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.
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.
Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
The website TV Tropes often talks about tropes originating in particular properties and then being codified by others. What they mean by this is that while some ideas have been around literally forever, their cultural presence can often be traced back to one particular use of said idea that proved so hugely popular and influential that everyone wound up using the idea in the exact same way.
I am still not sure how I feel about the assumptions and social-mechanics informing the TV Tropes website, but I do enjoy the way that these kinds of discussions often wind up feeling like people discussing the lineages of race horses, pedigree dogs, or Royal houses. Even serious literary scholars codify and legitimise cultural scenes by trying to come up with lists of literary ancestors, influences who did the same thing in another place and another time. But if we can talk about ancestors, can we not also talk about orphans?
For example, we can talk about occult detectives and how the sub-genre was ‘sired’ by Sheridan Le Fanu and then ‘codified’ by Bram Stoker but can we not also talk about the extinction of that particular cultural line? Consider for example the way that the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film turned up at a time when the Occult Detective series was almost completely dead on its arse. In fact, the sub-genre had so little salience at the time that both the film and the TV series spent a lot of time dunking on traditional Occult Detectives in the form of the Watchers. One could even say that the central meta-textual theme of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a popular feminist take on the idea that stories about Occult Detectives are lame compared to stories about teenaged super-heroes and it’s time for the dusty-old detective dudes to step aside. Thus the Occult Detective sub-genre was broken down for parts and separated from its roots in Horror and Crime Fiction so that its ideas could be cannibalised and resold under the guise of Urban Fantasy. In other words, Buffy was a series that made orphans… it was so popular and so influential that it made the Occult Detective genre disappear and made it impossible to tell those kinds of stories without magic swords, lightening-bolts, and bantering heroes in trench-coats or leather trousers.
Kôji Shiraishi is a director with the power to make orphans. Best known in the West for his films Noroi and Occult he tells Occult Detective stories with such a clear and timely vision that it is difficult to imagine telling similar stories without at least acknowledging that sensibility. In fact, at this point, the only thing preventing him from launching a new golden age of Occult Detective stories is the fact that his films and TV series are almost impossible to find in English. I was lucky enough to stumble upon full subtitled run of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi uploaded to YouTube but they now appear to have disappeared again.
Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi is everything you want from both Japanese horror and an Occult Detective series: It is weird, it is visually striking, it is mind-bending, and (like many of Shiraishi’s other films) it ends with a spiral down into conspiracy theories, cosmic horror, and really quite unpleasant depictions of mental illness. This is the Occult Detective genre stripped back to its basics and made new again.
Zine Corner is an occasional series in which I talk about individual issues of zines I have come across on my travels. Some of these will be about RPGs, some of them will be about horror, some of them will be about folklore, and some of them will just be weird and cool. The rest of the series can be found here.
It is fascinating to me (as someone who has long had an interest in the worlds of science-fiction, horror, RPGs, punk rock, and photography) to see how the world ‘zine’ is used in different sub-cultures.
For example, the annual Hugo awards have long had a category honouring the year’s best fanzine and this category has long been a site of conflict: Nowadays, fans get unhappy when professionals use their clout to get nominated in fan-related categories. Before that people who published amateur digital magazines with distinct issues got unhappy when people started getting nominated for their blogs. I suspect before that there was an issue regarding whether or not your amateur magazine had be available in the form of a physical copy.
In the worlds of roleplaying games and photography, people have been quick to reach for the term ‘zine’ to describe self-published work because ‘zine’ has counter-cultural credibility but the steep prices of these zines combined with their larger print runs, expensive papers, and upscale production values suggest that when people in RPGs and photography talk about publishing a zine, they are actually talking about putting out a chapbook. The TNHC zine is named for The Nottingham Horror Collective and while it is printed on nice paper and has really quite incredibly high production values, the brevity, casualness, and personal nature of the articles all speak to a zine-making tradition that is a lot closer to what the worlds of punk and SFF used to call a fanzine.
I decided to write about Woom in an effort to think my way through certain tensions that exist within my knowledge and appreciation of horror. Woom is a short novel with a reputation for being rather extreme in both its themes and its imagery. It is this extremity that attracted me whilst also giving me reasons to pause.
I would be surprised if mine was the first review of Woom to start in such terms as we are living in times when even the people who are not bothered by extreme imagery and transgressive themes feel obliged to bracket their appreciation with a variety of caveats and pre-emptive apologies designed to ward off the evil eye of social media. My issue is not that I feel guilty or worried about expressing an interest in transgressive media; it’s more that many previous attempts to find works of extreme and disturbing horror have often left me feeling rather bored.
Part of the problem is that, as a child, my parents showed no interest in moderating my access to media and so I’m pretty sure that I started encountering works like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before I was even a teenager. While this meant that, by the age of 18, I was pretty much impossible to shock, it also meant that a lot of genre horror wound up sitting in a mental drawer marked ‘adolescent’. In fact, it wasn’t until my interest in art-house film lead me to the works of people like Gaspar Noe that I re-discovered an interest in horror-inspired imagery and associated transgressive themes. The problem with this approach to extreme imagery is that if you re-discover transgressive imagery in the context of films with a degree of psychological and thematic sophistication then it’s kind of difficult to stay interested when that imagery leads you into trope-driven narratives involving cannibals and serial killers.
While I would never say that literary extreme horror is nothing but stories about generic cannibals and murderers, that approach to extreme horror is far more common than the approach taken in something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next-Door, where the extremity of the visuals are rooted in a set of themes and psychological observations that make the darker parts of my brain light up with pleasure. Even recent well-received works with extreme imagery like Nick Cutter’s The Troop left me rather bored as hundreds of pages of disgusting shit is actually quite tedious when the book manifestly has very little thematic heft. All of which to say that I approached Ralston’s Woom with a degree of trepidation as I wanted it to be disgusting but I also wanted it to be smart.. And I must say that Ralston definitely manages to pull it off albeit not in a way I had either expected or hoped for.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson: We’ve all thought about writing a history of Dungeons & Dragons at one time or another, but what about the victims? Hardworking historians like Jon Peterson, Michael Witwer or David M. Ewalt. These are people who saw an overcrowded market and said ‘Me too!’
Now… obviously there is some degree of truth to this gag. Dungeons and Dragons has been around for nearly fifty years and for most of that time the closest you could get to a book about gaming was Shannon Appelcline’s industrial histories, some stuff written from the point of view of theatre studies, and a sociological study that says a lot more about male-dominated social clubs at mid-western universities in the 1970s than it does about RPGs themselves. Then, after literally decades, the dam broke and it feels like we’re getting a new history of D&D published every six months or so.
While this is all technically true, it kind of fails to acknowledge that not all of those histories are particularly good and those that are good are quite often attempting to do subtly different things with subtly different results. Thankfully, Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon is attempting something that is not only quite precise and well-executed but also a welcome addition to the field.