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).

Why horror?

It’s a question that anyone who produces – or even consumes – horror in preference to most other forms will run into sooner or later, and probably frequently. Even once you’ve ensconced yourself among others who share your predilections, you’ll find yourself defending the type of horror that is your preferred poison. Why monsters over more psychological fare? Why slashers instead of more grown-up stuff? Whatever your tastes, someone will want to know why.

Sometimes, that someone will be you.

For years, I assumed that I wouldn’t like giallo films. On paper, they seem like the diametric opposite of what I’m normally after when I come to horror. Infamous for their brutal kills and gratuitous nudity, they make a point of victimizing women and have established problems with misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, often relying on pseudo-psychological explanations that are simply insulting to anyone with actual mental illness, if taken at face value.

Those are all things I Do Not Like, and they are all emphatically true of many gialli. And yet … and yet … and yet … I kind of love them. Not all of them, of course. Who loves all of any subgenre? But a large subset – indeed, most of the ones I’ve seen, especially those by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, recognized masters of the form.

So, if I don’t love so many of the things that giallo are famous for, what is it I love about them? Well, I do love one thing they’re famous for – their scores, which are almost unerringly great, and often used to phenomenal effect. And those scores help to contribute to the larger thing that makes me love them – a sense of weird menace that pervades every frame of the genre’s best installments.

While watching Sergio Martino’s Torso – a movie it seems like I shouldn’t like, if ever there was one – I came across a seemingly throwaway line near the beginning of the film that has burned in my mind ever since. “Everything is bathed in an elegance approaching the supernatural.” The speaker is describing artwork, but he could just as easily be summing up what I love about giallo.

Sure, some of my favorite gialli are ones that are also overtly supernatural, the kind that purists would insist “don’t really count.” Pictures like Suspiria, for instance. But even in a film like Blood and Black Lace, Evil Eye, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, or Opera, that “elegance approaching the supernatural” is there, making the films feel supernatural, even if their ultimate explanations are more prosaic.

It’s this aspect that I think led Ross Lockhart to combine the giallo with another uniquely European tradition in Giallo Fantastique, and it’s what I think the best of the stories in that volume capture. It’s certainly what I was going for in my own contribution, “The Red Church.” And it’s what I’ve striven toward every other time I’ve dipped my toes into the giallo waters, most recently in “Chanson D’Amour,” my “timeloop giallo” that’s coming in a future issue of Nightmare Magazine.

Really, though, it’s what I’m after when I come to most any kind of horror. Maybe not always elegance, but always a sense of atmosphere that makes even the mundane feel touched by the numinous.

If there is just one reason “why horror,” it’s probably that.

For those who have been following along with my recent adventures getting into (or back into, as the case may be) D&D, dungeon crawlers, board games, and so on, the latest installment of my “I Played It, Like, Twice” column is up at Unwinnable today, marking the confluence of all of those interests and more.

As I say over there, Warhammer was one of my earliest fandoms, and it was followed in short order by the Elric stories of Michael Moorcock. Both those and other things, along with my obsession with dungeon crawl board games with their delightful miniatures and tiles, all crash together in Warhammer Quest, a game that has been released in a variety of forms over the years.

As I mentioned in the column, I actually had the very first copy of Warhammer Quest, back when it neither needed nor had any subtitle. It was a bit of a mess in a lot of ways, but there was something magical about those illustrated dungeon tiles, the sensation of reaching a plastic doorway and turning over a card to see what waited on the other side, never quite knowing.

I’m happy to say that Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower keeps more than a little of that magic alive, and in a game that plays better than its predecessor ever did. I’m unhappy to say, though, that it’s now well and truly out of print. The game’s most recent incarnation, Blackstone Fortress, is a big deviation, taking the setting to the “grim darkness of the far future” of Warhammer 40,000. I haven’t played it yet, but it’s sitting on my shelf. Waiting.

Shortly after I finished writing today’s article, though, and shortly before it went to print, Games Workshop announced the next iteration of the Warhammer Quest franchise. Cursed City takes the action back to the Age of Sigmar and sounds like Castlevania by way of Warhammer. As I said on social media when the news broke, “It was nice knowing you, money.”

Warhammer Quest is also far from the only iteration of the popular setting that I’ve been enjoying during the pandemic, either. I’ve gotten heavily invested in Warhammer Underworlds, which released its new season recently, and which is probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing a tabletop wargame.

My favorite warband is Mollog’s Mob for … obvious reasons. But one thing I love about the game is its ability to allow you to (affordably) collect warbands, instead of collecting individual models for one faction, and having to leave the others on the vine.

While I’ve been getting back into Warhammer stuff, I’ve also not forgotten some of my other loves, and I recently had the opportunity to do quite a bit of work on the newest iteration of the Iron Kingdoms Roleplaying Game from Privateer Press, this time compatible with 5e D&D. The Kickstarter for the books that I helped write is still underway and, as of this writing, has nearly quadrupled its funding goal, with a little over a week left.

I think it’ll be an interesting thing, both for newcomers to the setting and old hands who, like myself, have been around since the original Witchfire Trilogy all those years ago.

While I’ve been immersed in games a lot more lately – both writing and playing, or at least thinking about playing – I’ve also been hard at work on other things. The pandemic damaged my attention span for watching movies, but in January I finally seem to have gotten it back, and I’ve been back doing reviews again. I also contributed a second H Word column to Nightmare Magazine, about victims, volunteers, and how the Vietnam War changed horror.

I guess columns have been where it’s at for me, lately. In addition to that, and my aforementioned board game column at Unwinnable, as well as my “Grey’s Grotesqueries” column in Weird Horror, I just started a new monthly column at Signal Horizon, dedicated to deep dives into horror television series. If all goes according to plan, the first full year of “Something Weird on TV” will be dedicated to Friday the 13th: The Series, a before-its-time horror anthology-hybrid show that I had never actually seen even a single episode of before starting this column.

So that’s (some of) what I’ve been up to. To bring us back around to the beginning of this post, I used to have a handful of worn paperbacks of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories that I read and re-read throughout high school. One of those was The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which a friend had defaced by adding the word “Moon” after “Sailor” in ballpoint pen.

I don’t know if I still have that copy, but I hope I do.

Remember back in November when I said that I was working on a game writing project that I couldn’t talk about because it was under NDA? This is what I was working on.

Iron Kingdoms: Requiem is far from the first piece of game-related writing that I’ve done for Privateer Press. Back in 2017, I produced a Warmachine tie-in novel that was the first novel I’ve ever written. I wrote very nearly all of the Legion of Everblight content for the previous iteration of the Iron Kingdoms RPG, not to mention adventures and other content for same.

For this, though, I had a chance to do more. I’m not at liberty to say just which parts of Requiem I worked on, but all told I wrote around 40,000 words of the core book. And I had some creative liberties this time around that I had never gotten to flex on a project like this before.

For those who know me, you know that I came up on fantasy tabletop war games. Warhammer was one of my first fandoms, and in college I switched allegiances to Warmachine, partly because, while I had never really been able to afford either hobby growing up, the smaller scale of Warmachine battles appealed.

That was only part of it, though. I also loved the world that Privateer Press had cooked up – something one notch further even than steampunk, like if the tropes of Tolkienesque classic fantasy existed in a setting that had advanced to roughly the technology level of the First World War. I loved the on-the-table dynamic of the warcasters and their warjacks and, later, loved even more the warlocks and their monsters, including my beloved gators.

Perhaps more than anything else, I loved the Monsternomicons – especially those created for the earliest version of Iron Kingdoms, which I still consider some of the best tabletop gaming bestiaries ever created. I have original pieces from those first Monsternomicons hanging above my desk as I type this. (Of Rhinodons, in case you’re curious.)

I’ve owned every iteration of Iron Kingdoms roleplaying since the setting was first introduced with the original Witchfire Trilogy for D&D 3.5. I loved the second edition – the Iron Kingdoms Roleplaying Game, which I had the pleasure of writing a little for – even while I also acknowledge its limitations, especially for those not already versed in Warmachine and Hordes.

And so it felt like a homecoming, of sorts, to contribute some of my work to bringing his new version of the Iron Kingdoms RPG back to compatibility with the world’s most popular roleplaying game – 5e, this time. For those who’re new to the setting, I hope it’ll bring you at least one good fight on a riverboat and/or train. For those who’re old hands, hopefully there’s some fun updates in this, which is the first major sourcebook to come out after the events of The Claiming.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about? I dunno, maybe consider picking it up. The Kickstarter is live right now and has an affordable early bird package. It’s already funded, so there should be plenty of stretch goals unlocked. And the game is designed to be accessible to new players. Plus, it runs on a 5e engine, so chances are you already more-or-less know how to play it.

I’ve already been paid for my work, so I don’t make any more if you back it. But feel free to put a note in with your pledge telling them I sent you, and that they should hire me for more stuff in the future. Can’t hurt.

Let’s be clear: Yes, there was absolutely an attempt to “steal” the 2020 presidential election. It was not some vast, secret, underground conspiracy of dead people voting and other plot points lifted directly from a Simpsons episode. It happened in broad daylight, in plain sight, and it was perpetrated by an array of right-wing groups (including Trump himself) in an effort to secure a second term for Donald Trump. It failed.

Joe Biden was elected president by both a (vast) majority of the citizens of the United States and by the Electoral College, in an election as free and fair as elections can be in a system overrun with gerrymandering and voter suppression that overwhelmingly favors Republican candidates.

Any discussion about the similarities or differences between the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer and the mob of armed insurrectionists who stormed the capitol building that focuses on their comportment misses the point entirely. BLM was protesting in an effort to stop extrajudicial executions by police officers. The insurrectionists were attempting to overthrow the results of an election in order to install a dictatorship, encouraged and assisted by the sitting President of the United States.

How they went about it matters less than the fact that their goals were absolutely necessary in one case (BLM, in case it needs to be said), horrifically unjust in the other.

Donald J. Trump has been a self-serving disgrace, unfit to hold public office, since long before he ever ran, and his election to the highest office in this country will remain a disgrace long after he is gone.

I will not be taking questions at this time.

This post is not actually about the 1992 Amityville Yard Sale sequel about an evil clock. Just getting ahead of that, to spare you the disappointment. No, this is about kicking 2020 in the ass on its way out the door, and to that end, I just want you to know that there won’t really be a traditional year end retrospective around these parts.

Tonight, at the Horror Pod Class Study Group on Facebook, Tyler Unsell of Signal Horizon and I will be getting together to talk about the (precious few) high points of this trash fire of a year, and over at Unwinnable I contributed a blurb or two to the various best of the year lists, but for the most part, 2020 was garbage and we’re all happier to have it in the rear view.

Was the best movie I saw this year really Underwater? Maybe. Was very nearly the only book I read this year Adam Cesare’s wonderful Clown in a Cornfield? Also maybe. Did I buy a bunch of tabletop games that you mostly can’t play at the best of times (because who has that kind of free time) and definitely can’t play in the midst of a pandemic? Almost certainly. Did I get back into Dungeons and Dragons just in time to go into social isolation and then write about how racist it is? You bet I did!

Does any of that matter, in a world where people are dying and laid off and struggling to get by while the ghouls in their high towers play politics with our lives and balk at even so much as throwing us the scraps from their table? Not one iota.

This is getting a little heavy, though, so let’s pump the breaks. I have some good stuff to talk about. We all learned that octopuses like to punch fish, and Painted Monsters took top honors in a best-of retrospective. And hey, if you’d like to take their advice and pick up either Painted Monsters or Guignol, both are currently on sale (along with the entire rest of the Word Horde catalog) direct from the publisher.

For those who may be genuinely curious about the stuff I normally include in an end-of-the-year wrap-up, I watched fewer movies in 2020 than I have in a while. The lockdown had the opposite effect on my viewing habits than it did for a lot of other people, and I found it hard to watch (or read, or write) much of anything I didn’t have to.

Fewer than usual still means 248 movies over the course of the year, though, 155 of which I watched for the first time, meaning that I, at least, breezed by my goal of watching more new-to-me movies than not each year, even if my overall total was down. Among those, high points that didn’t come out anywhere near this year included Hercules in the Haunted World, The Spiral Staircase, Humanoids from the Deep, Mill of the Stone Women, The Outing, Psychomania, Next of Kin (1982), exploring the films of Shinya Tsukamoto for the first time, Prom Night 2, WitchTrap, The Killing (1956), and watching The Muppet Christmas Carol for the first time on Christmas Eve.

I already wrote about some of the stories I was proud of seeing published this year – and ones that I’m looking forward to in the future – and this year I also started two new regular columns, one in Weird Horror about, well, weird horror, and one at Unwinnable as much about wanting to play board games as about playing them. I got bylines in The Pitch, our local cool-kid newspaper here in Kansas City, and I started writing an occult cyberpunk novella for Broken Eye Books that I’m currently behind on. (Sorry about that.)

All the way back when I made my very first post of the year ten centuries ago, 2020 had already punched us in the mouth not even one week in with the death of our beloved cat, and I said back in that post that “sometimes the only thing you can do then is grin with blood in your teeth.” I was such a sweet summer child in that moment, and I had no idea how much harder 2020 was about to come at us, but those of us who are still standing got out the other side of this entirely arbitrary calendrical delineation, so let’s at least flip it the bird while we’re burning to death.

If you have the stomach for a somewhat more normal end-of-the-year retrospective, join Tyler and I tonight on the Horror Pod Class. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the next year. Stay safe, stay weird.

The benighted year that is 2020 has given us a great many things, almost all of them bad. But it has also given us not one but two collections-in-translation from the “Belgian Poe” himself, Jean Ray (actually one of the numerous pseudonyms of Raymundus Joannes Maria de Kremer) courtesy of translator Scott Nicolay, bringing the total of Nicolay’s translations of Ray’s work into English to four volumes, all available from Wakefield Press.

When writing about Cruise of Shadows, the second collection and, to this point, maybe the best, I said that Scott was doing the proverbial Lord’s work, and that remains true. In fact, enough can’t possibly be said about the translation job he does here, which goes far beyond translation and into the realm of annotation, providing extensive translator’s notes that fix historical precedent, explain unusual turns of phrase, and expound upon Ray’s many instances of wordplay and allusion.

The other thing that Scott does is to provide (also extensive) afterwords that help to fix the book in question not merely in history or in the timeline of Ray’s career, but as it relates to the specific field of weird fiction. As Scott rightly points out in the afterword of Circles of Dread, the latest translation and maybe my favorite to date, though we’ll get to that in a minute, the notion of weird fiction as a mode didn’t really exist yet at the time that Ray was writing.

Nevertheless, Scott identifies only two of the stories in Circles of Dread as being capital-W Weird, and, given that he’s the Ray scholar of the two of us, I’m certainly not going to argue with him. Ray’s undisputed masterpieces of the weird fiction mode are the two stories that anchored Cruise of Shadows, “The Gloomy Alley” and “The Mainz Psalter,” but some of his other tales, including “The Marlyweck Cemetery” in Circles of Dread, certainly deserve to rub shoulders with them.

But I said up above that this was maybe my favorite of the four Wakefield Press collections so far released, and that is because – regardless of the number of Weird tales contained herein or not – just about every story in Circles of Dread is a masterpiece of the gothic and macabre, and one that only Ray could have written.

Indeed, tales like “The Moustiers Plate” are so fanciful as to almost rub up against something like magical realism, while others, such as the inspiring “Hand of Gotz von Berlichingen” which opens the collection are nearly traditional ghost stories, but told in the always indirect way in which Ray specialized and which Scott calls “punching around corners” in his afterword.

Writing about Cruise of Shadows, I said that, “The majesty of Ray’s prose is in its ability to conjure – not a clear image of a thing, but a clear feeling of it.” That’s true here, as well, and while these stories (“Marlyweck Cemetery” notwithstanding) may be less Weird than those, they’re no less masterful, and I love a good ghost story, gothic tale, or supernatural yarn as much as any Weird fiction.

And these are about as good as they come.

“One can ask only so much of possessed alchemical objects.”