Those who have been following along with my adventures in quarantine may have noticed that I’ve gotten heavily back into tabletop gaming, at least conceptually. Shortly before the lockdown began, I dug into D&D 5e for the first time, and found that I really liked it.

Gaming is not a new thing for me. I’ve been playing – or, often more accurately, thinking about playing – almost for as long as I can remember. I’ve even worked in the field more than once, writing fiction and the occasional piece of gaming content for Privateer Press. As recently as November, I actually embarked on a large work-for-hire contract that I can’t reveal just yet, but it was tabletop gaming related.

As I’ve gotten more heavily back into that world, I have written a few times about the racism problems that are baked into these kinds of games and Tolkien-derived fantasy in general. I don’t have a good, simple fix for it. I don’t think there is a simple fix for it. And I know that it’s unrealistic to expect one fix to solve the problem, anyway. After all, the problem is much bigger than just fantasy.

Hopefully I make all that clear in my latest piece over at Unwinnable, where I take Wizards of the Coast (the makers of Dungeons & Dragons) to task for the inadequacy of their latest gesture in that direction, contained in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, their most recent supplement for 5e.

It is, as I say in the piece, absolutely better than nothing, but this problem deserves a response that’s better than that, and, as the producers of the biggest game in this corner of the market, we should hold Wizards to a higher standard.

I have never yet published a piece of gaming media over which I had much creative control. But when I work, in this field or any other, I try to exert what control I do have to reduce the amount of potentially harmful material that I inadvertently disseminate. And I’m always going to fall short. Which is why, each time, I try to do a little better.

So should we all.

Now that it’s December, I think I can say with finality that 2020 will mark the first year since 2015 that I haven’t had a new book out with my name on the spine. It would be tempting to chalk this up to, y’know, 2020, and it’s certainly why there may not be one in 2021 either, but publishing is a slow business, and anything that was going to come out in this dark year would have already been in progress before the year began.

In actuality, there is no reason – either sinister or benign – for there not being a book this year, just as there is no real reason for their being a book each of those others. My first collection came out in 2012, the same year that I co-edited Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. My second, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, was released by Word Horde in 2015. The following year saw the release of Monsters from the Vault, a collection of short essays I had written as part of a column about vintage horror cinema for Innsmouth Free Press.

In 2017, I released both my first and, thus far, only novel – a licensed work for Privateer Press – and a hardcover reprint of my first collection, with a couple of new stories and all-new illustrations by M.S. Corley. 2018 saw the release of my third collection, again from Word Horde, while in 2019 a follow-up to Monsters from the Vault hit shelves.

I have more than enough stories to complete another collection – probably a couple more – but the time is not yet right for any of them. The stories are there, but they do not all fit together. Eventually, those stories will find other stories and together they will form the collections they are meant to inhabit. Until that time, I keep churning.

The next book that’s likely to come out with my name on the cover is probably going to be Neon Reliquary, the short, occult cyberpunk novel that is currently being released in serial form at the Broken Eye Books Patreon. Some delays happened, and they are my fault, but the second installment should be up in the next month or two.

Several stories have already made their way out into the public in various places that are part of a “story cycle” based around Hollow Earths and similar pseudoscience. Once all of those have made their initial bows, the plan is to collect them – along with some original content – into a book, as well. Almost all of them are written and either published or pending publication – one has even made it into the Best Horror of the Year and been reprinted at Nightmare magazine – but various factors have delayed, well, everything, right?

I spent November working on a 40,000 word tabletop gaming-related work-for-hire project that I should be able to announce probably early next year. I had a few new stories published in 2020 that I’m quite proud of. More than in 2019, though not by much. “Prehistoric Animals” in the Weird Fiction Review, “The All-Night Horror Show” at The Dark magazine, “Manifest Destiny” in The Willows Anthology, which also reprinted some of my unfortunate juvenilia from a bygone age, “Screen Haunt” in It Came from the Multiplex, and “The Double-Goer” in Between Twilight and Dawn.

I’ve also sold several stories that have yet to see publication but should be out sometime next year. A Lucio Fulci sword-and-sorcery tribute in Beyond the Book of Eibon, “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop” in Tales from OmniPark – both of which were funded via Kickstarter – and new stories in that Hollow Earth “story cycle” I mentioned that will be out in New Maps of Dream from PS Publishing and Tales from Arkham Sanitarium from Dark Regions Press. Plus some others that I can’t name just yet.

2020 has been 2020 for everyone. Someone on one of the Slacks that I’m on said that we are all a decade older than we were this time last year, which sounds about right. But so far I’m hanging in there, and I’m still banging out words on the regular, so expect to see more from me as we end this accursed year and start another, hopefully better one.

I hope you’re all hanging in there, too. Stay safe, stay weird.

I recently discovered a kink in my brain. (Don’t worry, it’s not the sexy kind.) I’ve been into tabletop war games and miniature skirmish games for as long as I’ve known that they were a thing. Some of my earliest exposure to fantasy came, not through Lord of the Rings or Dungeons & Dragons, but diluted from them through Warhammer.

I’ve talked before about growing up poor, though, and when I was young I didn’t have the funds to really support a miniature gaming hobby (not that I didn’t try), so mostly I pored over source books and issues of White Dwarf, constructed army lists of miniatures I would never own, and dreamed.

I loved the models with their intricate paint jobs and I loved the dollhouse terrain. When I managed to scrape up the funds to acquire a model or two, I would try to paint them, because that’s what you were supposed to do. And, in the process, I would inevitably ruin them, because I hadn’t yet learned how to paint. That’s just part of the hobby, I gather, a stage everyone goes through.

Except that I never went through it. I hated painting, and because I hated it, I never practiced enough to learn the skillset needed to get better. For years, this, almost as much as a lack of adequate funds, curtailed my involvement in a hobby that I loved. Painting was so much a part of the field that if I was unwilling to do it, I was always going to be an outsider looking in, or so I thought.

Then I discovered that aforementioned kink in my brain. I was lucky enough to have a talented friend who actually enjoys painting minis and who was generous enough to paint my Hordes gatorman army for me – and they looked amazing. I was so happy. But it’s a laborious and time-consuming process, and he had his own models to paint, after all.

Then I got the Hellboy board game when it Kickstarted a few years back, and it came with just boatloads of minis. He and I were joking about him having to paint them all, and something clicked – while my brain instinctively told me that wargaming miniatures were supposed to be painted, it (equally instinctively) said that board game minis didn’t need to be.

This didn’t get a ton more interrogation until COVID struck and I began getting hardcore into dungeon crawl board games that I had denied myself previously. From there, it was a short and inevitable path to collecting some of the modern equivalents of those Warhammer miniatures I had spent so many hours daydreaming about as a youth.

And that’s where the click came. If the board game minis were allowed to sit in their boxes and drawers unpainted; if they still made me happy, just having them and pushing them around on tabletops and dungeon tiles, then why not the others, as well?

I found a sort of calm in assembling the push-fit models that came with Warhammer Underworlds and, from there, learned how to appreciate the act of gluing the more complicated kits together, even when that inevitably left me with glue all over my fingers.

But I still didn’t want to paint. And I didn’t have to. Nor did I have to push the obligation over onto Jay. In fact, there was no obligation. If the minis made me happy unpainted, then unpainted they could stay. I wasn’t somehow unworthy of them because I was fundamentally uninterested in an aspect of the hobby so central to the enjoyment of so many.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a rallying cry for the end of painting. For many – even most – of the people invested in the hobby, painting is a big part of the joy that it brings, as is fielding painted armies. And I love painted models. I love to see the work and care and personality that others have put into what is a genuine artform.

My good friend and sometime publisher Simon Berman runs the Brush Wielders Union, “a community of like-minded miniatures gamers dedicated to playing their games fully painted and supporting one another in their craft.” And that dedication and support are important and commendable and I love them for it.

Maybe someday, I’ll even discover that the bug has bitten me, and I will turn my attempts once more toward the brush and pigments. But if I never do, then I am not prohibited from the other joys that I derive from the hobby, and I can still bask in all my little idiot monsters and soldiers in their gray, plastic glory.

I’ve never officially participated in National Novel Writing Month and, most likely, I never shall. This is not because of any grudge against NaNoWriMo so much as because I don’t really write novels and if I do, it will probably be under other circumstances.

In fact, the only novel I’ve ever written was a tie-in novel for Privateer Press penned, as fate would have it, largely over the course of a November and December back in 2016. (Which is, incidentally, also why I say that I haven’t ever officially participated in a NaNoWriMo – I did knock out 50,000 words of Godless in November of that year, because deadlines are a hell of a thing.)

It’s not quite so ambitious as that was, but this November I’m actually engaged in another work-for-hire project that is also game related, also due at the end of the month, and about 40,000 or so words of work.

It’ll be in a different form than Godless was and isn’t a sequel or anything, for those rare few who were hoping for such a thing. But once again I am experiencing some NaNoWriMo solidarity as I knuckle down to try to churn out a whole lot of words on top of my usual freelance work for the month.

Sadly, the nature of the project has to remain a secret for now, but as soon as I can let you know what it is, I certainly shall.

So, if you don’t hear from me much in November, that’s why. And if you hear from me a bunch more than usual? That’s also why.

Today and tomorrow are big days here at the Grey Crypt, for reasons that probably don’t need explaining here. While the pandemic makes the usual Halloween festivities prohibitive, there’s still stuff going on and not even 2020 can shake the Halloween spirit out of these bones entirely.

For those who may not be aware, today is my birthday, and if you feel like getting yourself a present to mark the occasion, it seems like a good time to remind you that (for a very limited time) both of my nonfiction books Monsters from the Vault and its sequel Revenge of Monsters from the Vault are on sale for cheap via Kindle. Plus, since electronic delivery is instantaneous, you can use ’em for reference if you need help planning your Halloween viewing.

Last night, I watched the dubious seasonal “classic” Hack-O-Lantern for the first time, live-tweeted it at the hashtag #HPCGoesDark, and then Tyler Unsell and I did an off-the-cuff live episode of the Horror Pod Class on it, which mostly amounted to us talking about everything from the Satanic Panic to bathrobe etiquette.

If you followed along live, thanks for joining us! If not, the episode will be up on YouTube and all the usual podcasting places in the near future. In the meantime, I was also a guest for a very special Halloween episode of the Haunted Hangover podcast, so check that out.

Plus, today marks the launch of Marta Oliehoek’s long-in-progress Horror in the Eye of the Beholder, which combines a series of colored pencil portraits of the eyes of horror writers (including yours truly) with in-depth interviews with same about horror practice, film, literature, and much more.

I’ll be doing a lot of festive stuff around the house this year – I already carved a pumpkin – and there’ll be some other announcements to celebrate the holiday, but for the most part I won’t be on social media a lot until after All Hallows.

(Which, incidentally, is going to be a full moon for what I hear is the first time in 76 years. So, I dunno, go worship the devil or something. Turn yourself into a werewolf. Whatever it is you do.)

If you’re having trouble getting into the spirit, though, I have a couple of recommendations. The Screenland Armour, my kickass local movie theatre that just got named the Best Theatre in KC by The Pitch, is struggling during the pandemic, but they have nonetheless put on some amazing, socially distanced October programming, including a special online Tricks and Treats edition of Panic Fest that’s happening all weekend long. The eagle eyed might even catch a glimpse of yours truly in a segment.

If that’s not your thing, Unwinnable is doing their annual Halloween subscription drive, including their Hallowstream event, where members of the Unwinnable crew do everything from a spoopy live-reading of The Importance of Being Dracula – like The Importance of Being Earnest, but with Draculas – to live games of Call of Cthulhu and a late-night viewing of bonkers flick The Boneyard (that’s the one with the zombie poodle), to name just a few.

Go, watch, subscribe. It helps them keep paying me to do things like writing about board games I haven’t played, movies that I have watched, and my recent “Dungeons & Dollhouses” article. Plus, Unwinnable is just an awesome publication put together by great folks, and the Hallowstream event should be a blast, even if I won’t be in attendance.

Living in the slow-motion apocalypse may make it a little harder than usual to get into the Halloween spirit, but even COVID-19 can’t completely eradicate the Nerdoween triple-feature, hosted each year by the fine fellows from the Nerds of Nostalgia and Nightmare Junkhead podcasts.

Now in its sixth year, Nerdoween has become as much a part of my seasonal traditions as grinning pumpkins or spooky movies. Indeed, it always shows a few spooky movies, and I’ve gone every year.

And every year – with one exception – I have always been introduced to at least one picture that I had never seen before. The first year’s theme was “demons,” and I saw both the Lamberto Bava film of that name and also Night of the Demons for the first time.

The theme of the second year was “sequels,” where I saw both 28 Weeks Later and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 fresh. The third year was anthologies and managed only a single new-to-me film in the form of the very great Tales from the Hood (the other two were both favorites, however – Creepshow and Waxwork).

They followed that up with “sleazy sci-fi,” where they again managed only a single new-to-me flick, in that case the absolutely wild Xtro.

Last year’s theme was “killer nouns,” and it was the first year where I had seen every movie on the lineup: Maximum Overdrive, Cooties, and Arachnophobia. Which brings us to this year and Nerdoween 6(66) – the triple feature that almost didn’t happen because the world was coming to an end.

Suitably enough, the theme of this year’s triple-feature was the figure who could have been the architect of 2020 himself; none other than the dark lord Satan. And the guys at Nightmare Junkhead nearly managed a hat trick, going two-for-two with movies I had never seen before with our first two features.

We started with The Car, from 1977. Prior to last night, I was (somehow) unaware that the eponymous evil car in this film is overtly demonic, even if they never make even the slightest pretense of explaining its presence in the film.

I was also unaware that, in addition to James Brolin, The Car also stars Ronny Cox, of cops both Robo and Beverly Hills fame.

Then they followed that up with Evilspeak from 1981. If The Car was Duel by way of Jaws by way of The Exorcist then Evilspeak is Carrie + Satanic panic + computers.

A good example of the “movies from the ’80s that go completely bonkers in the last act” subgenre, as near as I can tell the director of Evilspeak had two main interests: People getting eaten by pigs and making Clint Howard sweaty and/or otherwise damp.

In his defense, people getting eaten by pigs is scary and so is damp Clint Howard. This was also an inadvertent (?) double-feature of movies featuring R. G. Armsrong. If the third film of the night had been Warlock: The Armageddon they could have been three-for-three.

Alas (?) it was not, nor was it something I hadn’t ever seen before – and really, a triple-feature of things I hadn’t seen before seems like an awful lot to ask. Instead, it was recent subgenre entry Ready or Not, part of the mini boom of “rich people are literal Satanists, actually” movies of the last few years.

I saw Ready or Not when it first came out and liked it then. I still like it, for most of the same reasons. Underneath its many very modern sensibilities, it has lots of delightfully old-fashioned deal-with-the-devil stuff going on that I adore.

Getting into the Halloween spirit may be harder than normal this year, but three Satanic shockers from the Nerds of Nostalgia guys always makes it a little easier…

Look, a lot has been going on, and it’s not about to stop going on in the immediate future. It’s already five days into the month of Halloween and you haven’t heard from me!

So, what have you missed? Well, the horror Storybundle from Word Horde that I mentioned last time is still going on, albeit not for very much longer. In fact, as I write this, you’ve only got about three days left to pick it up – just in time for Halloween!

Speaking of things that are arriving just in time for the spooky season, the first issue of Weird Horror is out now from Undertow Publications. You can pick up the first issue or get a subscription, because this issue and every subsequent issue will feature a column by yours truly! This time around, I’m writing about the Crestwood House monster books.

Plus, my two book-length collections of essays on vintage horror film are, once again, on sale for less than a buck on Kindle if you want some quick, hopefully-pithy guides to your holiday viewing. You can grab the first one on the cheap here and the inevitable sequel here. They make great trick-or-treat handouts! (They don’t.)

If you’re not feeling like putting up with me for that long, you could always pick up the latest issue of Exploits (an Unwinnable publication) and read my very brief thoughts on Junji Ito’s latest or my even briefer thoughts on the remake of Child’s Play.

If fiction is more your thing, there’s always the first installment of my occult cyberpunk novel Neon Reliquary, which is available now via the Broken Eye Books Patreon. Or you could put your money toward the Tales from OmniPark Kickstarter, which is back from the dead after an untimely COVID-related early demise!

It’s already funded, so you know you’ll be getting a book sooner or later, and that it’ll feature stories by Gemma Files, Brian Evenson, Jesse Bullington, and yours truly, among others. Also, the title of my story is “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop.” If that doesn’t sell a copy, I don’t know what to tell you.

So, this has been less a countdown to Halloween and more a series of “buy my book” news flashes, but I promise that I have been preparing for the season in those ways that I can, and more festive content shall soon be on its way…

Yesterday was the official book birthday for It Came from the Multiplex, an anthology of stories inspired by ’80s midnight movies and the places where we watched them, edited by Josh Viola and released by Hex Publishing.

Back when I was first approached to contribute a story for this anthology, the plan was to release it in tandem with the Colorado Festival of Horror. Then 2020 happened. But, even if we’re stuck in our homes, menaced by an invisible threat and devastated by natural disasters, at least you can still read about movies and monsters and monster movies.

My story “Screen Haunt” follows a filmmaker whose best friend vanished years ago, making a movie inspired by notes in her missing friend’s journal, and maybe conjuring up more than just memories.

I’m far from the only name in the credits, though. My story is joined by tales from the likes of Betty Rocksteady, Stephen Graham Jones, Mario Acevedo, Steve Rasnic Tem, and others. Plus, the book looks amazing, with a cover by AJ Nazzaro and interior illustrations by Xander Smith.

While some copies have already made their way out into the world, you can order yours now by clicking right here.

Speaking of great-looking books, Word Horde always puts ’em out, and now you can try an impressive sampling of their titles, including my own Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, on the cheap – while also supporting Planned Parenthood, if you feel like it!

I haven’t read all of the books included in this impressive Storybundle, curated by Molly Tanzer, but I can vouch for Word Horde, in general, and tell you that everything I have read from them has been imminently worth your time. (And I’m not just saying that because they often publish my stuff.)

Paying just $5 gets you a pretty nice spread, including John Langan’s must-read epic novel of cosmic horror, The Fisherman, as well as Nadia Bulkin’s bombshell of a collection, She Said Destroy, and three other titles.

For the full effect, though, and to snag a copy of Guignol, you’ll only need to pony up $15, which will get you Kristi DeMeester’s Beneath, Tony McMillen’s An Augmented Fourth, Scott R. Jones’ Stonefish, Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Molly Tanzer’s Vermillion, and others. It’s a hell of a deal, and should keep you in good, shivery stories long into the night for many nights ahead.

Speaking, as I was back toward the beginning of this post, of film festivals, we’re coming up on the Halloween season, and with it the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon. Normally, I try to make it out to the show, an event I love so much that it features prominently in the opening story of Guignol, but this year, the show is going online instead of in person, which has the advantage, for everyone who can’t make it out to Portland (which is currently on fire anyway), of being much easier to attend.

If you want to get your tickets and support some cool, weird cinema, you can do so by hitting up their Kickstarter, which is live as I write this. Because of the streaming nature of the event, airtime is at a premium, so I am not currently planning to do any panels or readings this year, though that’s subject to possible change.

What I am hoping to be involved in is the Screenland Armour’s annual Shocktober programming, which will be happening via a dynamic and mixed methodology in order to try to still have Halloween in the midst of social distancing.

I’ll have more news on that as it develops, but for Kansas City readers of “Screen Haunt” in It Came from the Multiplex, let’s just say that the Galileo theatre in that story may seem pretty familiar to devotees of the Screenland…

Did you ever wonder what a cyberpunk story written by yours truly would look like? Apparently the folks over at Broken Eye Books did, because they asked me to write one. Not just a short story, either. They asked me to write what technically qualifies as a novel, and now they’re serializing it for their Patreon patrons!

It’s called Neon Reliquary and, as I said on their site, what led me to agree to the project was a desire to focus on the “punk” part of that portmanteau. By that I don’t necessarily mean leather jackets and bright green mohawks so much as I mean something that’s “deeply suspicious of capitalism, imperialism, fascism, and rich old white guys, as all good cyberpunk should be.”

The pitch that I sent them began – much like Blade Runner – like a classic film noir story. “You are Soma Caldwell, an operative for Eidolon, the corporation that is the only employer, the only government, the only law in a city where the sun never shines, surrounded by an endless expanse of darkness that is peopled by unstoppable monsters. It’s been this way for as long as you can remember. For as long as anyone can remember. The city is a perfect machine, and you’re the implement that helps keep it running smoothly.”

But then the story begins to fray apart at the edges, shedding its skin, becoming something different. This is still me, after all, so this is an occult cyberpunk story, filled with mysticism and half-glimpsed monsters – and those seen in all their monstrous glory – and every bit as beholden to William Hope Hodgson’s The Nightland as it is to Neuromancer.

The installment that’s currently up on the Broken Eye Patreon is Act One of three that are planned, and I hope that you’ll stick with us for all of them. I’m not going to swear that I’ll stick the landing, but I have big plans and, if I do my job right, they may not be what you’re expecting at the end of this chapter…

Look, I don’t understand it myself – and, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t really tried very hard to understand it because most days just doing what I’ve gotta do to get by is enough – but reading has been really tough during the pandemic.

I don’t have any idea why (see above), but my to-be-read pile has basically not budged one micron since lockdown began. Ditto with writing fiction, for the most part.

Oh, I’ve been working, still. I’ve been freelancing at about the same pace I was before. I’ve read for work; done some copyedits that I was contracted to do. I’ve written nonfiction: articles and columns and also been working on some other … let’s call them projects. (Mostly homebrew game stuff no one will ever see.)

But when it comes time to actually put digital quill to page and write a story that I don’t already owe to anyone? It just hasn’t been there. Normally, that’s the horror of the writer, right? That we’ll wake up one day and it’ll just be gone. We won’t be able to do it anymore. There won’t be any stories there.

Yet, for whatever reason, I’m not too scared this time. This doesn’t feel like the end; it doesn’t really even feel like a dry spell. It just feels like the end of a long day of work, when you’re not feeling up to even watching a movie or anything more than staring at whatever happens to be on the TV at the moment.

So far, I’m okay with letting it just be that. With letting what I have to do to keep the lights burning and food on the table be enough. With my recent spate of dungeon crawl board games and D&D reading being what I do to keep out the dark, for the time being.

So far, so good.