REVIEW: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Genre publishing is a scene killer.

Back in the 1970s, a successful horror novel could sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies, the best-known writers were house-hold names and Hollywood producers were falling over themselves to sign the rights to anything even remotely decent. These were not just good years, they were fat years.

The problem was that for every world-famous author rubbing shoulders with movie stars on late-night TV there were literally dozens if not hundreds of authors who were… well… shit. When a book hits big, readers will walk into a book shop and say they want more of the same. Sometimes, successful authors will have back-catalogues that can satiate an audience’s desire but more often than not, great books are kind of hard to find. Publishing tries to solve this problem by publishing books that are a bit like something successful. Quite often, the people in publishing won’t be able to tell you why a particular book sold a million copies and so they spend a lot of their time trying to strike a balance between ‘more of the same’ and ‘might actually strike a nerve’. The problem is that, if none of those new books does strike a nerve and break out, the lack of new trends means that publishers wind up throwing more and more money after stuff whose moment has already passed.

One side effect of this strategy is that everything fresh and good inevitably winds up being buried in shit as publishing companies desperately churn out photocopies of photocopies until even the most devoted of readers tune out and the entire scene comes crashing down around their pointy little heads.

This is what happened to the horror genre. Desperate to replicate big successes, publishing companies would put their money behind any old shit with a monster or a murder. While this approach undoubtedly resulted in the publication of some amazing books, it also submerged the horror genre in a river of shit so deep that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to dig it back out.

Since then, similar things have happened first in the world of Paranormal Romance, and more recently in the world of Young Adult fiction where the vast success of a small number of titles resulted in publishers filling the shelves with so many derivative works that markets collapsed. The rise and fall of Young Adult is a major problem for publishing as a lot of genre publishers pivoted hard towards YA when first the science fiction and then the fantasy genres began to decline. Desperate for a professional life raft, many YA authors have tried to re-invent themselves as adult-oriented writers and many younger authors have reacted with fury to the suggestion that they might ever have considered writing YA.

Genre publishing seems to be in the early stages of a pivot towards horror. This poses something of a challenge as the dark and jagged emotional aesthetics of horror are very different to the uplifting moral simplicity that followed the YA crowd into adult genre publishing. How do you sell horror to people who argue that one cannot depict abuse without endorsing it? How do you sell horror to people who have convinced themselves that morally-upstanding escapism is the only legitimate literary form? I’m not sure that publishing has a solution to this yet; the old world is dying but the new world still struggles to be born.

The Twisted Ones is a novel born of this interregnum. Written under a pseudonym by a Hugo-winning author best known for books aimed at children, this novel feels like fantasy but is being marketed as horror. Unfortunately, despite the dark cover, the evocative title, and the cover blurbs stressing the book’s terrifying affect, The Twisted Ones is more amiably beige than it is dark and disturbing.

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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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REVIEW: World of Darkness – The Documentary (2017)

I have written a few pieces about the history of roleplaying games and the books that are attempting to piece it all together. In some of these reviews I complain about the writers’ reluctance to take even a centimetre’s critical distance from official corporate narratives, in others I bemoan the obsession not just with Dungeons & Dragons but with the period of the game’s history for which it was under the creative control of E. Gary Gygax.

My complaints are rooted in the fact that there are a number of historic moments that would really benefit from sustained critical scrutiny. Books could be written about the early years of Games Workshop, the boom in collectible card games, the weird bubble that surrounded the launch of the D20 open gaming license, the first disastrous attempt to shift the hobby closer to MMORPGs that resulted in D&D becoming second fiddle to its own licensee, and that’s without mentioning the fascinating social histories that might come from thinking and talking about non-Anglophonic gaming scenes. However, as instructive as these various moments may be, none has greater potential to disrupt existing cultural narratives than the history of the games making up the World of Darkness. While we may not yet have a book about the creators of Vampire: The Masquerade, we do now have a film written by Kevin Lee and directed by Giles Alderson.

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REVIEW: Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall

Here is a prediction: The cracks are starting to form, the mood is starting to change, and the discourse is starting to shift. Give it a year or two and horror novels will be as visible as they were back in the 1980s. Horror will be back again… but we aren’t quite there yet.

Genre publishing moves incredibly slowly and always insists upon chasing yesterday’s trends beyond the point where they cease to be profitable.

The last set of trends to sweep through genre publishing involved pivoting towards young adult fiction and rationalising the consumer base by leaning hard into the tastes of younger audiences and the aesthetics of fan-fiction. Unfortunately for genre publishing, the market fell out of YA around the same time that Hollywood realised that the mass appeal of young adult fiction didn’t really extend much beyond Potter, Hunger Games, and the odd John Green novel.

Since then there has been a rather graceless scramble away from YA and back towards the adult genres. But YA imprints are still a thing and YA imprints are trying to pivot too.

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REVIEW: H.P Lovecraft – A Short Biography by S.T. Joshi

I did not know which direction I was going to go when I first started working my way through all of Lovecraft’s stories. I started out by thinking of them as sources of ideas for games but the more I read, the more interested I became in Lovecraft as a creator. To become interested in Lovecraft is to become interested in his sensibility and one cannot engage with Lovecraft’s sensibility without knowing a little bit about his personal history and the social context in which he was writing.

Having read some commentary on Lovecraft’s stories and a lot of the discourse surrounding his racism, I already knew a few bits and pieces about his personal history. However, if I was going to work my way through all of Lovecraft’s stories and engage with Lovecraft the man, then I needed to make sure that I had at least most of the facts straight in my head.

The problem with this approach to the study of Lovecraft is that is a lot of scholarship out there. Joshi estimates that Lovecraft may have written upwards of 80,000 letters in his life and while most of them are lost, a lot of them remain and they are full to bursting with personal details, evolving ideas, and background details on his life and the creation of stories. Little wonder then that there is a real cottage industry when it comes to writings about Lovecraft the man. In principle, all you need is some of his published correspondence and a few ideas and you too can come up with a fresh biographically-inspired interpretation of the man’s work!

The problem with taking this approach to Lovecraft’s work is that a lot of people got there before you and so many biographical details will have been mined for literary significance. For example, back when I was writing about “Polaris”, I came across a reference to someone suggesting that the story might have been inspired by lingering guilt over Lovecraft’s failure to fight in World War I. To my mind, this seems utterly ludicrous as Lovecraft had not only failed to bear the emotional burdens of high school; he also tended to be remarkably downbeat when it came to recognising of his own limits. A young man who struggled with high-school and beat himself up about it would not then think that he could have made a meaningful contribution on the Western Front. This being said, the person who made that claim about “Polaris” could probably point to Lovecraft’s repeated attempts to join the Rhode Island National Guard as well as a number of letters as proof that he had serious martial ambitions. Now… as someone who has always been more interested in critical interpretation than in biographical trainspotting, I would argue that regretting that one did not have the chance to become a celebrated soldier is not the same thing as seriously entertaining fighting in World War I but it would be interesting to know what Lovecraft actually said or did about serving in the military.

The problem with taking an interest in a historical figure whose life has already been subjected to serious scrutiny is where to start. At first, I thought that I might take a run at Joshi’s big biography but that thing is about as thick as a phonebook and full of footnotes. Similarly, if I wanted to wade into the correspondence then I would be confronted with a series of books, all quite thick and often collected according to the person with whom Lovecraft happened to be corresponding. All of these texts may be available, but I all I want is a means of putting meat on the bones of psychological speculation. I want to know more about Lovecraft but I’m not sure I’m ready to learn everything about him just yet. Thankfully, Joshi has written a book providing newbs like me with a short, engaging and accessible on-ramp to the world of Lovecraft scholarship.

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

I’ll open with four basic observations about this book:

Firstly, The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is not a beginner’s guide to RPGs or one of those ‘how to run a regular game’ books like The Lazy DM’s Guide. Nor is it an introduction to the act of roleplaying that tells you how to put on a funny voice or develop a character concept. The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is best thought of as an assortment of guided exercises and theoretical essays designed to help improve your game by making you a better participant in RPGs in that the advice this book is relevant to both players and GMs.

Secondly, the author of this book James D’Amato is not a game designer but rather the creator of a series of successful actual play podcasts. He is also someone who has been formally trained in improvisational comedy by a number of august educational institutions.

Thirdly, despite having been published by Simon and Schuster and having enough of a marketing push behind it that I actually found my copy of this book in a generalist bookshop in a small British town, The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is by far and away the single worse-organised piece of non-fiction writing I have ever encountered.

Fourthly, once you move beyond the fact that D’Amato is bad at both articulating his ideas and presenting said ideas in a logical fashion, this book is surprisingly good.

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