A while back, I got briefly really obsessed with Bloodstone Gnomes miniatures from Reaper, which I gather are ostensibly for Warlord, a game I both don’t play and don’t know anything about. Indeed, I’m not even terribly positive about the name, or that said gnomes are actually for it.

I picked them up as generic goblin/gnome-size critters for games of D&D or whatever. At least, that was the justification I gave myself. Really, I just picked them up because I thought they looked great. One of them is even riding a beetle! Only later did I realize why I liked the look of them so much: it turns out they were designed by Wayne Reynolds.

Anyone who has ever picked up a Pathfinder book or, indeed, looked at an RPG-adjacent tome in the past twenty years or so is familiar with Reynolds’ artwork. Around the same time I learned this fact about the Bloodstone Gnomes, I was also posting a string of RPG-related artworks to my year-long daily aesthetic thread over on Twitter, including a couple of pieces by Reynolds.

In the process, I learned that a lot of folks really don’t like his stuff – though the ubiquity of it would suggest that those folks are probably in the minority. I like his work for a number of reasons, with perhaps the most significant being his knack for absolutely layering his characters in bits and bobs while still making the art feel clean and sharp. His adventurers look like what I think adventurers ought to look like. He’s got an immediately recognizable style, and draws great gribbly monsters – witness the popularity of his Pathfinder goblins – which also endears him to me more than a little.

All those traits combine in the Bloodstone Gnomes, which probably helps to explain why I like them so much, even if the models lose some of that crisp definition. They also make good stand-ins for goblins. And I do love goblins.

Ever since the pandemic started, just about the first question anyone asks who hasn’t talked to me in a while is, “Have you been keeping busy?” To some extent, that’s a time-honored placeholder question, but in my case, it’s also often a question about my overall stability, since I freelance full time and work tends to happen either in drips or in floods.

Happily for me, pretty much ever since the pandemic started, it’s been the latter, rather than the former. There were a few months in there where clients were tightening their belts and I saw some lean moments, but for the most part it’s been feast, rather than famine, when it honestly could have gone either way. Turns out, when everyone is stuck at home consuming content, it can be a good time for the content creators.

Or “good,” anyway. I haven’t churned out a lot of fiction in this time because, let’s face it, my productivity, indeed my general habits and life cycle, have taken a weird hit from all of this, like they have for everyone. But I’ve kept busy with freelance work, the kind that pays the bills, and that’s not nothing.

Right now, I’m buried under one big project that I can’t really talk about, in addition to the usual stuff, and it’s only going to get heavier as its looming deadline continues to loom ever nearer. It’s good stuff – the kind of work that is both fun to do and will be fun to announce, when that’s possible – but it’s also stressful, as any big project always is.

Add to that a number of other factors – most of them secret identity stuff that I don’t really want to get into here right now – and, well, see the subject line of this post. You can see it on my Letterboxd, where May was the lightest month of the year so far, with only 13 movies clocked in the whole month. Unlucky, for some…

And I can feel it in, well, just about everything – a weight that presses down without surcease, a exhaustion that sleep can only do so much to cure. Insert that panel from Watchmen, about being tired of Earth and of these people, the tangle of their lives, etc. It’s not as bad as all that, though. Some of those external frustrations I was talking about are just putting extra weight on what is already a busy period – not only adding stress on top of stress, but making work harder to focus on, harder to do.

Which is all a long way of saying that I might be a little scarce; not that my being a little scarce looks, honestly, all that much different from my being here a lot. I’m still posting to Twitter every day, continuing my year-long daily aesthetic thread, sure, but also posting daily tweet-length flash pieces about giant monsters for the entire month of June. My usual columns and reviews will be popping up, and I’ll be doing other things. Movies at the movie theatre are becoming a thing again, which means the triumphant return of #AnalogSunday, the thing that I missed most of all the many things I missed during the pandemic.

In short, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll just be under the gun a bit, is all.

As an aficionado of fungal horror and co-editor (with Silvia Moreno-Garcia) of Fungi, I have long wanted to get my hands on the first issue of Tales of Ghost Castle, a short-lived DC horror anthology comic from 1975, intended as a companion to House of Mystery and House of Secrets. The reason? Just check out that cover.

It turns out that the story that goes along with the cover is, as is often the case with these old horror comics, considerably more prosaic than what that promises, but it’s still of interest to the connoisseur of fungal terror.

A fairly standard “revenge from beyond the grave” tale, “The Mushroom Man” sees a gourmet who raises rare mushrooms strangled to death by his ne’er-do-well nephew Brian in search of an inheritance.

You can tell that Brian is a decadent layabout because he dresses like a mod version of Dr. Strange. He initially comes to his uncle looking for a loan to pay off his gambling debts before some dangerous Las Vegas bruisers show up to “[mess] up th’ rug with yer blood!”

His uncle refuses to pay, on the grounds that Brian is the aforementioned ne’er-do-well and layabout, but the breaking point comes after Uncle Jannis discovers a formula to grow the rarest mushrooms in the world, called “Nightdreamers,” which are impossible to market because they’re only ripe for three hours.

Brian wants to use the new formula to go into business, but his uncle wants to give it away. “Would you sell a cure for cancer?” he asks. “Make a blind man pay to have his sight restored?”

Not sure Uncle Jannis is familiar with the United States healthcare system.

Brian snaps and strangles his uncle to death with that fancy scarf, then buries him in one of his own flower beds. Months later, Brian is in charge of his uncle’s business, and living in his “palatial mansion,” which, since this is an old horror comic, is some sort of spooky old plantation house.

In the intervening months, the fungal beds in the basement have lain fallow, and now only one is sprouting any fruiting bodies – the one, naturally, where Brian buried his uncle.

The mushrooms growing from it are huge and red and ominous, so of course the cook puts some in Brian’s crab Oregonian (a dish that had no results when I tried to Google it) that night.

Upon eating the fateful mushrooms, Brian becomes terribly sick and, when the maid comes to clean his room the next morning, she finds a suitably frightful sight…

The rest of the issue is pretty standard fare for mainstream horror comics at the time; filled with jokey interludes and well-earned comeuppances and featuring art by Nestor Redondo among others. (Art chores in “The Mushroom Man” are handled by Buddy Gernale.) There’s a jab at dentists that I’m sure dentists don’t appreciate and a story of adoption horror that makes Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan seem positively buoyant by comparison.

Tales of Ghost Castle only ran for three issues before being discontinued, but I’m very happy to have added this one to my collection, finally.

It’s all-too-easy to get drawn into the soft undertow of minutia and lose track of how much time has passed, how much has happened, what has changed. The sediment shifts so gradually that it seems like each day is largely the same as the one before, even when they aren’t. So, what’s been going on?

I got my second jab of the Pfizer vaccine a week ago and so far there’s nothing much to report. I was tired right after, and my arm hurt for a day or two, but no other ill effects, save for a disappointing lack of monsterism, as I reported on social media. It’s a surprising weight off my shoulders, honestly, given how low-risk my lifestyle is generally, which is good because my shoulders are going to need that extra weight freed up to hold the giant eyeball I’m hoping to get there.

While the production of new fiction remains throttled, I’ve been working on various freelance stuff apace, including forthcoming game writing projects that, for now, have to remain under wraps. (In case you missed the last game writing stuff I was doing, you can read a bit about it here.) I’ve been doing my usual stuff, too, watching weirdo movies and occasionally reviewing them at Signal Horizon and Unwinnable, as well as continuing to write my regular columns various places, ranging from my column on Friday the 13th: The Series at Signal Horizon to my column on board games at Unwinnable to my column on … whatever the hell at Weird Horror.

I’m also continuing to sort of accidentally co-host the Horror Pod Class at Signal with Tyler Unsell, where we talk about horror movies chosen more-or-less at random and try to apply their lessons haphazardly to the classroom. You can watch it live at the Facebook group or stream it wherever you get podcasts. Speaking of which, I recently bought a new permanent addition to my ensemble from 1000 Dead Draculas, which will be making its Horror Pod Class debut on the upcoming Viy (1967) episode.

In hobby-related news, I’ve played a few games of Warcry and more than a few of Warhammer Underworlds, and I’ve continued collecting the various Underworlds warbands as they’re released. Which means that I’m very excited about the recent announcement of the final warband for this season, Elathain’s Soulraid, because it involves a giant crab!

I’ve said before that Mollog’s Mob is never going to be unseated as my favorite band, and that’s still true. It is basically impossible to top a big, doofy monster with mushrooms growing out of his back who is followed into battle by a gaggle of squiggly beasts. But these guys might end up being a close second. Only time will tell…

I also finally got in my first (solo) game of Cursed City, and while nothing may ever quite top Silver Tower for me in the Warhammer Quest category, Cursed City was fun at first blush and, as with Blackstone Fortress (which I’ve owned for months and still haven’t played), the dynamite miniatures absolutely make it worth it, even without playing.

This time, two years ago, I had recently been a guest on the Nightmare Junkhead podcast to talk about the then-new 2019 Hellboy movie from director Neil Marshall. Since then, I have not revisited the movie even once, which probably tells you all about the flick’s quality that you’ll ever need to know.

As has been a recurring theme of late, it feels indescribably surreal to discuss events at once so temporally near and yet which feel so impossibly distant. I saw Greg and Jenius (altogether too briefly) at Panic Fest, for the first time since October of last year and, before that, the last time I had seen them might well have been the October before.

This is all coming up because tonight is Walpurgisnacht, perhaps the closest thing we have to a second Halloween in the middle of the spring. “Walpurgisnacht” is also the title of one of my more popular stories, which originally saw print in the Laird Barron tribute antho Children of Old Leech and was later reprinted in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, which came out lo these six years gone by.

Interestingly, I was reminded of that story recently for reasons other than the date. I’ve been reading the latest Junji Ito manga to receive English-language release, Lovesickness, and the title story in that volume discusses the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre, which figures heavily in my tale, taking place, as it does, atop the peak from which the phenomenon takes its name.

I don’t have any big plans for the occasion this year. Maybe I’ll play a solo game of Cursed City if I become extremely ambitious. More likely, I’ll just work until late and then watch a witchy devil movie like Curse of the Demon, City of the Dead, or Curse of the Crimson Altar. How are you celebrating witch’s night?

So, Panic Fest happened without a lot of fanfare from yours truly – sorry about that. I did get out to a (very) few movies, for my first excursion to a (socially distanced) movie theater since October. Call it a celebration of my also getting the first jab of the vaccine (Pfizer, if it matters) with no discernable ill-effects save a marked absence of any eyeballs in my shoulder, more’s the pity.

I saw three whole movies this year, which is down considerably from last year, when I saw something like thirteen in a single weekend. But also it’s virtually impossible to imagine that last year was only last year. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Of those three, only one was a miss for me, and the other two were movies about watching movies, which I obviously love. Censor was my first night out at the Fest – a feverish flick about a film censor working during the “Video Nasty” era in Britain, who stumbles upon a film that mirrors the disappearance of her sister. It performs several impressive conjuring tricks, including successfully lulling you into some misplaced identification, before delivering a last act coup de grace that serves as a cautionary reminder to be wary of even the best intentions of those who wish to protect us from ourselves.

The highlight of the Fest, though, I saved for last – The Last Matinee, in point of fact, a giallo-throwback set in 1993 about a killer menacing a mostly-empty screening of a crappy Frankenstein flick at an aging Italian movie theater. The gore and stalking are all handled well, but what really sells the movie is the heart that it puts into its sense of place. I said on Letterboxd that I could have just watched these people watch a crappy Frankenstein movie for 90 minutes and been happy, and I wasn’t kidding.

The Last Matinee was also a reminder that the magic of Panic Fest – especially this year – isn’t really the movies at all. It was getting to see some of my Screenland family again, both those who so often go to movies there with me, and those who work behind the bar. As movie theaters themselves have experienced a new constriction in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pathos of a film like Last Matinee, that is, as much as anything, a love letter to going to the movies, has a special resonance.

Here in Kansas City, our local Alamo Drafthouse has closed down (and good riddance to it, honestly, as it was apparently a wretched hive of scum and worker exploitation) and I’m sure even the bigger chain theaters are feeling the pinch. So far, though, the Screenland has managed to … not thrive, but at least drag itself on. I hope it will continue, because honestly, when it dies, a part of me truly will die with it.

Long ago, I owned this movie on VHS, where I had bought it, sight unseen, because it had the word “Cthulhu” in the title. (Those were simpler, stupider times.)

I remembered basically nothing about it besides the cover, which featured a spooky house in the eye socket of a skull, and one half-recollected gloppy makeup effect. What I did remember was that it didn’t have Cthulhu in it and that it was more than a little disappointing. So, of course, I also picked it up when Vinegar Syndrome recently put it out on Blu.

When I posted shots of the spine and an image of the carnival opening sequence to Instagram, I got a variety of responses, including one person who just replied, “Oof.” That was more-or-less in keeping with what I was expecting when I delved into Cthulhu Mansion. Adam Cesare, however, in true Adam Cesare fashion, tweeted at me, “This movie rules.”

To my own surprise, I found myself more in agreement with Adam than with that “oof.” Not that there isn’t a lot of oof in Cthulhu Mansion – far more of it than there is of Lovecraft, to be sure.

The unlikeable gang of petty criminals who take the aging magician and his daughter hostage in the eponymous mansion (it even has the word “Cthulhu” above the gate) are generally as mono-dimensional as one might expect, though one guy (Paul Birchard, who had previously shown up in Tim Burton’s Batman as a reporter and would reappear in The Dark Knight as a cop) spends pretty much all of his screen time making the weirdest goddamn faces and also, at one point, rubbing a chili dog all over his mouth.

One review on Letterboxd called the flick “all mansion, no Cthulhu,” which is also accurate enough. Fortunately, as much as I may like Cthulhu, I probably like mansions even more. And when that mansion belongs to a stage magician (played by Frank Finlay) with a tragic past and a supernatural secret, well, I am far beyond sold.

Is it good, though? I was all prepared with an “of course not” kind of response here, but it comes closer than I was expecting. If it doesn’t quite grab the brass ring, well, it pretty much does for me, and that’s all that really counts. Sure, the film’s best creature effect is in a dark ride at the beginning and the closest we get to Cthulhu is a water-damaged book with a drawing of a pentagram inside, but this is a flick that starts out in a carnival and ends up in a magician’s creepy mansion during a thunderstorm. How could I do anything but love it?

Director J. P. Simon also made Slugs (unsurprising), The Rift (unsurprising), Pieces (not incredibly surprising), Mystery on Monster Island (getting a little bit more surprising), and the MST3K “classic” Pod People (okay, what the hell?), among others, so … yeah, do with that information what you will. Of that bunch of movies, I haven’t actually seen Pieces but otherwise this would definitely be my favorite.

Do with that information what you will, too.

Does anybody need me to tell them that nothing feels right or normal right now? Time passes in a blur, seeming to at once stretch and vanish. Godzilla vs. Kong is in theatres right now, and not only have I not seen it yet, I have no idea if I will, at least not on the big screen. Not because I’m particularly concerned about catching the virus or even to avoid gatherings and do the right thing, not really, but just because everything feels off and it’s impossible to know what to do anymore.

Next week is Panic Fest. The last time we had one, the pandemic hadn’t yet begun, which is wild because it feels like it was so long ago that trying to imagine it is almost beyond my capacity. I miss all my friends at the Screenland, I miss Analog Sundays, and I miss Panic Fest – does that mean I’m going this year? I’ll probably catch a movie or two, but I won’t be there as often as in the past, in part because only a portion of the fest is in-person while the rest is virtual, and in part because, well, see above.

My recent conversion into someone who actually lets myself be into tabletop gaming stuff is as surreal to me as everything else, but it’s also been a welcome lifeline over the past year. On that note, Warhammer Quest: Cursed City also comes out next weekend. It’s been my latest obsession for a bit now, and threatens to be even more so once it actually drops. So, steel yourselves for plenty of Warhammer Castlevania content.

I’ve kept busy for the past year. I’ve written recurring columns and done freelance work, published a few stories and penned a few others. I’ve been co-hosting the Horror Pod Class from Signal Horizon every other week this whole time (it was every week for a while, when the lockdowns first started) and we’ll have a special episode up as part of the virtual programming at Panic Fest. I wrote a large chunk of the new 5e-compatible Iron Kingdoms roleplaying game for Privateer Press, which launched with an enormously successful Kickstarter.

Yet, I also feel strangely disconnected from so much of the writing world. I’ve been a specter on social media, which doesn’t help, and while I have plans for a fourth collection in the works (and, indeed, more collections beyond that) thus far they are as ephemeral as everything else seems to be. Indeed, 2020 was the first year in half-a-decade that I didn’t publish a book with my name on the spine, and I can’t say for sure whether or not 2021 will be the second.

It isn’t just the writing itself that feels strange, though. I’ve lost touch with so many people, people whom social distancing shouldn’t affect because our relationships are – and always have been – principally online. If you’re one of those people, I apologize. It isn’t you. It’s me. Or maybe it’s just this plague year.

It doesn’t help that all the conventions have gone virtual, or gone entirely. I’m glad that NecronomiCon managed to push itself back to 2022. By then hopefully things will be on a more even keel, and I hope intensely to see and converse with some folks I have badly missed.

There’s a lot that I’ve missed. I’ve enjoyed the new (or newly rekindled) hobbies that have been helping to keep me together over the past year. While I am still not – and may very likely never be – a painter of miniatures, I have found the act of putting them together surprisingly restorative, even when I can’t play with them. I don’t intend to leave these new-old hobbies behind, but I hope very much to reconnect with some of the things and people I enjoyed before. And I hope I have not too completely forgotten how.

Way back when I was first getting started as a writer, before my first professionally-qualifying sales, I worked with editor Ben Thomas on a magazine that was his brainchild. It was called The Willows, and its purview was weird tales in the classic vein. In fact, more than just the vein, they had to actually be set not long after the turn of the century or before.

That’s actually how Ben and I met; I sent him a missive arguing about the necessity (or, indeed, the utility) of that requirement. I believed that weird tales could capture the magic of those classic stories without needing to mimic the time in which those tales were set. What could have been the kind of petty bickering that the internet is all-too-well known for instead became a long-time friendship, even though I never actually met Ben in person until shortly before the beginning of the pandemic, when we finally encountered one-another at the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird.

By then, Ben and I had … lost touch is perhaps too strong a term, but communications had become considerably more sporadic in the years that had passed, as our lives had carried us to very different places, both metaphorically and, in his case, literally, as he had spent several years traveling the world.

When I saw him in Atlanta for the Outer Dark Symposium, I had in the trunk of our rental car a set of pretty much every print copy of The Willows, which I had brought along because he needed to scan them for a project he was putting together – a hardcover reissue of the entire run of The Willows, including some unfortunate juvenalia from yours truly and also plenty of other, more respectable works.

For the occasion, he had also asked me (along with several other authors of the unknown and the eerie, including Jesse Bullington, Gemma Files, and Brian Evenson) to craft a few new tales for the hardcover. I contributed “Manifest Destiny,” perhaps the most overtly political story I’ve ever written, and one that had a lot to do with American politics of the moment, even while it was set during and shortly after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

It was an oddity for me, and I guess it’s only fair that it graces a book that contains some of my earliest published pieces, since those now look like oddities, too. Not long after, Ben invited me to contribute to another project he was putting together. This time it was an all-original anthology of tales concerning a fictional (or is it?) theme park that was open from 1977 until 2003. Surely I wouldn’t hand him another tonal oddity for this one, but of course I did.

“The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop” is a story that I could only have written for Ben, and not just because it was from a story he told me (relating to OmniPark, actually) that I got the title, paraphrased, as it is, from my misremembered quotation of an essay that Ray Bradbury wrote in 1965 about Disneyland, of all things.

The story itself concerns everything from rocket science and Jack Parsons to Cameron and Thelema and thaumatropes and animatronic monsters and the nature of time – but what it doesn’t have is an overtly speculative element. Oh, there’s still some weird tales stuff lurking at the edges, mostly about the limits of knowledge and, again, the nature of time, but this is my most naturalistic story to date. So, again, another oddity.

The impetus for this (essay, as it turns out) is that I received my contributor copy of Tales from OmniPark in the mail today. It’s a nice-looking book, filled with ephemera related to the park, and accompanied by a reproduction of a 1986 guide map and brochure. And I’m glad that Ben found a home for my odd duck story, with maybe the weirdest title I’ve ever used.

It’s been a weird year, so I guess it only makes sense that it should have weird stories, even if they’re not weird in the same capital-W way that my stories usually are. In fact, the only other story of mine that has been published so far in 2021 is my flash piece, “The Last Day of Doctor Tillinghast,” which showed up in Curtains, a book edited by another friend of mine, this time as a charity antho to benefit #SaveOurStages.

It may seem like an odd fit for me – and it’s an odd, jokey little story, for sure – seeing as I never really went to concerts, but I believe in helping out artists and venues in need, and there’s not that much difference between concert venues and movie theatres, after all, and when the charity antho to save our screens instead hits, put me down twice.

Those of you who have been following along with my recent digressions back into the world of tabletop gaming (sorry about all that) may be aware that, over the last year or so, I’ve exposed myself to all manner of new and new-to-me games, several of which I’ve already written about as part of my new recurring column on board games over at Unwinnable. (The column on a generally social activity that began exactly when we could all no longer be social anymore, because I have truly incredible timing.)

Of those, some have quickly become favorites. I recently wrote for Unwinnable about Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, just in time for the folks at Games Workshop to announce the latest incarnation of the Warhammer Quest line: Cursed City, which is essentially the Warhammer answer to Castlevania. So naturally, that’s what I’m really excited for right now.

In all this, though, I’ve hardly mentioned what has rapidly become probably my favorite of all the new-to-me games I’ve experienced: Warhammer Underworlds. For the uninitiated, Underworlds is the smallest and most intimate of GW’s various skirmish wargames. Played across a couple of hexed game boards that fit easily on the kitchen table, with warbands numbering as few as three models and never more than nine, Underworlds makes even games like Necromunda, Warcry, or Kill Team feel epic by comparison.

I’ve long realized that I was more attracted to skirmish games than all-out wargames. The bigger armies simply tax my energy levels too much. I have fun, but I end the process feeling exhausted and wrung out. With Underworlds, I hit a sweet spot.

It isn’t just the smaller scope that appeals, though. I like the turn limit, the necessity of shepherding what resources you have carefully because you only have three rounds in which to accomplish your goals, and only four activations per round. I like the way that play alternates back-and-forth between players, and I like that your goals may not be best served simply by defeating the enemy.

I like the cards, which bring a level of randomness to the proceedings that dice alone cannot. Your goals will shift as the match progresses, as will the tools you have at your disposal. This takes some of the pressure of strategizing off, at least for me, and forces me to accept the hand I’m dealt with equanimity, and make the best of it. This is good for my anxiety.

Most of all, though, I love the warbands. I love the way each character has a name and a role, like positions on a team. I love the way each one brings personality to their fighter, so that each one feels like a legitimate loss when they fall. I love that, while there is deck-building, there is no army building. The warband is the warband – there’s nothing you can do to change it. I love the way all the fighters in the warband go together, like an adventuring party under your control.

When I first got into Underworlds, it was because of one warband: Mollog’s Mob. Anyone who knows me at all will not be surprised in the least when I say that Mollog’s Mob is not only the best of all possible warbands, it remains my favorite and probably always will. But something else I came to love, as I got into the game, was the “collectible warband” aspect of it.

While other wargames encourage you (by dint of the fact that they are expensive and models are plentiful, if for no other reason) to pick a faction or two and stick with it, collecting multiple warbands in Underworlds is not only feasible, it actually makes tactical sense, as each warband comes with unique universal cards that can be used with any of the others.

I didn’t start doing it because it made tactical sense, though. I just love my stupid little plastic friends, and I enjoy pushing them around on their hexes and making the fantasy equivalent of blim-blam noises (or, in the case of the Thundrik’s Profiteers, actual blim-blam noises).