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I never really collected comics. Oh, I had comics aplenty – some of them ones I had inherited from my older brothers, others that I bought myself, from back-issue bins and garage sales and, yes, sometimes even brand new. I got them, I read them, I bagged and boarded them, and I kept them, but it was never really a collecting thing for me. I didn’t have specific “white whales” I was in search of, and I didn’t keep anything for its value down the road (thank goodness).

I just bought what I wanted to read, read it, and, eventually, years later, sold it, rather than move a box of comics one more time. By the time I sold those earliest issues, I had largely fallen out of the world of the tights and capes crowd, and when I did read comics, I was what they call a “trade waiter,” meaning that I tended to wait until a collected edition came out and pick that up, rather than reading individual issues as they were released.

There was something about the organization and completeness of trades that appealed to me – still does, really. But recently, when I started thrifting with Eli from Analog Sunday, I got back into single issues. Old horror comics, mostly, and movie and video game tie-ins. Weird one-offs that only ran for a few issues. Things that were never collected into trades, and probably never will be.

And as I started picking those up, I was reminded of the other thing that gets lost when you only read comics in collected form. Not just the forgotten titles that disappear into the dustbin of history. The ephemera that goes along with a single issue. The ads, sure, that’s part of it. I recently read a Darkman comic from 1993 and virtually every ad in the thing was either for Dungeons & Dragons or DragonStrike, which was a trip. But also inserts and other oddities that are probably still ads, really, but take on other dimensions.

Recently, I picked up a random issue of Time Masters from 1990 out of a back-issue bin. What drew my attention was that the cover looked, at a glance, like early Mignola. But when I flipped through it, I found an unexpected treasure. A stapled-in fold-out guide to Nightbreed, which had only just hit theaters.

This delightful piece of forgotten marketing ephemera was much more interesting to me, personally, than the comic – and also worth the price of a cheap back-issue. And it would never have found its way into a collection.

I’m not here to talk about nuScream (2022) but I’m going to have to, a little, so here we go: I hated it. First Scream-branded thing ever that I didn’t enjoy. But I also seem to be alone in that – as I am in hating the new Halloweens – so if you loved it, I am legitimately happy for you.

(Also, it didn’t have time travel, as per the gag in Scream 4, and so it is dead to me.)

Because we’re going to be talking about nuScream, January has been Scream Month at the Horror Pod Class, where we’ve covered Scream 4 (my actual favorite) and Scream 2 and, as such, there’s been a lot of talk about the franchise, including which ones are best, worst, etc.

And here’s the thing, when I say that Scream 4 is my favorite, which is absolutely true, I always feel like I need to caveat that with the acknowledgment that the original is still probably the best, for any number of obvious reasons. But there’s another layer to that. Scream (1996) is not only the original, the standard from which all the others must deviate, it is also fundamentally different from the others.

The original Scream is a number of things, and while the vast majority of the ink that gets spilled over it is about how metafictional it is, that’s only one small part of what makes it work. Ultimately, though, metafictional or not, Scream is a deconstruction of – and love letter to – slasher tropes.

The sequels pay lip service toward being the same thing, but they aren’t. Because they can’t be. Because they made a decision that other slashers didn’t, and they stuck to it in a way that few other horror franchises ever have. Scream is not, fundamentally, a franchise about Ghostface. He may be the face (no pun intended) of the series, but it’s always someone different under the mask. What stays the same, movie to movie, is Sidney and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Dewey and Gail.

Rare indeed is the horror franchise that runs this long while keeping its focus so squarely on the survivors, rather than the killer. As a result, groundbreaking or not, after the first movie, the series is no longer about what the first movie was about – both lampshading and upending the cliches of the slasher genre. Instead, it’s about these three survivors. About what this does to them, about what they do in response. About how they come together and what pulls them apart.

The metafictional elements may have been what made the first movie stand out (we can debate that; for my purposes here, though, it doesn’t matter) but after that, what makes the series unique is its dedication to those three characters. That’s why I love Scream 4 and hated Scream 5, even though they are, on paper, practically the same movie.

4 understood what this series was really about. 5 doesn’t – at least for my money.

There’s another thing that happens as a result of this focus on the survivors – another aspect of the Scream franchise that we rarely get to see play out in horror films, at least in this way. There is an organic growth to the scale of the film’s central mythology. Sidney is a celebrity, even at the end of the first picture. By the opening of the second, there is a movie-within-a-movie that parallels the events of the first film. By the third, they are in Hollywood, on the set of a movie about their lives, with actors who are playing them.

This is a franchise where the world knows what happened, and has changed as a result. In small ways, sure, but still. This isn’t supernatural evil or whatever, so the changes don’t have to be big. But they’re still there. Other franchises have often gestured in similar directions, over the years, but few have ever been as committed to the bit.

Scream wasn’t the first place I saw this kind of storytelling, though. Another of my favorite horror/comedy franchises does this too – perhaps even one better. As with Scream, the original Tremors (1990) is a self-aware horror movie that at once pays loving tribute to and lampoons a largely-defunct (at the time) subgenre of horror – in this case, the giant monster movies of the ’50s.

It’s also easily the best movie in the series. But the first of its sequels do something that, at the time, I had never seen any other horror movie do: they present a world in which the public is aware of what happened in the first movie. There’s a Graboids-themed arcade machine, and the survivors of the initial film are minor celebrities who appeared in a Nike commercial.

That sensation, of allowing the world to expand organically with the events of each prior film, is something that many franchises struggle with, and it is that, as much as anything else, that helped both Scream and Tremors remain something special into sequels that couldn’t replicate what the original had accomplished, and so chose to accomplish something else, instead – at least for a while.

One week from today, it’ll be Christmas. A week after that, it’ll be 2022. It feels surreal to type that, just as it feels surreal for it to be true. I’m not really prepared for either, but these days, who is?

I’m typing now because there’s a very real chance that I won’t get much else added here until the New Year. I’m coming out of several months of high-intensity work, and staring down the barrel of at least one more. In the course of January, I’ll be writing close to 50,000 words on a project that has to stay somewhat under wraps right now but if you know what I’ve been working on and skim this article, you can probably guess.

Tuesday night, I’ll be recording an end-of-the-year episode of the Horror Pod Class with Tyler Unsell, where we’ll be talking about some of our favorite things from this extremely weird year. I actually saw some new stuff this year, albeit not as much as I would in a more normal year. I’d love to pretend that next year is going to be better – I hope that it will – but with Omicron barreling down on us and everyone just deciding that they’re done acting like we’re in a pandemic, I guess, I don’t know how realistic those hopes are.

Even while I wasn’t necessarily going to theatres very often, I still spent the year watching plenty of movies, playing plenty of board games, and writing the various columns that I now tuck under my belt every month or so. I reviewed The Spine of Night over at Downright Creepy and a couple of different first-run movies for Signal Horizon, not to mention the usual host of retrospective movie reviews at Signal and Unwinnable.

Speaking of Unwinnable, they’re doing a special holiday subscription drive right now, and if it’s successful, we get to do a Gremlins-themed issue! So, go subscribe, is what I’m saying. And all that’s in addition to my column on Friday the 13th: The Series at Signal (which wraps up this month, to be replaced with Tales from the Darkside in 2022) and my recurring board game column at Unwinnable – check out the latest installment of that here.

I haven’t published a ton of stories in 2021, but I’m proud of the ones I did. A jokey flash piece called “The Last Day of Doctor Tillinghast” showed up in Curtains, an anthology to benefit Save Our Stages, while the extremely weird “Anum’s Fire (1987) – Annotated” was in Beyond the Book of Eibon, a tribute anthology to Lucio Fulci – both of which had covers by none other than Trevor Henderson. “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop” was published in Tales from OmniPark, edited by Ben Thomas, while “The Cult and the Canary” appeared in the King in Yellow-themed anthology Y from Stygian Fox. And last but certainly not least, my timeloop giallo “Chanson D’Amour” broke into Nightmare, while my story “Screen Haunt” was podcast at Pseudopod.

There should be one more surprise coming this year – even though there is precious little of this year left – so keep an eye on my social media for that, when it comes.

I’ll probably do some sort of post-mortem of the movies I watched this year sometime in early January, but I’ve also been keeping (as is my new habit) a Twitter thread of movies that I loved that I watched for the first time in 2021.

We put up decorations and all that jazz, but the holidays feel… odd this year, and not only because it was 70 degrees in the middle of December the other day. Blame it on the Second Year of the Plague, I guess. I am one of those people for whom the holiday season is always bittersweet, at best, anyway, but there are certainly things I’m looking forward to this year and hoping for in the year to come.

Until that moment arrives, here’s a Yule Cat:

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.

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.

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…

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.