the book, Sher went out and researched different types of deformity before hitting on the idea of Richard as a huge tic-like spider. Working with choreographers and artists, Sher devised not just a look and a style of movement but an array of physical tics and movements so jarring that his time on stage ended with months of physiotherapy. Even before the first rehearsals or attempts at workshopping, Sher had already worked out what his Richard would sound like, what he would look like, and what he would wear. The process took months and the amount of creativity and preparation that went into the role absolutely beggar belief.

And yet, the amount of preparation that Sher put into his Richard III pales into insignificance when compared to the amount of preparation that James D’Amato invites us to put into our RPG characters. There’s over-preparation and then there’s the levels of preparation encouraged by The Ultimate RPG Backstory Guide.

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REVIEW: Dark Folklore by Mark Norman and Tracey Norman

I am the first to admit that I know very little about myth, legend, and folklore.

The closest I ever got to a historical interest in folklore was getting caught up in the 1990s UFO craze that was adjacent to the original transmission of the X-Files. I’ve watched a lot of dodgy TV programmes about ghosts, monsters, unexplained mysteries, and cattle mutilations but those kinds of TV programmes tend to approach those kinds of phenomena by ‘debating’ whether or not they are based on real-world events. This is only one of several ways in which odd beliefs might be interrogated.

Folklorists – on the other hand – seem to have little interest in whether or not an event actually happened. Rather than getting bogged down in the ‘soundness’ or ‘reasonableness’ of believing in ghosts or UFOs, folklorists tend to be in the business of cataloguing beliefs and interrogating their origins by considering the social, cultural, and psychological forces that might allow unusual beliefs to gain traction amongst a broader population.

Written as a collaboration between the historian and playwright Tracey Norman and the folklorist and podcaster Mark Norman, Dark Folklore is a short but evocative ramble through some of the darker corners of contemporary folklore; Emphasis on the ramble.

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