I recently got super into 5e D&D. Because, if I’m going to get really into a socially-focused role playing game, I’m going to pick the middle of a pandemic, when I can’t be around other people, to do it. (And no, I haven’t yet tried Roll20 or its ilk, though I’m sure it’s on the horizon at this point.)

I have played, to some greater or lesser extent, every version of D&D since at least 2nd edition, but that doesn’t mean I liked most of them. I think 3.5 is probably the one I played the most, and I hated it, which is why I never got into Pathfinder, in spite of all the fun art by Wayne Reynolds that graces their covers, which have always had the energy that I feel like a D&D encounter needs.

(Please note, I don’t mean to diss 3.5 or Pathfinder. I know a lot of people love them. 3.5 was just very much not my particular cup of tea.)

In some ways, I picked a good time. I’m here just in time for Wizards of the Coast (the folks who make D&D) to finally catch up with how I (and every other GM I’ve ever played with) have always run games since forever, by getting rid of “evil” races, among other changes.

Here’s the thing that plenty of people who have thought and read and written way more about this topic than me have already talked about at great length: D&D has some problems that are baked into it from its very core.

Those of us who play the game and aren’t horrid bigots tend to ignore them or create homebrew workarounds or just not play the game that way, but the core ideas of D&D are based in colonialism and the “othering” of different peoples, and it’s hard to unring that bell. But it’s good that they’re trying.

Something I’ve seen Pathfinder doing in recent editions is to refer to player character options as “ancestries” rather than “races,” which I like. The word “race” is so fraught, and it’s so easy for things to fall into gross stereotypes in games like this anyway, that the way “race” has been deployed in D&D to, say, give bonuses or penalties to certain traits like Intelligence, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And that’s not even getting into the idea of having whole races that are “evil.”

Word is that D&D is looking to make some changes to how they do ability score increases at character creation, which is probably not the worst idea. But it’s really a band-aid on the bigger problem of how ideas of “race” are often used in this kind of fantasy world-building, and have been since Tolkien, at least.

I’m not predominantly a fantasy writer, and though I’ve worked in tabletop gaming a bit, I’m far from an expert in the field. As I said before, lots of people much smarter than me have written extensively about this, and I recommend that you go read some of them, if you’re interested.

None of this is meant to denigrate D&D, a game that I’ve been trying to love for most of my life, and finally managed with 5e, its best incarnation yet. The way I ultimately got into 5e is actually kind of a funny story…

I was approached about doing some work for a possible product that would use 5e’s system (via the Open Gaming License), but I had, at that time, basically never played 5e. So I started doing some research, and found that I really enjoyed the new system.

(Whether that side project will ever come to pass or not it’s too early days to tell, and COVID-19 has disrupted, y’know, everything.)

As I was digging into the system and setting, the protests around the murder of George Floyd were happening all over the country, and so it felt like high time that the makers of D&D finally stepped up to try to address some of the colonialism and baked-in racism of the game.

None of this is really going anywhere. I’m just writing to say that, hey, I finally found a version of D&D I like, and that I’m glad to see probably the world’s biggest tabletop gaming platform at least trying to address some problems that have needed addressing for a long time now.

I’ve said it before and elsewhere, but mine is not the voice that you should be listening to right now. Seek out black voices, and the voices of those directly affected by police brutality. Seek out those who have studied the problem and its solutions.

If you want to know why I’ve been quiet of late, both here and on social media, that’s why, at least in part. With all that’s going on in the world, I needed space to let it be going on, and I didn’t feel the need to add my own noise to the signal.

There’s a different between being quiet and being silent, however, and in case it needs to be said: Black lives matter. I stand with protests and protesters. “Strip all oppressors of the weapons of war and hold them accountable for their brutality.”

The police, as they currently exist, are clearly not there to “protect and serve,” and they are far from the whole of the problem. Our entire “criminal justice” system is rotten. Its foundations are rotten. And until it is stripped down to those rotten foundations, and they are torn up, we will never have true peace.

As a friend said on Facebook, “Eat the rich, burn down the oppressive, racist system we have, and build something new and beautiful from the ashes.” A better world is possible. The protests are showing us that.

The police, as they currently exist, need to be replaced with things that actually protect and serve the public – all of the public. Social services that can give people the help they need and address the injustices and inequities that result in crime. And that is just the beginning.

Change like this takes time, but it’s also been a long time coming. I’m looking forward to it. If you’re not, well, in the words of Games Workshop’s “Warhammer is for everyone” message, “you will not be missed.”

So, it’s been a minute. (Approximately 28,800 of them, actually.) What have I been doing with myself during quarantine? Not what I would have expected, necessarily.

For example, unlike a great many people, I haven’t been watching a lot more movies or television, though, like, I gather, a great many other people, I also haven’t been reading any more books than I was before, maybe less.

Mostly, I’ve been working, and while that’s occasionally been on fiction, more often it’s been on, more or less, the same kind of freelance stuff that I was doing before the pandemic. I’ve also increased the frequency of my appearances on the Horror Pod Class, where we’ve been doing weekly episodes due to the lockdown.

Recent episodes have included talking with author Max Brooks about bigfoots and the reassuring quality of Peter Graves, chatting with Pitch editor and semi-professional podcast haver Brock Wilbur about how, where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see, and just our usual bullshit about cursed films.

None of that new fiction stuff is in any fit state for public consumption just yet, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some news on that front, too. My story “Screen Haunt” will be showing up in mailboxes and bookstores (if there are still such things) later this year in It Came from the Multiplex, a fun-looking antho from Hex Publishers themed around ’80s horror. My contributor’s copy came the other day, and the book looks fantastic, even if I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Speaking of reading, I somehow managed to swallow down my anxiety enough to perform the narration of my story “Dream House” for Pseudopod recently. (Listen to the story and you’ll hear why.) You have my apologies for the narration, but the story has always been a favorite, and it brings back good memories.

The lockdown means that I haven’t been out to the theater in a while, and there’s been a commensurate slowdown in my reviews of other titles, as well. But I haven’t been idle! Earlier this month, I kicked off the first in a new recurring column that I’ll be writing at Unwinnable in which I talk about the eternal allure of board games … especially those that we pretty much never play.

The first installment talks about playing Horrified in the midst of a global pandemic, which has naturally limited my playing options. I have plans for future installments that will hopefully include, y’know, playing them with actual other people. We’ll see.

On a similar note, I’ve also been digging into 5e D&D for the first time in a while and … enjoying it a lot more than I would have expected. While the lockdown has put certain necessary constraints on my actual playing options, I’ve really been enjoying what we have done, and just paging through the books and acquainting myself with setting and rules. I’m surprised, but happy to be so.

Oh, and I did that Penguin Classics cover generator thing that was going around for a minute there with my books, too. So that’s fun.

No one knows where he comes from or where he’ll show up next, but apparently he’s been around for a long time and is to blame for all manner of trouble and problems.   Attempts to capture or kill him have been unsuccessful, so he remains on the loose and citizens are cautioned about approaching him or attempting to engage him in conversation. 
– “Skeleton Key No. 28: Death,” by Richard Sala

I don’t know how to put this into words in a way that won’t sound more heartless than I mean it to sound, but: it’s one thing to lose someone whose work meant a lot to you, but who hadn’t been doing much work for a while.

Just yesterday, I posted a sort of reminiscence about the passing of Ray Harryhausen. It hit me hard when it happened, but he was also 92 years old, and he hadn’t done work that I had seen in a long time. That doesn’t make it any less tragic that he died; but it made the news less immediate for me.

I can’t say the same for Richard Sala. It would be stretching the word to say that he and I were actual friends, but it would be even more disingenuous to say that he was merely a hero of mine, an inspiration.

Certainly, he started out that way, but thanks to the magic of social media, I actually got to know him a little bit. He would sometimes comment on my posts; I would sometimes comment on his. We usually talked old, weird movies, because he frequently turned me on to titles that I otherwise might have missed.

(Flip through Monsters from the Vault or Revenge of Monsters from the Vault and you’ll see his name more than once.)

This evening, I saw via the Fantagraphics Twitter account that he had passed away at the age of 61. For one thing, 61 is a lot younger than, say, 92. For another, Richard was working right up until the last. His latest book (an art book that you should really buy) came out just last year, and he was posting about his process on the next book as recently as last week.

On top of that, we were, as I said, something approximating friends – at least more-than-casual acquaintances. He was someone I turned to for his enthusiasm about old movies, especially, and as much as I’ll always remember him for his art and writing, I’ll also remember him because there are movies I would never have seen without his recommendation. Those movies will always be his, to me.

He was someone I hoped to work with someday. Someone whose work was so near-and-dear to my heart – and so close to my own aesthetics and obsessions – that I dreamed it might one day decorate one of my own books. But more than that, he was a person whose own dreams and passions glowed in the dark, and provided a creepily cozy light for all us other weirdos to gather ’round.

Hopefully someday we’ll meet on the astral plane. For tonight, I’m going to go read one of his books or watch one of those movies and remember.

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“If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
– Ray Harryhausen

Seven years ago today, I was home from a very pleasant trip to Portland for an off-season H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival, which had ended with me hearing about the passing of Ray Harryhausen. I was watching It Came from Beneath the Sea to mark the event.

A little less than three years ago, on December 2nd, 2017, I was in Oklahoma City for an exhibit of Harryhausen’s work, thanks to lots of help and patience from my wonderful spouse and partner. I made it on literally the last day of the exhibition, and barely that, due to recovering from emergency surgery that year.

The exhibit was life changing, and not just because I came so close to not being alive to experience it. Harryhausen has always been one of my biggest inspirations and, for my money, one of the greatest monster designers to ever live. It may be weird for a writer to cite such a visual artist, but Harryhausen was a storyteller, as well as an animator, even if his name wasn’t on the director or screenplay lines.

A little under two months from now would have been Harryhausen’s 100th birthday. In a century, cinema has changed a great deal, but its debt to Harryhausen hasn’t slackened one bit – nor has the debt that my own work owes to his.

Harryhausen - SkeletonWhile my licensed novel was dedicated to him, the place where his influence is probably most obviously felt is in my story, “Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet,” which is available in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

It’s there in less-obvious places, too, though. In the way that the monster moves at the end of The Cult of Headless Men, also available in Guignol.  In the dinosaur statues of “Prehistoric Animals,” my recent tale in the latest Weird Fiction Review.

Like so many of my inspirations, Harryhausen is also part of a thread that runs backward and forward. His own work is heavily inspired by King Kong and the engravings of Gustave Dore, and in his recent series of daily quarantine sketches, Mike Mignola drew a host of Harryhausen creatures, not to mention some other sketches that obviously owe a debt to Ray.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with any of this, save to mark Ray Harryhausen’s passing on what should have been his hundredth year on this plane. He is seven years gone now and, to the best of my knowledge, he still hasn’t gotten a tribute anthology. Maybe I need to start talking to someone about that…

 

As we all grope blindly in the dark for silver linings amid all the peeled grapes and cold spaghetti of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of people excited that we’re halfway around to Halloween – though I’ve seen an equal number wondering just what Halloween is going to look like this year, with a plague on and all.

In fact, we’re excited enough about the date that we did a special “halfway to Halloween” episode of the Horror Pod Class, where Tyler and I talked about the 2019 movie Haunt and he history of commercial haunted houses. It’s honestly worth it just for the bit from a pamphlet for parents organizing haunted houses back in the ’30s, which suggests, among other things, nailing raw liver to the walls.

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Whatever happens with the pox and all that, we keep Halloween alive in our hearts as much as in our celebrations, right? And we can all watch scary movies and read spooky books anytime, even when we’re in quarantine.

Speaking of which, since this is also Walpurgisnacht, I usually take this evening to talk a bit about the story I wrote of that name, which originally appeared in The Children of Old Leech and can also be found in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts – both from Word Horde.

It’s a night for revels and devilry and old, black-and-white witchy movies like Night/Curse of the DemonCity of the Dead, or Haxan. Over on Facebook, I saw someone watching The Devil Rides Out, and that’ll also do.

* Image from a manga that I don’t know the name of, courtesy of Haunted Horror‘s Steve Banes.

And I don’t mean the weird, clunky, Kirby-like grays that show up in Hellboy, nor Mike’s take on Martian tripods from his Year of Monsters series of covers. I mean aliens as in the movie Aliens. Or, to be somewhat more accurate, the various Dark Horse comic series that spun out from the movies.

Today is Alien Day (4/26), and a few years ago about this time I posted a little about what the Alien franchise has meant to me throughout the years. Today, I’m going to be too busy to put together anything that says it better, even if I could.

27253But I’ve also talked a lot, over the years, about what Mike Mignola’s work means to me, and to see the two things dovetail is a rare treat indeed. Mike drew the Aliens: Salvation comic (written by Dave Gibbons, himself perhaps best known as the artist on Watchmen) back in 1993.

It is an amazing comic; evocative, gothic, monstrous. But Mike’s style has evolved a lot in the years since ’93, and one of the great pleasures of my life was seeing his more recent take on the same material when he drew a new cover for the story’s hardcover reissue back in 2015.

Around that time, I posted something to the effect that the way other people must feel when they see a new Star Wars movie coming out is how I feel when Mike Mignola draws Aliens.

Plenty of other artists and writers have taken swipes at the Alien mythos to great effect. Recently, I particularly enjoyed James Stokoe’s Aliens: Dead Orbit. His hyper-detailed yet still stylized art is a perfect fit for the material.

For this Alien Day, I’m too busy to watch any of the movies, so maybe I’ll read Aliens: Salvation again instead…

Dear Diary,

This is day XX of quarantine. It would be lovely to say that I don’t know how many days this has been going on because of the pandemic but, to be honest, sheltering in place is not much different than being a freelancer always is, with the exception that I can’t go to Analog Sunday and Grace is always home.

Life goes on, even under the strangest of conditions, and I figured it was high time for a check-in on what’s been happening for me in the writing arena – the stuff I can talk about, at any rate.

So far, 2020 has already seen the publication of three of my stories, which is the same number that I published in total last year, so that’s not nothing.

“The All-Night Horror Show” is live at The Dark. For those who attended last year’s Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, this was the story that I read near the end of the Symposium, before the whole spook show presentation.

My story “Prehistoric Animals” is in the latest issue of the Weird Fiction Review from Centipede Press – bonus points to anyone who can tell me what the title is borrowed from. And most recently, my all-new story that is extremely critical of American imperialism, “Manifest Destiny,” is in The Willows Anthology. Pick it up, and you’ll also get a bunch of (probably regrettable) juvenalia written by me many years ag

More stuff is coming later this year, to the extent that we can predict anything ever or especially right now. I recently finished up a story with the hard-to-beat title, “The Robot Apeman Waits for the Nightmare Blood to Stop.” I wish that I could take credit for it, but it’s a misremembered paraphrase from an essay Ray Bradbury wrote about Disneyland, of all places.

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It’s bound for a shared-world anthology (something I generally steer clear of) that’s being put together by the minds behind The Willows – an anthology that’s currently accepting submissions, if you wanna try for a shot at sharing a TOC with that imposing title.

As usual, I’ve been working on nonfiction more than fiction of late, though most of it has been freelance work. Movie reviews have necessarily dropped off a bit, due to the whole pandemic thing, but they aren’t gone completely.

My first piece for Kansas City’s local dirtbag newspaper The Pitch – savvy readers of my work may recognize a thinly-veiled version of it as The Current in “The Red Church” – recently went live, in which I reviewed Robert Altman’s jazz opus Kansas City. Meanwhile, over at Signal Horizon, I covered the Vincent Price flick The Mad Magician and the Italian Exorcist knock-off Beyond the Door.

On Twitter, I’ve also been keeping a running list of my favorite new-to-me movies that I saw for the first time this year that didn’t come out this year.

Outside of the realm of direct reviews, I wrote about the works of Thomas Ligotti and cosmic nihilism in the film Gags the Clown, which we also talked about on the latest episode of the Horror Pod Class. (For those who don’t know, I’m now the regular co-host of the Horror Pod Class, which is weekly for the duration of the pandemic, satisfying my contractual obligation to co-host a podcast as ostensibly a white dude of a certain age.)

Next week, we’ll be talking about Attack of the Crab Monsters, so stay tuned!

Mummy 01To say that A Lot has been going on in the world lately is to engage in the most ridiculous understatement. We are living in unprecedented times, and things have taken a turn for the very strange and, let’s face it, probably very tragic, no matter how they shake out.

With any luck, we will manage to prevent the loss of countless lives to COVID-19, but some will still die (some already have), businesses will close, and people will suffer. The future is not necessarily bleak, but it does promise to be difficult.

Everyone has been coping with the pandemic and being on essentially house arrest in their own ways, some better than others. For me, not that much has changed. As a freelancer, I work from home anyway, so it’s just been business as usual, more or less, with the most significant difference being that Grace is currently furloughed and so I’m the only one gainfully employed at the moment – not something you ever want to say, when you’re a freelancer.

Ultra - ReigubasOne thing that’s been helping to keep my days a little brighter, though, and that I’ve been sharing on my various social media timelines in order to, hopefully, brighten the days of my friends and followers, is that Mike Mignola has been doing daily sketches.

The subjects of these sketches have ranged from The Flintstones to Ultraman monsters to a day of mummies to Godzilla and Gamera to Jack Kirby monsters to, most recently, figures from Ray Harryhausen movies. There hasn’t been a Ymir yet, but I’m keeping all my digits crossed.

RommbuThere’s not much of a news post to go with this. Just letting you know that I’m still here, and sharing a few of the drawings that have been helping me to keep my head up as the days of the pandemic tick by.

Between freelance assignments, I’ve been working on a longish project that unfortunately has to remain secret for now, and making good headway. I’ve written a few reviews and other nonfiction things that will be appearing in various places in the near future. Beyond that, there’s not a lot to report.

 

Tonight, I recorded an episode of the Horror Pod Class with Tyler (my usual co-host) and Adam Roberts, owner of the Screenland, which you’ve no doubt seen me talk about a lot. I’ll edit this to put up a link when the episode goes live later this week. (The current most recent episode talks about Noroi, another of my favorite films.)

[ETA: Here’s the link to the Legend of Hell House episode!]

As we always do on the Horror Pod Class, we discussed a horror movie. Because he was the guest, Adam got to pick, and so we talked about The Legend of Hell House*, which is one of my favorite haunted house movies, and the adaptation of literally my top number one favorite haunted house novel, Richard Matheson’s Hell House.

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If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, please stop reading this right now and go do so. Both are really quite good, and if you like my work, or if you and I share relatively similar tastes in horror, you are unlikely to regret heeding my advice on this, even if the tale doesn’t hit you where you live quite like it does for me.

For those of you who have read it or seen it and are familiar with my work, you may be unsurprised to know that Hell House had a huge influence on me, and on a lot of my stories. Like Clive Barker, the sadistic and psychosexual themes of the novel aren’t what hooked me or what were reproduced in my fiction, even though they are certainly what’s laying around on the surface.

You can find echoes of Hell House in the figure in the chair in “The Granfalloon,” in the history of the house in “Nearly Human,” and countless stories featuring hauntings that aren’t what they appear to be.

Matheson had a keen scholarly interest in spiritualist beliefs, and his fictionalized depictions of those beliefs factor into just about every story I’ve ever written that features spiritualism or seances or anything of the sort. His uncompleted novel Come Fygures, Come Shadowes, about a family of mediums, was the keystone to my as-yet-unpublished short story “On Blueberry Hill.”

I’ve read plenty of other Matheson novels and short stories. I Am Legend is, of course, a classic, and I remember being quite fond of his locked-room magician mystery Now You See It…

And, of course, Matheson was responsible for the screenplays of many of my favorite films. Not just adaptations of his own work, but movies like The Pit and the PendulumThe Devil Rides Out, and so on.

But it was Hell House with its matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural that nevertheless stripped it of none of its gothic grandeur that left the biggest imprint on my own fiction, and continues to do so to this day. Re-watching and talking about Legend of Hell House just reminded me of how much that was true.

* Not to be confused with The Haunting of Hill House or The Haunting or House on Haunted Hill.