Showing posts with label Kenneth Hite. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kenneth Hite. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Night's Black Agents, Kenneth Hite, Fritz Leiber, and Vampires

I have long been an admirer of Kenneth Hite as game critic, game commentator, and game designer. The reasons I hold him in high esteem are too numerous to be enumerated here one by one, and that would be boring besides, but there is one reason that stands at the summit of my admiration. It is his awe inspiring ability to fuse history, mystery, pulp, and high art into his game design in surprising ways.

Consider the following. I have known for some time that Ken was working on a new role playing game for Pelgrane Press entitled "Night's Black Agents." The game uses Robin D Laws' innovative "Gumshoe" role playing game system as its engine and combines the genres of action-espionage with vampire horror. That alone makes it a winner. Just read the Pelgrane blurb (and this interview):

The Cold War is over. Bush’s War is winding down.

You were a shadowy soldier in those fights, trained to move through the secret world: deniable and deadly.

Then you got out, or you got shut out, or you got burned out. You didn’t come in from the cold. Instead, you found your own entrances into Europe’s clandestine networks of power and crime. You did a few ops, and you asked even fewer questions. Who gave you that job in Prague? Who paid for your silence in that Swiss account? You told yourself it didn’t matter.

It turned out to matter a lot. Because it turned out you were working for vampires.

Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.

Or worse.

It just oozes high concept excitement. Yet, much like Ken's brilliant The Day After Ragnarok, there seems to be something else going on here as well. It is something that I missed at first glance -- Ken is sneaky that way. I didn't notice it until I was reading an interview with Fritz Leiber in Charles Platt's "Dream Makers vol. 2."

There was a brief comment by Leiber that his first book, published by Arkham House, was entitled Night's Dark Agents. Hmmm... Sneaky that Hite fellow. A follow up game to the successful, and remarkable, Trail of Cthulhu (which I believe to be the best Cthulhu game published to date, though Ken humbly differs) is named after a book published by Arkham House. Arkham House Publishing's first publication was a book of Lovecraft's stories, and Leiber wrote letters to Lovecraft receiving kind responses from the father of Cosmic Horror -- responses that kept Leiber writing until it became a paying gig. The Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story "Adept's Gambit" that is in Night's Black Agents is Leiber's first written -- though not first published -- tale of the duo, and it includes some Cthulhu references.

You see how he so subtly built a connection between Lovecraft and his new game through the vehicle of Leiber?

More than that, Hite knows that the title references "The Scottish Play" as well.

You see, Hite is just able to take ideas -- sometimes seemingly incongruous ideas -- and meld them into something new and wonderful.

I cannot wait for the release of Night's Black Agents.

I wonder if the game will include echoes of Leiber's vampire story, "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes." You can watch a "Serlingized" version of that tale below.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review: The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Wiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed

Patrick Rothfuss, the fantasy author behind the excellent novel The Name of the Wind, has authored a new Fairy Tale picture book that boldly proclaims it is not a book for children. The book is entitled The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed and is published by Subterranean Press.

Given the book's cover, it is perfectly natural that one might be surprised to read that the book claims that it isn't a book for children, but the dust cover explains the book as follows:

This is not a book for Children.
It looks like a children's book. It has pictures. It has a saccharine-sweet title. The main characters are a little girl and her teddy bear. But all of that is just protective coloration. The truth is, this is a book for adults with a sense of humor and an appreciation of old-school faerie tales.

There are three separate endings to the book. Depending on where you stop, you are left with an entirely different story. One ending is sweet, another is horrible. The last one is the true ending, the one with teeth in it.

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle is a dark twist on the classic children's picture book. I think of it as Calvin and Hobbes meets Coraline, with some Edward Gorey mixed in.

Simply said: This is not a book for children.

If one were to look up in a fictitious dictionary of "Descriptions that Set Off Christian's Potentially Pretentious Schlock (PPS) Alarm," one would find the above paragraph under the third listing. For those of you who are wondering, the first listing is references to Neil Gaiman (which this violates) and the second deals with references to Alan Moore.

Given the book's description above, and acknowledging that it has set off my PPS alarm, I purchased the book in the hopes that Mr. Rothfuss -- who is quite a talented writer -- could deliver a quality tale in a genre where most of the work is drivel. That is to say, most darkly humorous "twists" on traditional children's tales are crap. Primarily because they focus so much on being "ironic" that they forget just how horrifying traditional children's stories can be and think that adding a "dark twist" improves upon -- or is ironically superior to -- a tried and true formula.

Classic Fairy Tales (or "faerie tales" depending on who is writing) can be quite horrible in their descriptions. Let's take Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes as an example. The story is a wonderful tale of the dangers of materialism and the consequences of vanity. Andersen never holds back and the tale is horrifically gruesome at its climax:

“Don’t cut off my head!” said Karen, “for then I could not repent of my sin. But cut off my feet with the red shoes.”

And then she confessed all her sin, and the executioner struck off her feet with the red shoes; but the shoes danced away with the little feet across the field into the deep forest.

And he carved her a pair of wooden feet and some crutches, and taught her a psalm which is always sung by sinners; she kissed the hand that guided the axe, and went away over the heath.

Here we have one of the classic fairy tales, told by one of the masters of the "children's" tale, and the girl has her feet cut off and replaced with wooden feet. Not only that, she kisses the hand that removed her feet in thanks for the action. If this tale were to be translated into film, as written, it seems more a Guillermo Del Toro movie than a Disney one.

The old fairy tales were filled with gruesome imagery that many modern parents would think is inappropriate for children. I am not one of those parents and my children will receive the full brunt of Andersen's tales. These stories could be as dark as any "dark twist" story, but the classic stories were also rigid morality tales.

And this is where most "dark twist" stories differ from their inspiration. Most tales of the modern ironic "faerie tale" variety want the darkness without the morality tale, they are pretentiously cosmopolitan pieces that seek only to be either ironic, shocking, or funny. When they are merely ironic or "shocking," they are typically failures of narrative as the stories lack and underlying heart to them. When they are funny, they can be quite good. It isn't the lack of a morality tale that makes the "dark twist" tale fail -- when it fails -- it is the lack of love for the medium itself.

Now that I have expressed some of the reservations that Mr. Rothfuss's description awakened, how does The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle hold up?

It is clear from the beginning that Rothfuss loves children's stories. It is equally clear by page 10 that he is trying to write a humorous tale for those who like fairy tales. The pattern of event to joke that is established in the first 11 pages is the pattern for the final joke as well.

Let me repeat the statement above. This is a tale for those who like fairy tales, though not a tale for those who are just now being introduced to fairy tales. The big joke of the book works best if you have read many a fairy tale and are familiar with all the tropes of a fairy tale. It isn't that the book "isn't for children" in the sense that it would horrify them, or is inappropriate some how. It's just that the book's twist is intended to amuse someone who has read many a fairy tale.

The problem is that the joke, while initially amusing, doesn't live up to the hype. It is a chuckle joke and not a coca-cola squirting out the nostrils because it is so funny joke. It amuses, but lacks profundity. Which is too bad because the main narrative of the story, as well as the art work, is quite good. I found myself turning each page eagerly awaiting what new adventure the Princess and Mr. Whiffle would embark upon, or how they would deal with the monster under the bed.

Rothfuss is a magical storyteller throughout the book, but the twist falls flat.

The basic story is of a Princess who lives alone in a castle and has as a sole companion her teddy bear Mr. Wiffle. The two go on many imaginary journeys with one another during the day, but at night they fear the thing under the bed. The Princess's wild imagination speculates that the creature is horrible and terrible and...You'll have to read the book to find out the rest.

There are three ways that Rothfuss could have gone that would have made the book's ending work better for me.

First, he could have seriously tackled the horror of what is under the bed. Most children have feared things that go bump in the night and Rothfuss is a good enough storyteller to bring to the page that horror.

Second, he could have done a commentary on how cruel children can be when they leave their childhood companions behind. I have trouble reading the final Pooh tale because it makes me despise Christopher Robin. His abandonment of Pooh is quite cruel, as is the abandonment of Puff in that tale. When children abandon their childhood companions in the way that Christopher Robin does, they do more than leave childish things behind -- they leave their imagination and their souls as well. That would have been an interesting story that Rothfuss could easily have written.

Third, he could have gone a little bit further with the ending that he did write. We never learn the why of the castle, or the background story. Don't merely give me the joke, use it as an opportunity to continue the tale. Of course, Rothfuss could do this in a subsequent volume in the series and that would satisfy me. The fact that one of my complaints about the ending is that it opens up more questions that I desire answered is a benefit.

Overall, I think that the book falls somewhere between the two Kenneth Hite Lovecraftian Children's books (Where the Deep Ones Are and The Antarctic Express) in quality. It has the charm of Deep Ones, but drops the ball a little at the end like Antarctic.

Nate Taylor's artwork in the book is excellent, with the exception of the Princess's face from time to time. Her expressions sometimes venture into "anime" style, whereas the rest of the illustration in in a more traditional children's book illustration style. This is a minor quibble as the illustrations are quite fun. In particular illustrations on pages 11,46, and 67.

As the parent of two year-old twin daughters, I am always on the lookout for stories that I can share with them. This book makes the cut, for when they are six or so, but its ending prevents it from being in the same league as Jane Yolen's excellent How Do Dinosaurs series.

Rothfuss's story doesn't lack heart, but it does fail to answer the question "why?" Why does the twist happen? Just because it is ironic? That's not enough of an answer. I want a world that explains the why. Then we have a tale that can lead to interesting discussions.

As it is, we have a story of mild amusement that is well written and illustrated, but fizzles at the end.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Eagerly Awaiting a New "Out of the Box" by Kenneth Hite

Has it really been four months since Kenneth Hite last shared his insights into the independent rpg world with us in the form of a new "Out of the Box" opinion column?

Sadly, yes.

Hite's "Out of the Box" column is one of the great treats that the internet has to offer to gamers who desire to look for games a step off of the beaten path. Hite has been writing the column since 1997 and back when was an actual gaming news site, Hite's OOTB columns provided editorial content that supplemented was a step above the site's "Press Release" news feed. Hite's columns were conversational, provided insight about games you may have otherwise missed, and were written in his erratic polymath style. In shore, like Hite's own self promoting blog, they were a joy to read.

When folded, Hite's column migrated over to one of the best places on the internet to find small press role playing games the Independent Press Revolution website. Since migrating to the website, Hite has written columns filled with praise for games about anthropomorphic mice, Lucha Libre wrestlers, murderous space marines, superhero homicide detectives, and mysterious disappearances.

He has also written a couple of wonderful little rpg products himself in the past two years.

But Hite hasn't written a column since March of this year. Surely he can give us an Origins report, or a discussion of how 2010 is the year of the super hero rpg, or a review of a game wherein players take on the role of Helots who strive to live normal lives in between brutal Spartan raids.

In the meantime, I'll just have to visit his blog.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Watch the (fake) The Day After Ragnarök Movie Trailer, then Buy the Book

YouTube creator "BloodRunsClear" has created a movie trailer for an imagined film based on Kenneth Hite's remarkable Savage Worlds game setting The Day After Ragnarök (DAR) by Atomic Overmind Press.

Kenneth Hite has long been respected as one of the most talented writers in the gaming hobby, and has been a long time advocate of the independent game publisher movement. His "Suppressed Transmission" column for the online version of Pyramid Magazine was a must read while it existed was a rich source of inspiration for game masters everywhere. Hite has the capacity to connect seemingly unrelated events/objects in ways that were an almost "how to" education in designing alternative histories/presents. Reading his column, I always wondered what would happen if Kenneth Hite took the talents he demonstrated in "Suppressed Transmission" and applied them to an rpg setting. With The Day After Ragnarök Hite answered that question and it is a magnificent amalgam of Pulp goodness. Let's just say it's a setting that is a post-WW II Norse Apocalypse as seen through Robert E. Howard's eyes. It's a world where both Doc Savage and Conan would be welcome, and where characters of classic noir films stand in the shadows.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Through the Gates of Ennui: Sharing Timmis and Fierro's "The Silver Key" Adaption

Fans of HP Lovecraft know that film adaptations of HP Lovecraft stories have a shaky history at best. Scads of tales have been adapted, but very few have been remotely watchable. The only real gem of the bunch is the silent version of "The Call of Cthulhu" produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. The film is well done and captures the haunting tones of Lovecraft's story by rejecting any impulse to modernize the narrative or special effects. The Historical Society produced the film not only as a period piece, they produced the film "as if" it had been produced in 1926. In doing so, they created a genuinely enjoyable and powerful work. I look forward to seeing their to eventually be completed adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness."

Making films of successful and haunting Lovecraftian tales is difficult enough, but how difficult would it be to adapt a tale that is at its core problematic? Conor Timmis and Gary Fierro are two independent filmmakers who were brave enough to answer this question with their adaptation of "The Silver Key" entitled "The Silver Key." Cthulhu aficionado Ken Hite has said of what makes the tale so problematic, it's lack of true dread, "even Lovecraft didn't believe that "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is apathy," which is why there's a thriving horror literature, and tales of ennui are rapidly forgotten, dei gratia."

"The Silver Key" is a tale of ennui and not horror, but then again that seems to make it perfect for indie film fare.

The ten minute film is, like the HPLHS film, a silent film, but in this case they have updated the setting to the modern day. The use of daylight during the opening sequences of the film remove any weighty emotion introspection of the Randolf Carter character, haunting obsessive desires to retreat into childhood are better displayed at night, but the choice is a much less expensive choice than filming at night. There is a nice transition from bright to overcast/gloomy as the film progresses and couple of good uses of digital effects. One does wonder what the Yellow Sign is doing in the story, is the director implying that retreat into childhood leads to madness? The film runs 10 minutes. What do you think of it as an adaptation of this story?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Ken Hite Inspired by Carnacki

Game designers and game masters are always looking for new inspirations for games and interactions.

I cannot tell you how many times I find myself reading through a book just to see if it contains elements that I can use in adventures that I am running for my regular gaming group. The end of one of our campaigns was based on the James Barclay novel Elfsorrow -- loosely based -- which ended up being one of the most successful campaign finales I have run in years. That novel's grand heroic tension made for a perfect campaign goal.

I also find myself, when reading comic book back issues, reading them through the lens of how to structure my comic book rpg sessions. Not that old comic books were great reading, but they sure make for action packed 4 hour game sessions -- something that seems to deeply satisfy my Necessary Evil group.

Kenneth Hite has recently read a story featuring William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki thestories. Carnacki is the classic ghost hunting detective, the supernatural counter to Holmes' material metaphysics.

As is typical of a gamer, Hite has expressed how reading Carnacki stories always makes him want to design a Carnacki roleplaying game. Hite offers a couple of possible mechanical and narrative frameworks that he might use to adapt such a game, including the Gumshoe and Savage Worlds systems. Both of these game systems are near and dear to my heart, but I think there is a game that could be used to simultaneously capture the style of the Carnacki stories while maintaining the importance -- and roleplaying excitement -- of Carnacki's obligatory supernatural opposing rituals.

I think that Ken should adapt the system used in Eric J. Boyd's The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries. Given that Carnacki stories are usually tales where a group gathers and is told a tale, Boyd's game structure is a perfect starting point for design. The systems may not create the levels of suspense necessary in a horror tale, but mechanics could be created that would allow for the level of tension that Hite desires.

Imagine if you will a society of Edwardian Ladies and Gentlemen gathered in Dodgson's study awaiting the next examination of their adventures against the supernatural. One could have the players as comrades of Carnacki, or have them be the interlocutors questioning and extrapolating on Carnacki's tale. No player would have to be the Carnacki character...potentially all could be. One advantage to the shared storyteller aspect could be the potential of having a Carnacki-esque character who has a genuine chance of failure or death.

One could make it so the setting is such that the discussion takes place, with Dodgson leading the discussion, before Carnacki arrives. Thus if Carnacki perishes, it could be his friends sharing his "final" adventure. Or if death is unnecessary, but you still want failure to be an option you can still use the Carnacki sharing a tale with the group. What would happen in the discussion/roleplay could be used to determine the consequences of Carnacki's failure to dispel the sinister spirits.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ambrose Bierce's "That Damned Thing," 12 Days of Lovecraft, and Why Seamus Cooper is Wrong

While I was reading the notes regarding the collaboration between C L Moore and Forrest Ackerman on her story "Nymph of Darkness," (I posted about the collaboration here) I was intrigued by Moore's reference to Ambrose Bierce's "That Damned Thing" as an inspiration for the way Nyusa's invisibility worked. I knew that Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" featured a creature made of a color no one had ever seen before, and that Ambrose Bierce was one of Lovecraft's influences. I had just never taken the time to read Bierce's tale "That Damned Thing" ...until last night.

"That Damned Thing" is a short and enjoyable tale, that isn't at all what I expected based on my earlier assumptions. Having read Moore's correspondence with Ackerman, and Lovecraft's description in Supernatural Horror in Literature, I expected something Gothic and atmospheric. I expected a tale filled with madness and despair. Lovecraft's description of "That Damned Thing" points to it as an exception in Bierce's narrative style, a style which Lovecraft describes as "a jaunty and commonplacedly artificial style derived from journalistic models." Gothic and atmospheric are not words that I would use to describe "That Damned Thing." It certainly has its disturbing elements, and it is a wonderful commentary on willful disbelief, but it is a shockingly straight-forward tale.

"That Damned Thing" is a perfect example of the modern procedural tale. The story opens with men, Mountain Men to be specific, gathered around a table upon which lies the body of Hugh Morgan. The use of Mountain Men is likely very intentional with regard to what Bierce is aiming at with the story. Frederick Jackson Turner's presentation on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" had been made earlier in the year that "That Damned Thing" was published, and the stages of Turner's hypothesis are witnessed in the tale.

First, we have the Mountain Men those rugged adventurers who explore the vast unknown wilderness. Then we have the "coroner," a figure who is one of the Mountain Men in dress and composure, but who has a job associated with greater civilization. In fact, the reason the men are gathered around the table is to perform a kind of coroner's inquest and decide upon the cause of Hugh Morgan's death. Finally, we have William Harker, the young journalist and fiction writer who had come to the Frontier to write a story about Hugh Morgan. William completely represents the final stage of development in Jackson's work. We have explorer's, law bringers, and the civilized, and they are all gathered around a table to guide us through the narrative.

The narrative is broken into four clear acts.

There is the establishing act where we find out that the men have gathered as a jury and that William Harker will testify regarding how Hugh Morgan died. We also learn that there is an additional piece of evidence, a book, that will play a role in the story even after it fails to play a role in the jury.

The next act consists of Harker's testimony about his hunting trip with Morgan and the beast that they encountered, a beast responsible for Hugh's death. A couple of things stand out here. We are finally given hints as to the location of the story. Bierce consistently uses the term chaparral when describing the environment, a flora commonly associated with the West. The use of chaparral lends further evidence to the Turner-esque nature of the story. When the beast is introduced, it is described as "the wind" moving vegetation. It is only after Morgan shoots at the beast, and it charges Morgan, that Harker realizes that they have encountered some invisible creature. The description of the invisibility is intriguing and somewhat puzzling.

"At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand -- at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible."

We know from Harker's description that the creature is invisible, and transparent. We can see through it as it moves through the bushes in the earlier description. We also learn that things within its grasp are similarly obscured from our vision in the places where the creature holds its victim. There is obviously some cause, other than mere transparency, for the beast's invisibility.

In the third act, the Jury deliberates and determines that the death was caused by a mountain lion. The coroner assures the jurors that there is no other evidence available to help them in their determination of cause of death. The jury rejects a purely supernatural cause for the death, but acknowledges that Harker bears no fault. We also learn that the coroner was lying when he said that there was no other useful evidence. The book the coroner had been reading at the beginning of the tale happens to be Hugh Morgan's diary.

The final act is where all is made clear, in non-supernatural terms. Morgan's diary reveals to the audience that Morgan had indeed been encountering an invisible creature for some time, but Morgan had a scientific explanation. This was no mythic beast, rather the creature only reflects light that the human eye cannot see. Somehow light bends around the creature. This is where the description of the invisibility of the creature is at its strongest and weakest. The reason for the invisibility is ingenious, the execution is lacking. Bierce refers to Morgan noticing the creature because its form blocked his ability to see a couple of stars, yet he can "see through" the creature to the world behind it. In essence, the creature may not actually be invisible in the sense we tend to think of invisibility. Rather we may just be unable to see the thing, no black absence of light and no true transparency. A little awkward, but still cool.

What is even more interesting is what Bierce is doing here. One can readily understand why authors might write tales about the inability of those who follow a material metaphysic to acknowledge or engage with the supernatural. THE EXORCIST is a wonderful horror tale of this sort. The science being applied to the victim of possession is as horrifying as, if not more than, the effects of the actual possession. What happens in Bierce's tale is a material metaphysician, or rational realist if you will, in the form of the coroner unable to cope with a plausible scientific description of an unimaginable thing. Some scientists might want to explore the chaparral to find the beast, but the coroner essentially asserts that it is "better not to know." One wonders if Bierce was critiquing particular rigid dogmatists in the scientific community with this tale.

One can see why Lovecraft and Moore were inspired by the piece. Lovecraft liberally borrows names from "That Damned Thing" in his story "The Colour Out of Space." The only person who will share the tale of the invisible beast stalking the lands around Arkham is named Ammi Pierce -- clearly Ambrose Bierce -- and the name Nahum Gardner is close enough to Hugh Morgan for government work. The reluctance of the townsfolk to talk with our narrator in "Colour" fits with the jury's reluctance to deal with the unknown. Which brings me to today's 12 Days of Lovecraft Tor website post by Seamus Cooper.

Cooper asserts that "The Colour Out of Space" is quite bad. A strong opinion regarding a story that Lovecraft thought his best, and about a tale that is largely praised among Lovecraft fandom. Cooper believes that "Colour" is "ill-conceived and poorly executed." This belief seems to largely stem from the fact that Cooper believes that the stakes of the tale have already taken place and that there is nothing left to chill the spines of the reader.

He is wrong on both counts. Kenneth Hite discusses some of the merits of the tale in his Tour de Lovecraft, so I won't repeat them here. Instead, I'll make a couple of my own observations.

With regard to the tale being poorly executed, one finds this a particularly baffling claim. The story begins with what may be the best written first sentence and introductory paragraphs in all of Lovecraftian fiction, "West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut." The words are poetry without purple prose. Lovecraft sets the tone of the wild and unexplored marvelously, and he sets the tone for the foulness of the place itself in exquisite fashion. This story is rife with beautifully constructed wordsmithing, something I wouldn't often credit Lovecraft's fiction.

It is also remarkable how Lovecraft has transformed a hunting encounter with an unknown beast into a horrifying encounter with an alien presence. An encounter, I might add, that extends the interaction between the alien and the scientific beyond the mere coroner. In the end the beast does vanish, leaving a small piece behind trapped in a well, putting a seeming end to the stakes. But given the fact that there is soon to be a reservoir on top of the location of the small (trapped) piece, and the nature altering and mind altering affect this piece has on the land and the people surrounding it, one wonders what will happen when the reservoir comes and possibly frees the beast.

The end of this tale is as creepy as the end of the first FRIDAY 13th, when we discover that it might be possible for Jason to rise from the bottom of the lake, or John Carpenter's THE THING. The creature is destroyed at the end of Carpenter's movie...or is it. The same is true here. Just how has the beast altered those around it? What effect will it have?

The stakes are subtle, rather than grotesque. They are social, rather than personal. But the stakes are horrifying none the less.

This beast represents something more than a colorless thing. No wonder the story inspired the source story for THE THING and the narrative of THE BLOB.

"Can't git away...draws know summ'at's comin', but 'tain't no use..."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lovecraft for Christmas, Kenneth Hite, Seamus Cooper, and "From Beyond" on Hulu Recommendation Friday

All this month, Tor is hosting a "December Belongs to Cthulhu" event on their website. I mentioned earlier the historic connection horror and the winter season have with each other, as perfectly described by Manly Wade Wellman.

The Tor site has even begun a series of posts entitled "The Twelve Days of Lovecraft" as a part of the celebration. The "Twelve Days" posts feature a discussion of twelve of Seamus Cooper's favorite Lovecraft tales, with a discussion of why they are so effective and what their greatest problems are. Cooper wrote the entertaining Mall of Cthulhu, which I reviewed earlier this year, and is a natural selection for a series of articles about Lovecraft's fiction.

I think it would be interesting to compare the entries to the indispensable "Tour de Lovecraft" web entries provided by polymath extraordinaire, and author of the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game (the BEST Lovecraftian RPG ever written, though the author would quibble with that praise), Kenneth Hite. Hite's "Tour de Lovecraft" is the yardstick by which I measure all story discussion blog posts.

Let's just say that in presenting this story, Hite's entry is useful to the neophyte and the veteran where Cooper's entry is useful primarily to the neophyte -- though Cooper does sprinkle in some good humor. As I noted in my review of Cooper's Mall of Cthulhu, Cooper makes a point of discussing Lovecraft's racism and the obscurity of Lovecraft's prose. Two things that are interesting to point out to the neophyte, but which without new insights into root causes (as William Jones has done in his discussions of Lovecraft and Eugenics) it's really beating a dead horse. Hite references the racism as well, because it really is blatant and must be mentioned, but focuses his post on comparing Lovecraft's storytelling with Edmund Burke's aesthetics. Now that is a connection that I might not have made, and I've read Burke's Enquiry.

Both authors note that "Dunwich Horror" is a Gospel-esque tale, but only Hite notices that there are two Gospels being presented. There is the supernatural Gospel of the creature and the secular Gospel of Armitage. Hite also discusses the work as pastiche. Something fans of Lovecraft often overlook is the influence prior authors had on Lovecraft's own writing, and Hite is right to remind us here that Lovecraft's story is not purely Lovecraft. It should be noted that while Hite's article is the "deeper" of the two, in this case, it is also the more confusing one to the uninitiated. If you haven't read the story before diving into Hite's conversation, you could quickly become lost. This is not the case with Cooper.

The sharpest distinction between the Cooper and Hite posts is their reactions to Lovecraft's description of the town. Cooper is bored by the length and clumsiness of the description of the town and Hite draws maps of Innsmouth based on the description. One can imagine that for most readers a description long and accurate enough to base a map upon might be a trite dull. Cooper and Hite also disagree with regard to Lovecraft's use of the "native" in the story. For Cooper, it is further evidence of Lovecraft's obsession with racial purity -- and it is. For Hite, it is something more. He sees Lovecraft's use of primitive mythology as a subversive one, where he inverts which mythology (Western or "other") is more important. In this tale, the mythical worldview of the other is more accurate. Though the eugenics narrative is still overpowering.

But this isn't "analyze Cooper and Hite Friday," this is Hulu Recommendation Friday. Given the Lovecraftian bent of the post so far, I feel that I must give a Lovecraftian offering. Without further ado, I give you the awful (as in not very good) , From Beyond.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cthulhu 101 by Kenneth Hite -- Go Buy It Now!!!

I have mentioned Kenneth Hite's works before on Cinerati. He's written everything from Children's books and roleplaying game products to Fortean magazine columns and "must read" companion books to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft -- he's also written an illustrated guide to U.S. History.

Hite's latest venture requires all of the skills highlighted in Hite's wide ranging bibliography. Cthulhu 101 by Kenneth Hite is one of the most informative and entertaining For Dummies-eque books I have ever read, and it is the first in what will be a line of "101 Books" by Hite's Atomic Overmind Press. The book some how manages to be a delightful and light-hearted introduction to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft suitable for the completely uninitiated, while also containing enough in jokes to satisfy a wide array of Lovecraft fans.

Do you have no knowledge of Cthulhu and H.P. Lovecraft? That's okay because Hite's informative and humorous tone will introduce you to the character and author in a way that piques interest without being a substitute for the experience. Hite deftly educates readers about Lovecraft, the Lovecraftian circle, and their place in modern horror fiction in bite sized content that reads like a fun conversation. Most sections begin with a question. For example, "Who is Cthulhu?" These questions are followed by a response, which may or may not be humorous. For the aforementioned question, the answer is a straightforward one:

"Cthulhu is a monstrous being invented by the author H.P. Lovecraft in the short story 'The Call of Cthulhu.' Lovecraft wrote the story in 1926, and Weird Tales magazine published it in 1928."

His answer to "I mean, what does Cthulhu look like?" is more humorous.

Are you a gamer who has played the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, but want to know more about the character and author? This book is a great place to start and has a reading list in the back and directs readers to some of Hite's favorite stories. If you are an old D&D gamer who has a copy of the original Deities and Demigods, there is a nice in joke for you on page 49.

Have you read all of Lovecraft's writing, but are wondering what the best film based on Lovecraft's fiction is? He's got you covered. If you want to know which Lovecraftian films to avoid, Hite's got a pretty good list. This list contains Cthulhu Mansion, and Hite's description of the film is one of the funniest film reviews I have ever read -- "There is, in fact, a mansion in this movie. The rest is lies and theft."

Hite is a little hard on August Derleth, who is to Lovecraft as L. Sprague de Camp is to Robert E Howard, but is as fair to Derleth as any Lovecraft "purist" can be. This is to say, while Hite is critical of Derleth he makes sure to point out that one of the better Mythos tales -- "The Thing that Walked on the Wind" -- is a Derleth tale.

As an aside, I'm one of those who -- like the Cimmerian -- is more forgiving of de Camp than many of my fellow Robert E Howard fans. Maybe it's because for all that de Camp butchered and infantalized Conan, deC amp's Harold Shea stories are must reads for any fan of Fantasy literature.

Hite's prose is spot on throughout the book and the illustrations by Drew Pocza are a nice counterpoint to the information -- with one exception. While Pocza's black and white illustrations are well drawn and engaging, his cover does leave something to be desired. Pocza's digital colored Cthulhu on the cover lacks the charm of the interior illustrations.

Don't let the cover, printed in the villain colors* of purple and green, fool you. This book is a must own -- go buy it now!

* -- Green and Purple are the standard villain colors in four-color comic books. Think about all the iconic villains, particularly Marvel, and how many of them are green and purple themed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cthulhu Expert Kenneth Hite 's Stocking Stuffer Lovecraft -- Antarctic Express and Where the Deep Ones Are.

At the past two Gen Cons, Atlas Games has released a children's adaptation of a Cthulhu mythos story scripted by Cthulhu expert Kenneth Hite.

In 2008, Atlas Games release Where the Deep Ones Are written by Hite with art by Andy Hopp. Where the Deep Ones Are is a retelling of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as transformed through the lens of Where the Wild Things Are.

In 2009, they released The Antarctic Express which took Lovecraft's classic At the Mountains of Madness and slightly changed the tale to match up with the recent holiday classic The Arctic Express. Express was illustrated by Christina Rodriguez.

The combination of Lovecraftian elements with children's stories is not one that would come naturally to the mind's of most people, but Kenneth Hite isn't most people. For years, Hite wrote a column entitled "Suppressed Transmission" ("Of course you know about the Suppressed Transmission") where he demonstrated both a vast catalog of knowledge and an ability to tie seemingly unrelated subjects together with a deft writing hand. When he ceased writing the column for Pyramid Online, the internet lost one of the best post-Fortean modern Fortean columns ever written. Hite is also a great advocate for the independent roleplaying game scene and a dyed in the wool Lovecraftian -- who apparently also shares a love of children's stories.

Hite is the only person I can think of who could have created Where the Deep Ones Are and The Antarctic Express to show us what you would get if you combined Charles Fort, H. P. Lovecraft, and Maurice Sendak.

I am of two minds with regard to what I think of the books themselves.

As a fan of Lovecraftania and products that combine nostalgia for ones childhood with geek elements, I think these books are magnificent. They certainly belong in the book case of any fan of H. P. Lovecraft, or of anyone who has a quirky/cynical sense of humor. Hite is quite a capable writer and Michelle Nephew (the editor) found the perfect illustrator's for each volume. Andy Hopp's surreal and slimy artwork -- which I first encountered in the Low Life setting for Savage Worlds -- fits naturally with a squamous and rugose transformation of "Wild Things." I am particularly impressed by Christina Rodriguez. Her ability to draw in the style of Polar Express while simultaneously drawing my favorite representations of Lovecraftian Shoggoths is quite a feat. Her representation of the Shoggoth is

As a parent of 19 month old twin girls, I found the books to be a mixed bag.

Where the Deep Ones Are has found its way onto my daughters' bookshelves and will be read to them as a part of their regular rotation of bed time stories. In this book, Hite perfectly balances the yearning for adventure experienced by children with the Lovecraftian weird elements. Deep Ones never achieves the nihilistic horror of a true "weird tale," instead it errs on the side of wonder. This, combined with Hopp's entertaining and interesting illustrations, makes for an ideal childrens' book.

Antarctic Express has found its way onto MY bookshelf, right between The Moonstone and The Last Man. The book does capture a lot of the tone of Arctic Express, but it also perfectly captures the weird horror elements of Lovecraft's tale. The final page, where the title character is driven insane, is a bit out of place in a bed time story for 19 month old twins. Oh, and Rodriguez's penguins are downright creepy (much creepier than the Shoggoths) -- which is great, but adds to my "not for 19 month old twins" knee jerk reaction. The girls will have to wait before I read this book to them until I can explain madness to them, or at least until they are four or five years old. Hite's writing in this book is also very effective at capturing a nice horror tone. My thoughts are that Hite erred too much on the side of accurate translation and too little on the side of childhood adventure with this volume.

I hope that Hite continues to create volumes in this series, as they are a unique entry in the field of childrens' books. They aren't quite up to the over all quality level of Jane Yolen's "Dinosaur" series -- but then again, not much is.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Dust of the Gods"

"I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock." -- Edgar Allan Poe, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

Catherine Moore's fourth Northwest Smith story is one which continues a noble tradition in Weird Horror fiction, that of the Antarctic/Arctic expedition. This tradition has included some of my favorite horror and sf tales and movies. A list that includes Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, John W. Campbell's Who Goes There?, and John Carpenter's The Thing, based on Campbell's tale. These stories combine mankind's natural curiosity, the desire to explore the unknown, with mankind's natural fear of that same unknown. Given the lifeless wastes of the Antarctic/Arctic environment, it is the perfect setting for a scary story.

It is a particularly perfect location for the "post-mythological" horror story, the kind of horror story that leaves superstition and mysticism to the dust bin of history and creates supernatural horror that might exist in a rational and material universe. This is the perfect horror for a scientific age. Kenneth Hite, in his [Tour de Lovecraft] entry for At the Mountains of Madness describes this kind of tale as "remythologization." As he describes it, horror that provides a "plausible entryway for 'adventurous expectancy' not through a world-view that saw everything as magic but through a new world-view, one that saw everything as rational." It is horror for a world where "God is Dead," and where traditional spooks don't provide the chills they once did.

One can also see the line of "remythologized," or "post-mythological," horror represented in film franchises like SAW, HOSTEL, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, MANHUNTER, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Films like these, themselves descendants of Grand Guignol, provide the shocks and chills that thrill the imagination without the need of "mystical" events.

Unlike these human-o-centric tales of mass murder the Antarctic/Arctic expedition tale does include elements of the "supernatural," but it is only "supernatural" in the sense that what is encountered goes beyond what we currently understand about nature. The supernatural element isn't something that violates the laws of nature, rather it is something that man has yet to encounter that evolved according to the laws of nature in a manner different than previously encountered. Poe is the possible exception here -- the one that proves the rule. Like the monster in ALIEN, and the Couerl of A.E. Van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle (which are expedition tales that substitute space for Antarctica), the unstoppable horrors are material and not mystical.

This is a fun genre and it is nice to see Moore dip her toes in with "Dust of the Gods."

"Dust of the Gods" begins, like many Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and too many fantasy stories, at an "inn" where our protagonist and his loyal companion sit in search of something to do. Northwest Smith and his trusty Venusian sidekick Yarol are broke and down to their last drop of whiskey. They are in need of adventure and finances...not necessarily in that order.

While they are commiserating about their lack of liquidity, Yarol notices two men entering the establishment. He describes them as "hunters" to Smith, and hints that they might know where he and Smith can get some work. It doesn't take long for Yarol to notice that there is something different about these two men than Yarol remembers. They are more paranoid than usual. Smith sarcastically proposes that the reason the two men are so skittish is that they may have found what they were looking for and are now haunted by the experience. This is in fact, as it turns out, the case. The two men were hired to go into the arctic regions of Mars to find the "Dust of the Gods" and bring it back, but after finding it have returned to civilization psychologically scarred.

China Miéville argues convincingly in his introduction to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness that it was a retelling of Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and not in any way a sequel. I think he is right, but I think that Moore's "Dust of the Gods" is a sequel to both the Lovecraft and Poe tale. It is also, if Miéville's account of the politics of Lovecraft's tale is correct, a political response to the Lovecraftian version. The two "hunters" are the men who have returned from Lovecraft's Antarctica forever changed by the experience, Lovecraft's Antarctica has merely been moved to Mars so that Northwest Smith and Yarol can follow in the footsteps of those who have been broken, like Lovecraft's Danforth and Poe's Pym, and succeed where the others have failed. Smith seeing once brave men, now jumpy and frightened, has intrigued his own sense of adventure. He wants to know what could shatter the psyche's of once brave men.

Smith doesn't have to wait long, for he is quickly approached by an old man of indeterminable race. His features are described as follows, "under the deep burn of the man's skin might be concealed a fair Venusian pallor or an Earthman bronze, canal-Martian rosiness or even a leathery dryland hide." The old man's race, and the true color of his skin, is obfuscated by time and wear (an important contrast to the clear black/white dichotomy of both the Poe and Lovecraft version).

It turns out that the old man is the person who hired the other hunters and that they indeed found what they were seeking (or at least "where" they were seeking), but that they failed to return with that which the old man seeks. Smith and Yarol listen as the old man gives them his sales pitch. He wishes Smith and Yarol to travel to the arctic in search of the remains of the god Black Pharol, of whom all that remain are a pile of dust. Pharol was one of the three original gods, on whom all others are based, and the only one to leave behind any physical essence. As the old man describes them:

There were gods who were old when Mars was a green planet, and a verdant moon circled an Earth blue with steaming seas, and Venus, molten-hot, swun round a younger sun. Another world circled in space then, between Mars and Jupiter where its fragments, the planetoids, now are. You will have heard rumors of it -- they persist in the legends of every planet. It was a mighty world, rich and beautiful, peopled by the ancestors of mankind. And on that world dwelt a mighty Three in a temple of crystal, served by strange slaves and worshiped by a world. They were not wholly abstract, as most modern gods have become. Some say they were from beyond, and real, in their way, as flesh and blood.

In one paragraph, Moore has transformed a theological construct into an alien and material one -- following very much in the footsteps of Lovecraft by making her "gods" ancient trans-dimensional aliens. The first two alien gods, Saig and Lsa, disappeared so long ago that not even legends of them exist, but Pharol -- "a mighty Third set above these two and ruling the Lost Planet" -- continued to exist after the other two had faded away. Eventually Pharol too passed from this dimension leaving behind a pile of dust that still contains some of his essence, and which the old man seeks so that he can reach Pharol and control him. The old man knows tht for "the man who could lay hands on that dust, knowing the requisite rites and formulae, all knowledge, all power would lie open like a book. To enslave a god!"

For some reason, that old man's maniacal declaration doesn't dissuade Smith and Yarol from taking the job -- apparently they are desperately in need of money and the whiskey it can buy. Besides, if you're drunk enough are you really going to notice the primordial extra-dimensional god destroying the universe as you know it? Smith and Yarol accept the man's offer and travel off to the arctic to find the dust remains of an ancient god.

They eventually arrive at a range of mountains in Mars polar region and follow the directions the old man gave them, where they discover a passage leading under the surface of the planet and -- if the old man is right -- into the heart of the crystal temple that once was home to the Three gods.

As they pass through the tunnels, they encounter two phenomena that are references back to the earlier Poe and Lovecraft tales. First, they encounter a darkness that is impenetrable. Their space age flashlights cannot penetrate the darkness and it is an almost palpable thing. In a way, Moore's inclusion of a physically palpable darkness is reminiscent of Poe's inclusion of dark people in the Antarctic regions, only here Moore refrains from the racist undertones of Poe and Lovecraft by having the darkness itself alive and no more terrifying than the next "thing" to appear. That thing is a white apparition reminiscent of the figure at the end of Poe's Pym. Smith and Yarol are able to determine that this white figure is what the two original hunters fled from and it is this that they fear is chasing them.

It should be noted that while Poe's Narrative ends abruptly with the appearance of a white apparition, it is the narrator's recalling of this apparition that likely causes his untimely death and thus inability to finish the tale. Poe's readers never find out what happened next because the narrator dies, likely from fear, during the retelling. One might say that Smith, after he encounters and passes Moore's white apparition, is continuing where Pym left off. He is certainly continuing beyond where the hunters explored. The appearance of the white apparition pulls on Smith's psyche, but he manages to retain his connection to reality and leap past the apparition and "fall" deeper into the planet. Smith eventually speculates that the apparition may only be able to exist in the palpable darkness.

When Smith and Yarol do find the crystal temple and open its doors, they have yet more one wonder revealed to them. The crystal temple is illuminated by light that behaves like a liquid and their entry has provided a whole by which the light can drain from the room like a crack in an aquarium. This light is the true counterpart to the darkness described earlier and the description of it draining from the room is one of the most interesting descriptions I have read in fiction for sometime. I might venture to say that the concept of "liquid light" is one of the more original ideas I've read.

As the light drains from the room, Yarol walks up to the triple throne and finds the dust of Pharol and is about to pack it up for delivery when he picks up on Smith's thoughts that it may not be the best idea to give a madman this kind of power. They had initially written the "power" of the dust off as superstition, but their journey has made them think better of it. Smith and Yarol finally make their first "moral" decision to date in the NW stories, they decide to destroy the dust if they can. During their attempt, Smith's psyche is overwhelmed as he sees images of the world as it was when it was ruled by Pharol and the others of the Three. He even sees the death of the Lost Planet and realizes that this temple crashed into Mars eons ago where it became a temple for ancient Martians before their civilization decayed and the gods were forgotten. Smith and Yarol leave to return to their lives having encountered darkness, but still whole for the experience.

It is in this ending where Moore breaks most strongly from Poe and Lovecraft. In their tales, the protagonists are broken by an experience beyond their control. In Moore's tale, Smith and Yarol leave having decided to save a world -- possibly a universe -- from horror. China Miéville argues that the Shoggoths of Lovecraft's tale represent the "masses" and their decaying effect on civilization. Lovecraft's protagonist has a mental breakdown while in a subway station, reminded by the sounds of the masses around him of the amoeboid horrors in Antarctica. The masses are the horror in Lovecraft, in Moore it is the dictator who is the horror. All Smith and Yarol need do is to stop one man to save mankind, mankind isn't the villain of the tale. "Dust of the Gods" was written in 1934 and the "Enabling Act" that gave Hitler dictatorial control of Germany had been passed on March 23, 1933. One wonders if the rise of the dictator in general, and Hitler in particular, were on Moore's mind as she wrote this tale. Whatever the case it is certain that by focusing on the evil one man is capable of doing, rather than the terror of the mob, Moore was not merely writing a sequel to Lovecraft. She was also writing a political response to him.

It should also be noted that Moore's use of the dust of Pharol seems to be a reference to the final sentence of Poe's Narrative, which is the quote at the top of the piece, and demonstrates how centrally important story titles can be to the literary conversation that authors participate in with each other as history unfolds.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

3)Blogging Northwest Smith: "Scarlet Dream"
2) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"
1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"