I have written before, extensively, about my relationship with the Crestwood House monster books, most recently in the first issue of Weird Horror from Undertow Publications. For those who weren’t like me, the Crestwood House books were a series of retellings of the classic horror films of yesteryear, illustrated with evocative black-and-white film stills from those same flicks, at least some of them provided by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman.

The school library at just about every elementary school I ever attended had at least a few of them, usually the whole series. The first and best-known set, which kicked off in the late ’70s, had orange-and-black covers and titles hitting upon some of the biggest names in the Universal monster canon, including Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon – not to mention more weirdo titles like The Deadly Mantis and It Came from Outer Space.

Each of those orange books provided an abridged novelization of the film, alongside trivia and context for the films that surrounded it. The Frankenstein book, for instance, summarized the James Whale film, but also talked about Mary Shelley’s novel, Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein, and other films and adaptations before and since.

The lesser-known purple series came out later, kicking off in the ’80s (the ones I have are copyrighted 1985 and 1987) and including more B-sides than its predecessor. Hence, we get titles like Werewolf of London, Tarantula, and House of Fear.

The dimensions of the books were also smaller. While the orange titles were the size of a standard “board book,” the purple series were closer in scale to a mid-grade chapter book. And where the orange books had included a breezy summary of the main film, alongside details about others, the purple series included a more scene-by-scene novelization of the film in question, even if the result was still quite brisk.

While I was obsessed with those books, I never owned any of them – I’m pretty sure they were sold only to libraries, as I’ve never seen a copy without a library stamp inside. Today, they sell for big bucks online, when you can find them at all. Recently, I came across seven of the purple cover titles in a book-filled booth at an antique mall, and brought them all home with me. It’s not quite the full series – I’ve never been able to find a definitive list, but I know I’m missing several titles. Now, as we head toward Halloween, I’ll be reading one a week and posting about it here.

Most of the books in the orange cover series were credited to writer Ian Thorne, actually science fiction author Julian May. All of the purple ones – or, at least, the ones I have – are credited to Carl R. Green and William R. Sanford, authors, according to the website of Enslow Publishing, of “more than one hundred books for young people.”

Each book includes a prologue, usually about a page long, that gives some minor context for the story you’re about to read, and from there on it’s just raw adaptation of the screenplay, accompanied, once again, by black-and-white stills.

I decided to start with Werewolf of London for a variety of reasons. The 1935 film is an oddity, given that it predates The Wolf Man by more than half-a-decade, yet never managed to kick off a franchise the way that film did, even though it was the first mainstream Hollywood film to feature a werewolf. What’s more, it actually features two werewolves, and not just one begetting the other, as in that later picture. Here, there’s an actual werewolf-on-werewolf fight!

Werewolf of London is also interesting in its relationship to the Crestwood House canon. While it didn’t get a book in the orange series, it also kind of did. Not only does the orange Wolf Man book summarize this flick alongside the Lon Chaney Jr. one, it’s the werewolf from Werewolf of London – with his Eddie Munster widow’s peak – who decorates that cover.

It’s been long enough since I watched the film that I can’t tell you for sure which liberties Green and Sanford took with the script, but the writing is, for the most part, of the “see Jane run” style you might expect, with short, unambiguous sentences. “Lisa and Miss Ettie ran down the stairs,” one climactic scene tells us. “The wolfman was faster.”

Which is not to say that such direct language can’t be occasionally effective. “Glendon knew he was now a werewolf,” an earlier scene says, conveying his transformation. “Deep, evil powers ruled him.”

“A story like that, a pain like that, it lasts forever.”

It would be more dramatic to say that today was the first time I set foot in a movie theatre since February of last year, when I went to see Underwater, blissfully ignorant that it would be my last movie before the pandemic. But that’s not wholly accurate. I went to a very socially-distanced Nerdoween last October, and I’ve been to a couple of Analog Sundays over the past few months, since I got vaccinated and they started up again.

It is true, though, that Candyman is not merely the first new-release movie of 2021 that I’ve seen, it’s the only first-run movie that I’ve caught in a theatre since that fateful showing of Underwater. In a way that even Analog Sunday hasn’t quite, it felt like a homecoming.

Since whenever the hell it first got announced way back before the plague times, I have been excited to catch this new Candyman. I am not as familiar as I maybe should be with director Nia DaCosta, but Jordan Peele’s other horror efforts have been some of my favorite films of the past decade, and I was extremely excited to see an #ownvoices take on this material.

More to the point, though, Candyman is one of my favorite films. It is, for my money, the best screen adaptation to date of anything by Clive Barker, himself one of my favorite creators. This is, in no small part, because it actually improves upon the source material, by moving the action from the projects of London to Chicago’s Cabrini Green and changing the race of the eponymous urban legend, thereby also changing the socio-political heft of the story for the better.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Peele’s name in the credits, this new Candyman takes that added heft and runs with it. What is more surprising, for me, is how well the movie seems to get what the original Candyman was all about. Better than many fans of the movie seem to. Certainly better than any of the other sequels ever did.

There are going to be mild spoilers from here on in, so read at your own risk.

Tony Todd is in this movie. I don’t feel like that’s a surprise, at this point. He’s not all over the trailer or anything, but they also haven’t exactly kept it under their hats. But he’s not in it much. Instead, the legend of Candyman has… expanded. Candyman is no longer just Daniel Robitaille – but then, he never was.

What this movie nails that so many don’t get is that Candyman isn’t a ghost. He’s not even the more tangible revenant that slashers like Jason and Freddy represent. He is the tragedy itself, not the person the tragedy happened to. “It is a blessed condition, believe me,” he says to Helen Lyle. “To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”

That quote, which is also lifted more-or-less whole cloth from the original Clive Barker story “The Forbidden,” as many of the original movie’s best lines are, always resonated hard with me. It’s why I used it as the epigraph for my story “Ripperology.”

Candyman is not the person, Candyman is the myth. It’s true for him in a way that it isn’t for any of the other slashers, even while there’s an element of the urban legend about all of them. It is that element of the original’s power that this movie gets, and runs with, and exploits for its own purposes to very interesting and satisfying – at least for me – ends.

This new Candyman is not the picture that the original was – it can’t be and, mostly to its credit, it doesn’t try. It’s messier and more ambitious. It’s the rare movie that I actually think would have benefitted from being longer. Giving its characters, its mysteries, its recursions and inversions more time to breathe. Writing at the AV Club, Anya Stanley argued that the film would have been better served as a TV series and, for once, I don’t necessarily disagree.

Even at a brisk 91 minutes, however, and amid not-infrequent missteps, DaCosta and company have crafted a haunting, complex, sometimes funny, often gruesome puzzle box movie that simultaneously serves as one of the better things to grow organically out of Clive Barker’s extensive and often very organic oeuvre, and also very much its own creature.

In a world of largely unnecessary remake/sequels (requels?), the others could stand to take notes.

I’ve been using Goodreads for… many years now. I’d be too lazy to figure out how many, but fortunately my profile over there just handily tells me that it’s a little over 12 – I apparently started in March of 2009.

March of 2009 is like another world. At that time, I was still three years out from the publication of my first collection, and I had only sold the tiniest handful of short stories. In fact, 2009 would have been the year that I published my first chapbook novella, The Mysterious Flame, and the year that I attended my very first writing convention, ReaderCon.

In that time, again according to the site’s own stats because otherwise I would certainly have no way of knowing, I have read and reviewed more than 600 books. I won’t be doing that anymore. Reviewing, I mean, at least not on Goodreads.

I’ll probably still be reading books and occasionally writing reviews for places like Signal Horizon that don’t have the problems I’m here to talk about. But, let’s be honest, if you look back over my Goodreads activity for the last year or two, you won’t see anything all that much different from “nothing.” So I doubt anyone would even notice, if I didn’t make the announcement here.

If, like me, you are active at all in writing and book blogging circles, you have probably seen an article making the rounds from Time focused on the site’s problems with “review bombing” and extortion scams. And they’re part of what’s informing this decision, to be sure, but those topics are really only symptoms made possible by Goodreads’ larger problem.

It’s tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the site’s 2013 acquisition by Amazon, but I honestly don’t know when the problem started. What I do know – what I have heard time and time again, from authors both more and less “successful” than me, whatever that word even means – is that Goodreads has a disproportionate power to make or break a writer’s career.

For those dozen years that I’ve been reading and reviewing books on Goodreads, I’ve treated the site much as I treat Letterboxd now: a place where I leave a review and a star rating (even though I’m not terribly fond of using numerical rankings to describe experiences) that reflects my feelings about the book I just read.

This means that a book may get a rating of anywhere from one star to five, based on how much the thing spoke to me, personally. It also means that some things get judged by different criteria than others – I have to have some way of telling all the Mike Mignola comics apart without just giving them all five stars, after all.

The problem is that Goodreads has become a place where, if you give less than five stars to any book, you are basically putting a bullet in that author’s future sales, especially if they’re an indie author, or a marginalized one, or really anybody but, like, Stephen King or J. K. Rowling.

I don’t like that, but it’s the reality of the situation. Ratings on Goodreads and Amazon have huge impacts on the algorithms that get books in front of people and directly impact sales in significant and meaningful ways. A drop of even a few percentage points has real repercussions for an author’s ability to sell their next book, or the one after that.

I can’t change that. It doesn’t matter that I have my own reasons for a rating I might assign, my own system of determining how many stars I click. The algorithm doesn’t know and, more to the point, it doesn’t care. So, the only really ethical choice is to rate every single book five stars, or stop rating them at all. For the most part, I’ll probably be doing that second one.

I’m not shutting down my Goodreads account just yet, though I’ll admit that I’m on there rarely enough as it is. I’m not even going to swear that I’ll never review another book on the site. I may, and when I do just always hand out five stars each time. But I’ll no longer use it to track what I read, as I have until now. I’ll probably go back to doing that the old-fashioned way, in a paper journal – which I still do for movies, even though I also use Letterboxd until such time as I learn that it is equally ethically compromised.

Nor am I presuming to tell you what you should do with your Goodreads habits, except to say this: Think about them, and think hard. Before you leave your next two or three or even four-star review, do some reading about how this system affects authors, especially those who are the most vulnerable. If you have a favorite author with whom you talk or correspond, ask them for their take on the situation. And let all that inform your decision before you select those stars.

Back in 1982, more than a full decade before DC would launch their own, more successful Vertigo line of comics for “mature audiences,” Marvel introduced its Epic Comics imprint. Operating without the Comics Code seal of approval, Epic was also a place where creator-owned projects could happen – and sometimes did, including such titles as Groo the Wanderer and Sam & Max.

By the end of the decade, Epic was also licensing literary (and other) properties, leading to titles as diverse as Wild Cards, Tekworld, the really phenomenal Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser comics by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola, even a partial adaptation of Neuromancer – not to mention stuff like Elfquest, translations of Akira, and some weirdo crossover titles from their regular line, including a revival of Tomb of Dracula and that Silver Surfer comic that Moebius did, to name a few.

Among the strangest of these, for what we typically think of as Marvel Comics – though not, after all, so strange for the comics scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s – were a series of titles adapting, reimagining, repurposing, and expanding the works of Clive Barker, perhaps most notably Hellraiser. (The pictures accompanying this post are all borrowed from the Totally Epic blog, whose writer set themselves the perhaps-unenviable task of reading everything the imprint ever put out.)

The Hellraiser comic series kicked off in 1989 and ran for about twenty of these, like, digest-sized issues with cardstock covers and square binding. They’re all pretty nice, and they boast an impressive roster of talent, though most are more famous now than they were then. At least one of the Wachowski siblings is here, along with folks like Neil Gaiman, Scott Hampton, Mike Mignola, Bernie Wrightson, and Barker himself.

Besides the main Hellraiser series, there were spin-offs and also-rans, including a three-part adaptation of Barker’s novel Weaveworld and a Nightbreed series that ran for 25 issues or so and has since been collected into a nice hardcover from Boom, complete with a Mike Mignola cover.

There were also spin-off titles to the more popular Hellraiser, including one for Pinhead, which launched in 1993 and ran for six issues, all of them written or co-written by D. G. Chichester, a name that will be familiar to anyone who read much of the Hellraiser comic series. Also spinning off from that series was Harrowers: Raiders of the Abyss, which followed a handful of outcasts who had made their first appearance in the Hellraiser story that Barker had contributed, who were chosen by the goddess Morte Mamme to rescue souls from the Cenobites.

The Pinhead series sees the eponymous Cenobite hurled backward through his past incarnations throughout history, all of whom have different stupid shit stuck in their heads, including bones, arrowheads, and, at one point, tiny bronze swords. Also, because this was 1993, the first issue has a foil cover with art by Kelley Jones.

Harrowers feels maybe more like a regular comic book than most of the rest of these titles, in that it’s about a team of people with super powers who are uncomfortably united by a mission. It definitely feels like something that was intended to go on for more than 6 issues, as the storylines feel like they’re just warming up about the time they stop, and the Harrowers only save, like, three souls from Hell, and one of those is the wrong one. They also fight a headless statue possessed by the soul of Marc Antony in Times Square so, y’know, there’s that.

Probably more than any of the other Cliver Barker Epic titles, Harrowers feels like a warm up for what was to (briefly) come, the launch of a whole imprint, Razorline, dedicated entirely to characters and concepts made up by Barker. Separate from proper Marvel continuity – it’s officially Earth-45828, for those who keep track of such things; meaning who knows, maybe it’ll show up in the MCU once Disney inexplicably acquires whoever owns the rights to Barker’s various IPs – it was also distinct from anything else Barker had done.

While the Epic titles had all played in the Hellraiser sandbox, or adjacent to it in one of Barker’s other literary properties, Razorline was ostensibly going to be all new stories. Some promising talent was even attached, most notably to Ectokid, which started out penned by James Robinson before being handed off to Lana Wachowski – we were still several years pre-Matrix or even Bound at this point, remember.

Razorline amounted to four titles: the aforementioned Ectokid, the overtly superhero-y Hyperkind, the more artsy Saint Sinner, and the phenomenally-titled Hokum & Hex. (Barker may have been partial enough to the name Saint Sinner to use it for an unrelated TV movie in 2002, but Hokum & Hex was pretty clearly his best naming job.) Most of them only ran for nine issues. (Saint Sinner didn’t even make it quite that far.)

I’ve read the majority of these comics, though not most of the Razorline ones. The idea of this weirdo moment in time, when Clive Barker, of all fucking people, was mainstream enough that Marvel was publishing tie-ins of his shit, fascinates me, even while the comics themselves are all over the place. But I’ll be honest, I love them more being all over the place than I would if they were legit great comics (which they very occasionally are, especially some of the Hellraiser stories).

There’s a purity to these oddball comics that ran for a handful of issues and were, generally speaking, a wild combo of cash grab and someone’s genuine love of the material. It’s reminiscent of that magic you find in the gleam of just the right low-budget exploitation B-movie. One of the highs I’m always chasing. One more pin in my head…

I’m a writer, in case you hadn’t already figured that out. But my work has been and continues to be heavily influenced by visual media. Movies, of course, but also comic books, graphic novels, video games, fine arts, and, perhaps above all those others, illustration of various forms.

Beyond broader influences, I’ve written stories directly inspired by the photographs of William Mortensen, the paintings of Goya, wax anatomical models, and penny-arcade dioramas, to name just a few. Not to mention all of the movies that have directly inspired specific stories.

It’s why my list of major influences includes easily as many illustrators as writers – and many who are both – even though I’m no hand at all when it comes to illustrating myself. There are many names in that pantheon, and none are more important to the formation of my imagination as it exists today than Mike Mignola. But today I’m here to talk about someone else.

I’m not actually sure where I saw my first Gary Gianni illustration. It’s possible that, like so many other things, I came to his work by way of Mignola, through one of the Monster Men stories that served as backups in Hellboy comics (and vice versa). Those Monster Men comics have since been collected, by the way, and are amazing.

Or it may have been his illustrated version of some classic tale of weird fiction in one of the Dark Horse Book of… collections. What I do know is that, in short order, Gianni became the lens through which I tended to see classic weird tales of the golden age. There is something about his style that elevates it beyond mere pastiche of the old pulp illustrators. A wildness to his design sensibility, especially when it comes to drawing monsters, that puts him alongside folks like Virgil Finlay, Sidney Sime, and Lee Brown Coye, rather than working in their shadow.

(The more proper modern successors of Coye might be folks like Richard Corben and, more recently, Nick Gucker, who did several of my own book covers, but you get the idea.)

Gianni’s illustrations for Solomon Kane and some of the Conan books, not to mention the aforementioned stuff from the Dark Horse Book of… volumes, helped to cement him, in my mind, as the go-to guy for illustrating those kinds of tales. At least, the way I imagined seeing them illustrated.

A few years back, I got to meet him at the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live event here in Kansas City, and he seemed to be a genuinely nice guy, which was also pleasant. I had him sign some stuff, picked up a sketchbook, and was generally just happy to get to tell someone, even using highly inadequate words, what their work meant to me.

I hadn’t thought much about Gianni in some time – maybe not since Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea with his amazingly detailed art came out – when I saw Mike Mignola post a link to a new edition of Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu,” with 100 new illustrations by Gianni. As I said on social media: Does anyone really need another edition of “Call of Cthulhu?” Maybe not. But does everyone need 100 new illustrations by Gary Gianni, drawing the kind of golden age pulp stuff that his style seems made for?

Absolutely, yes.

The original King Kong (1933) is a singular movie for all sorts of reasons, and it remains one of the best monster and adventure movies ever made. No small part of this can be laid at the feet of special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, who did the stop-motion effects for Kong.

In fact, the effects were good enough – and novel enough – that plenty of people supposedly believed that the big ape was played by a guy in a suit, which was the standard way of making an ape movie by 1933. (Another rumor has it that the filmmakers had originally wanted Kong to be played by an actual ape, though that proved logistically unfeasible.)

The mark Kong left on movies was immediate. The sequel, Son of Kong, hit theaters later the same year as its predecessor – a quick turnaround, even for Golden Age Hollywood – and plenty of spoofs and imitators followed both immediately and for years to come. Kong would get remade a bunch of times (some of those remakes getting their own sequels), ripped-off by everyone from Britain to South Korea, and borrowed by Toho to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla (which he then did again here recently, only back in Hollywood this time).

One of the earliest of those spoofs, homages, and so on was an ultimately unfinished, one-reel musical called The Lost Island, which was slated for release in 1934, just a year after Kong had first hit the screen. What makes The Lost Island stand out among the litany of imitators and send-ups of King Kong – both made and otherwise – is that it basically flips the special effects formula of the original film on its head.

Here, Kong is, indeed, played by a guy in a suit – specifically, Charles Gemora, who had basically made a career out of playing apes in movies – and so are the dinosaurs that he skirmishes with. The humans, on the other hand, are puppets. That’s right, in this deliriously weird-sounding lost film, all the human characters of King Kong – Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, and the rest – would have been literal marionettes, doing song-and-dance numbers while a “giant” guy in a gorilla suit wrestled with a guy in a dinosaur costume in their midst.

Sadly, all that survives of the uncompleted picture are a handful of production stills, but they look every bit as surreal as you might expect from that description. It was also intended to be the first short film released in Technicolor.

All this doesn’t come up from nothing. I just watched a 35-minute short film from 2019 called Howl from Beyond the Fog. It’s a kaiju film unlike any other – set in 1909 and made entirely with puppets. It also hearkens back to the earliest origins of the kaiju film. Not King Kong, in this case, but Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Fog Horn,” which was adapted into the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which is widely believed to have influenced the creation of Godzilla, which came out the following year. (Beast also had stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, probably history’s greatest practitioner of the form, who was himself inspired by seeing King Kong when he was younger.)

For those who have Amazon Prime, Howl from Beyond the Fog is on there for free right now, and I believe it’s also on Tubi. The runtime is a bit misleading, though. The short film is only 35 minutes long. The rest of the 70 minutes on Prime is behind-the-scenes features.

I grew up with Warhammer. While I was too poor to play, I was into the game, its world and its army books, its setting fluff and maps and stupid little models, from very early days. Before I had ever read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, before I had ever rolled a die in D&D, I had bought my first White Dwarf. (It was this one, by the way.)

So I have an affection for Games Workshop’s products that goes back a long way, and their take on what a bog standard fantasy setting looked like helped to shape my expectations of same. Which means that I am likely to give them a pass in places where they may not deserve one. At the same time, something that initially pulled me into Warhammer was that, even as a kid, I saw the satire in it.

This was not a story about Good versus Evil, even if the Empire or the Imperium or whoever you were talking to at the moment might want you to think it was. Sure, Chaos might be evil, but the alternative was little (maybe no) better, and at least Chaos wasn’t a bunch of hypocrites.

It was deployed with varying degrees of nuance and skill, but always there was something tongue in cheek about the setting, whether that setting was the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Battles or the grim darkness of the far future. You could spot it in sometimes unlikely places, like the company’s genuine affection for the mindlessly destructive orks or orcs or orruks or whatever.

The “good guys” were mostly fascists, and they spent human life like it was going out of style. They portrayed this as a grim necessity, but the game knew better, and let you in on the joke in various little ways. It was (perhaps unsurprisingly) satire in the Verhoeven or Judge Dredd vein – all too easy to misapply and turn into lionization.

As I’ve gotten back into the gaming sphere in recent years, I’ve seen (and occasionally fielded) a lot of questions about whether or not this was still true. This blog post, which is actually about a game called Kriegsmesser and only tangentially about Warhammer at all, makes a lot of those concerns explicit: over the years, much of the satire has seemingly bled away, replaced by an inadvertent celebration of fascism that is, unfortunately, probably too often embraced by fans as a good thing, actually.

To some extent, this is maybe inevitable. It’s hard to sustain satire when you’re building a massive brand across dozens of games, numerous video games, novels, toy lines, you name it. There’s a reason why punk rock was always afraid of selling out, and it isn’t just that it’s hard to be anti-corporate when you’re a corporation. Satire works well in small, bitter pills. Spread it too thin, and the sting dissipates, to become what it was satirizing in the first place. (See also: RoboCop becoming a toy line, a cartoon series, etc.)

So, is modern Warhammer pro-fascist? I wouldn’t go that far. The satire is still alive, if not necessarily alive and well.

The Imperium is still a bureaucratic nightmare that wipes out entire worlds due to clerical errors, but the barbs which were once the beating heart of Warhammer’s various settings now all too often wither on the vine. And while Age of Sigmar may lean hard into its Moorcockian underpinnings, the ambiguity of those stories is often obscured, when it’s not lacking altogether.

I don’t know the people behind Games Workshop in its modern incarnation, any more than I did the ones behind its earliest ones, but I don’t get the impression that any of this is intentional, or a sop to the worst impulses of their fanbase. Instead, I feel like it is the… if not inevitable, then at least most likely casualty of their own success.

To paraphrase the Green Goblin, you either die a satire, or you live long enough to see yourself become the very thing you were a satire of.

When you become a writer of spooky weird stories, something you resign yourself to early on is that you’re never going to have the kinds of career milestones that most people can even understand. Sure, there are the obvious ones like your first professional sale, your first book coming out, when you break into a long-coveted market, the first time you get featured in The Best Horror of the Year, the hypothetical future date when maybe you win an award, when you make the bestseller list, those kinds of things. But there are some milestones that you just accept that you’ll probably never hit. Like getting lampooned on the Midnight Society Twitter.

Still, a skeleton can dream.

For various reasons, I’ve had dungeons (and possibly also, to a lesser extent, dragons) on my mind of late, which I’ve already posted a bit about on here. While I’m known today as a horror writer, to those who know of me at all, I grew up with sword and sorcery every bit as much as I did with horror, and especially sword and sorcery as filtered through D&D, Warhammer, and various adjacent games – not to mention countless JRPGs played on the Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Playstation, and so on.

Those who have been following my aesthetic thread on Twitter or my board game coverage at Unwinnable, or, indeed, just following along around these parts, may not find any of this surprising, especially since, over on Twitter, I posted some art from some particularly formative JRPGs such as the various Shining Force games.

Indeed, this may also not be news to anyone who follows my writing closely, as, even before I started working on the new, 5e-compatible Iron Kingdoms: Requiem books, I had already done a considerable amount of work for Privateer Press over the years on their Warmachine and Hordes games, as well as their previous Iron Kingdoms RPG. In fact, my first ever novel – and, until recently, the only one I had ever published, though my occult cyberpunk (another perhaps unlikely subgenre) novel is currently being serialized on the Broken Eye Books Patreon – was a fantasy tome written for Privateer Press, set in their Warmachine universe.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that, while you won’t find much “gothic fantasy” in the Ravenloft vein in a lot of my work, my fascination with pulp horror and pulp fantasy has always existed side-by-side and intertwined, even while I tend to like my fantasy brighter even as I like my horror fun – not that there aren’t exceptions, after all, as Castlevania (the video games, not the Netflix cartoon) remains one of my favorite things ever.

Recently, for various reasons, I’ve been crossing the wires a little more often, resulting in things like my column in the latest issue of Weird Horror from Undertow Publications, in which I discuss a few of my favorite recurring themes, such as dungeon crawls, hollow earths, and, of course, the monsters that call both home.

Dedicated readers will probably also remember that I wrote a few stories in what I called a “story cycle” dealing with the Hollow Earth and other things, one of which was “No Exit,” which made it into the Best Horror of the Year. I’m not done with that cycle just yet, though COVID and other things have delayed the planned timeline a bit. There’s still more stories coming, though, and I have plans. Just you wait.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing games more, sometimes solo and sometimes just with one other person (thanks again, COVID) but as vaccinations have all happened ’round these parts, we can start getting together in groups more, playing actual D&D and the like. All this, along with other factors, including that aforementioned board game coverage at Unwinnable, has led me to a few conclusions about the dungeon crawl and my relationship to it.

The dungeon crawl is, at its base, colonialist. We have to grapple with this, just as we have to acknowledge the fact that Lovecraft was a fucking racist if we’re going to enjoy his work responsibly. But it has an undeniable appeal, even to (some of) those of us who oppose colonialism and its various fruits. There’s something about that subterranean ecosystem – something that I tried to capture in that Weird Horror essay, something that I’ve tried to capture in some of those “Hollow Earth” stories – that keeps my monster-loving heart circling back to it time and again.

In some ways, this can be epitomized by a video game I haven’t previously mentioned here: Torchlight, which I became taken with some years back. Its first sequel provided an improvement in pretty much every aspect of gameplay while also adding in overworld areas that opened up the setting considerably. In so doing, however, it also lost a little something: that idea of a multi-level dungeon beneath the eponymous town, each level something entirely different from the one before, all buried in sedimentary layers beneath the small burg with its adventurer-centric economy. There’s a magic there.

Plenty of board games have been made that explore this idea in various ways, some better than others. And I’ve been infatuated them since before I ever even tried to roll the dice in a game of actual D&D. Since the days of HeroQuest, whose box art and board decorate my writing space, I have been dreaming of taking journeys in the dark.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that in spite of this, I seem to not be the target audience for most modern dungeon crawl board games. More and more, these games seem to try to get as close as possible to the experience of playing a campaign of D&D, without (in some cases) the need for a dungeon master. But if I want to just play a game of D&D, I’ll do that. No, when I come to a board game dungeon crawl, I want something else.

Thanks in part to Massive Darkness, which I wrote up for Unwinnable a while back, and in part to Warhammer Quest: Cursed City, which I was thrilled to pick up when it came out, I think I’ve nailed down what it is. Most of these games advertise their wares by offering increasingly lengthy and immersive experiences. If they’re offering a single campaign that lasts 30 hours, what I actually want is 30 different adventures that are less than an hour each.

I don’t want the commitment and the time sink. I don’t want to sort through a thousand cards and a million tokens, playing the same game across a dozen nights. I want something that’s ready to plug-and-play. Earlier games of Warhammer Quest (mainly Silver Tower, and its previous un-subtitled incarnation) nail that in ways that Blackstone Fortress and Cursed City have moved away from. Massive Darkness, with its on-the-run leveling, nails it in some ways even more.

But, again, I seem to be in the minority in a climate where most games are striving to be the massive boxed experience that is, say, Gloomhaven. And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that experience – it merely isn’t, I’m coming to learn, what draws me to the game. Of course, the great thing about the moment we live in is that it’s got Massive Darknesses and Gloomhavens (and everything in-betweens) rubbing shoulders, so there’s something out there for everyone.

If you’re willing to dig for it…

For those not familiar with the hashtag, #kaijune is for artists to draw illustrations of kaiju, as one might well imagine; one a day, for the entire month of June. This year, in spite of drowning in a deluge of work, I decided to play along. Except that I can’t draw my way out of a wet paper sack, so instead, I wrote a piece of Twitter-length flash fiction every day for the entire month, working off the list of prompts that Alan Cortes posted.

Thanks to anyone and everyone who followed along as I worked through the month, and for those who missed it, here are all my #kaijune pieces:

1. Brute

It came out of the sea, huge and indestructible. When it rose first, just eye stalks, we thought maybe, but as the battleships rolled off its chitinous shoulders, we knew better. Then we saw the first claw…

2. Fortress

Even when the planes and the tanks finally brought it down, what were we to do with it? The city was rubble beneath its bulk and there was no hope of a machine big enough to ever shift it, so we moved into what was left and made new homes within its bones.

3. Shell

I remember my son, asking how mountains form, as I tried to explain things like magma and plate tectonics. Looking out the window now, at the shell that rises up like a new peak from the sea, I wonder which of our other mountains are just waiting to move…

4. Burrow

When we finally defeated the thing that the leader of the mole people called Burrox, a ragged cheer went up from what remained of the defenders. Then we felt the rumbling of all the others beneath us…

5. Frozen

“How would you know a god if you saw one?” she had asked me. Looking up at the expanse of the thing, where it curled in the glacier, I finally knew why.

6. Apex

We thought we had seen the worst of it when they came, like trilobites large enough to bulldoze cities. Then the big one appeared – the new one, the different one – and began hunting the others…

7. Leech

It came from the swamp; black and green, yellow and red. They saw the top of it first, the suckers like eyes, the moving mouth parts, then it came up onto land. “I just didn’t expect it to have legs,” Toby said, as it waded into the city.

8. Colossal

The metallic purple worm crashed down into the Gulf of Mexico. Eyeless, blind, but so big around you couldn’t seen one side of it from the other, even with planes and choppers. Another followed, then another, and we realized they weren’t worms, but fingers.

9. Poison

“Sir,” he said, “the latest reports are in. It’s stopped moving but sir, that isn’t the main thing.”

“Out with it, private.”

“All the people who’ve come into contact with it; who’ve come into contact with places it passed over. Sir … they’re changing.”

10. Brittle

The rocks grew with the rain until they formed massive towers so tall they fell and shattered, littering the desert floor with more rocks that all began to grow in turn. The people in their path watched the weather report with horror.

(A nod to one of my favorite of the “big bug” and adjacents subgenre of movies popular in the ’50s.)

11. Insect

“How did you make the sound?” Tara was asking, her finger pressed up against the screen of the portable TV showing THEY CRAWL.

“You’ll hear soon enough,” was all the director said, his dark green raincoat hunched around his shoulders. He was right.

12. Shadow

It started at 115th Street. A pool of dark gathering between the buildings, growing, stretching, in spite of the noonday sun.

It wasn’t until it reached 87th Street that the buildings began to fall into it.

13. Amphibious

Frogor, King of Toads, crawls forth from the swamp. With three bulbous eyes, he scans his surroundings, where housing developments have grown up while he slumbered. Their tiny, pink inhabitants run and shriek as they spot him, and Frogor licks his lips…

14. Mutant

What came out of the portal was like a mass of chewed bubblegum, its surfaced studded with strange, metallic protrusions. “What is it?” Jiro asked, but even as he said it he thought he recognized a name on what he now realized were helmets…

15. Free Space

“It looks like… I don’t even know how to describe it, folks. Like geometry and trigonometry come to life. It’s making a sound that seems like talking, but not in any language I know. And everything it touches just disappears.”

16. Feathered

We once believed Venus to be a planet of lush jungles. We later learned that it rains sulfuric acid. What we were not prepared for was the serpent that came when our mining robots cracked open the planet’s core, its body shining with jeweled feathers.

17. Cosmic

Movies and video games had taught me to expect giant reptiles, mutated insects, anime robots. This… it was like a tear in the picture of reality lurching through the city, through which I could see only unfamiliar stars.

18. Prehistoric

Over time I guess we kind of got used to the occasional rampages of the atomic lizards, the titanic insects, the giant apes. It never occurred to us that there would be something that was to them as dinosaurs were to our modern chickens…

19. Mimic

I was walking down 117th, I guess, and the edge of the Warren Building just… peeled off, like. The shadows changed and we looked up and what had been windows were now a wing, and beneath that a mouth opening wider and wider…

20. Fungal

One needn’t cook up a giant fungus for #kaijune. It already exists, larger than 200 whales, spreading its hyphae beneath the west coast, waiting for the world above to die so it can feed.

21. Crowned

When the Summer Queen expired, the faerie folk all gathered to see who among their number would manifest the glowing crown. None expected the enormous gator that crawled from the swamp, exhaling butterflies as she came.

22. Laser

“What is a laser,” Professor Shimizu was saying, “but light applied to a minute point? Why not, then, light applied to something much larger?”

By then, however, no one was listening, because the Laser Beast was already blazing its way out of the warehouse.

23. Beast

Dr. Bradus had convinced me it was the only way to defeat the invaders. Transfer my intellect into the body of the giant ape he had created. Once inside that huge frame, however, I found myself wanting nothing but to destroy…

24. Atomic

We didn’t design 8-6, five meters of metal wrapped around a compact atomic core, to fight the trolls. We didn’t really design it for anything. But when the trolls invaded from Jotunheim, we hoped that maybe it had found its purpose, after all.

25. Horror

We knew we had killed it. The experimental bomb Dr. Kozen developed had done its job. So when the waters began to boil we wondered: did it have a child?

The truth was much worse. We had killed it, but we hadn’t stopped it…

26. Savage

“I thought that magnetic collar of yours was supposed to make it more docile,” General Murphy shouted over the carnage.

“Believe me, General,” I replied, “compared to its normal behavior, this is docile.”

27. Ablaze

Robo-17 threw Mozura into the reactors and in the explosion that followed we thought, we hoped, that would be the end of it.

What came out of the blaze, enraged and burning, was so much worse than what had gone in…

28. Conjoined

There is a hush as the two giants finally clash. Our last hope is that they will somehow crush one another.

Instead, their flesh begins to flow like wax as they come together, merge, become one, bigger and more destructive than the sum of its parts.

29. Maw

We always figured that there was something special about the big, red sandstone formation on grandpa’s land.

Then, one day, it opened its eyes, hinged upward from the ground, and revealed its teeth.

30. Transform

“I am Gorgoth,” it bellowed, its wings folding into its body as a second head sprouted above the mouth in its stomach, “the Master of the Id. I can be anything.”

And it was.