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).

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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.

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On Early, Mid, and End-Games in RPG campaigns

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the World of Darkness Documentary and I noted that while I was never able to get a game off the ground, I did buy pretty much all of the original World of Darkness titles. Given that one of the reasons for never successfully getting a game off the ground was my profound antipathy to the old Storyteller system, it is interesting that I persisted with buying the products.

One reason for continuing to hand over my money was that the World of Darkness games were all pretty to look at and pretty well-written at a time when neither of those things were particularly common in the RPG industry. Even if you never actually sat down to play a WoD title, you could still look at the art, read the introductory short-story, and generally explore the very clear thematic vibe that each game put out.

Another (not unrelated) reason was that reading the books would inspire you to not only create characters but also to imagine how those characters might evolve over time. You could imagine a Vampire rising through the ranks of the local Camarilla but you could also imagine playing a Werewolf or a Mage and reaching the point where you got access to very specific powers. You could imagine your character changing and the games you played changing with them. It is interesting how few options there are for marking the passage of time and allowing your gameplay to evolve alongside your characters.

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SWR: L’Ellcrys

Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.

The stairs leading to L’Ellcrys

Have you ever had one of those weird coincidences happen when you’re talking about something and it suddenly materialises in front of you? The kind of thing that bad sitcoms immediately follow with “…and I also want a million dollars!” Well… that once happened to me with an RPG shop.

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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.

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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.

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On “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” 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.

Some folks’ll never be possessed but then again some folks’ll… like Cletus the slack-jawed Yokel.

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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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