Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Wake

The King is Dead! Long Live the King! The death of Morpheus is, ultimately, a costume change as Daniel Hall assumes the mantle (and dialog font) of the departed Dream.

Having, at this point in its run, amassed an ensemble cast of characters, it's time for the curtain call and final bows. Among the break-out stars are Nuala, Rob Gadling, Lyta Hall, Rose Walker, et al. Everybody really. Even you.

And so it's Whatever Happened to King of Dreams, before that style of wake became a thing--a precursor to the notion of a wake as a celebration not of life but rather as a celebration of the surrounding mythology. Goodnight Dreaming, Goodnight Matthew the raven, Goodnight, Goodbye, Goodnight.

Having exhausted mythic Greek tragedy, the final act had to bend the knee to Shakespeare--covering both ends of how a British man forges the links between his epic and what we might think of as The Epics. Of course, the Shakespearean reference in the denouement has to be to The Tempest; if you fancy that you've written something lasting, you must also fancy yourself to be a (if not the) Prospero. You don't go into this business if you haven't enslaved Ariel only to set him free, if you aren't a bit afraid that Caliban is your reflection in the glass, and if you don't have a deep and abiding need to set things to right and be seen as the real hero for doing so.

Also, you want the privilege of being the one to tidy things up in the end, I reckon. Sometimes that cleaning of one's own doll house means killing off your protagonist, your proxy, your shadow-self in the shadow box you built with your own two hands.

Death is not the end, we're told. And it isn't. It's exile from life and from dreams. But never an exile from stories, no, never that. For that is the kingdom and key, even after you have abjured your rough magic, broken your staff, and drowned your book.

Stories end, and go on.

* * *

Previous installments in this series:

Preludes and Nocturnes
The Doll's House
Dream Country
Season of Mists (part 1)
Season of Mists (part 2)
A Game of You (part 1)
A Game of You (part 2)
Fables and Recollections
Brief Lives
Worlds' End
The Kindly Ones

Friday, October 21, 2016

Morbid Fantasies

Morbid Fantasies, a book I wrote about Gothic literature, is now available to purchase directly from Heretical Sexts.

Here's the ad copy for the book: Morbid Fantasies is a richly illustrated reader's guide to Gothic literature, guiding fans both old and new over the ever-changing face of this most ghoulish of genres. In its pages, scholar Jack Shear covers the history, key themes, and major books in the Gothic movement from its inception through the current day. It's a love letter to this often misunderstood and under-appreciated form of entertainment, hand-bound and designed by Tenebrous Kate with featured illustrations by Dana Glover, Becky Munich, and Carisa Swenson.

This is what I want you to know about the book: I can honestly say that this is the publication that means the most to me. The ideas in Morbid Fantasies came directly from me researching and teaching Gothic literature for over ten years. And yet, this isn't an academic book; Morbid Fantasies is a book for anyone with an interest in Gothic fiction. My aim was to give the casual reader a primer on the Gothic's history, an idea of what to look for as you read, and a road map to what to read as you venture into the literature. Gothic novels were written to be enjoyed by people who read for pleasure, who want to experience wonderment and fright, and I want to help you find the enjoyment, wonderment, and fright I've experienced while reading these books.

This is what I want you to know about the artists who illustrated the book: the women who lent their talents to this project have taken my words and elevated them into something resplendent and fine. I was a fan of each artist who contributed to the book long before they were approached about working on Morbid Fantasies; each of them is ridiculously talented, and I am humbled that they deigned to gild my book with their art. Becky, Carisa, Dana, Kate--thank you.

This is what I want you to know about the publisher: Kate is a stalwart friend, and the best collaborator I could ever hope for. Not only do we have a reciprocal appreciation for the other's talents, we like to inspire each other to run with our ideas to see where they lead. Morbid Fantasies wouldn't exist if Kate didn't say "I want to publish that" when I mentioned the notion of writing a reader's guide to the Gothic. More than anyone else involved in the book, Kate kept the fires burning and the target in sight. And since Kate hand-assembled each book, the accolades for the book's aesthetic value are hers to collect. Kate--well, you already know how dear you are to me.

The hardcover version of Morbid Fantasies has already sold out. The softcover remains available, but only in strictly limited quantities. It's only available here, at the Heretical Sexts shop. And if you want to add any of the other 'zines for sale from Heretical Sexts, you won't be sorry.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Many Crimes of John La Tier's The Tell-Tale Heart

Hold me closer, tiny lantern
  • Okay, why are some rooms inexplicably smokey in the background? Are they covering up unfinished sets with a fog machine? Or is the police station on fire?
  • I'm pretty sure "Carve me a chess set" is not an approved psychiatric treatment.
  • In a reversal of the Gothic trope of a woman exploring an old house by the light of a flickering candelabra, our protagonist is exploring with the world's tiniest lantern. He's also using the lantern in a hallway that is already remarkably well lit.
  • "I'm pretty sure this used to be a ballroom," Rose McGowan says, leading the protagonist...outside the house to a porch.
  • The white flakes falling around them during this sex scene makes it seem like they are trapped in an erotic snow globe.
  • "You've carved all the pieces for the chess set, but they still need to be stained," he says, looking at a chess set that already has two differently-colored sets of pieces that they are currently and successfully playing a game of chess with.
  • "Sorry to disturb you so late," the cop says in front of a window through which seems to stream daylight. I guess the lights on the porch could be hella bright or something.
  • Better movies this movie appears to be alluding to: Seven, Audition, Marathon Man, every film noir ever.
  • Someone read Poe's story and thought, "You know what this needs? A plot line about PTSD." Poe's story about perverse and murderous impulses is now a statement about the under-funding of VA hospitals. Send help.
  • This movie is clearly a labor of love--it took a series of failed and semi-successful crowd-funding efforts to get it made--so I really don't want to slam it too hard, but woof this not a good movie.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The People of Krevborna

Krevborna is home to a variety of peoples...

Most Krevbornites are all too human—mortal creatures of passion and sorrow. They are a people of mixed ethnic origins who share a culture of folk tales and superstitions in common. Whether civilized or barbaric, they tend to face the horrors of their land stoically.

Some Greshnik are scaled and dragon-like, others are brutish, hunchbacked, or evidence horns of fiendish origin. They are not a separate people, but rather their unfortunate condition is commonly believed to be the result of witchery, misdeeds, or inherited sin.

The Polnezna are human vagabonds without a homeland who are adept at telling fortunes via the tarot. They either dress in colorful, exotic garb or the drab vestments of penitents, and travel in clans by wagon or riverboat. 

Podmenysh are those whose ancestries bear a trace of fey blood. They sometimes appear completely human, but also may possess tell-tale features such as pointed ears, slight statures, ethereal beauty, or unnaturally colored eyes or hair.

* * *

In a different system than D&D, Krevborna would probably be a humans-only setting. But in D&D the various races on offer do give a good bit of mechanical and thematic differentiation, so it would be a shame to lose them. Plus, some players really like having the option of writing "elf" on their character sheet. 

Here, I've split the difference: broad-yet-folkloric ways of including the various races in the setting. Krevbornites and Polnezna give two variations on humanity; Greshnik encompass dragonborn, half-orcs, tieflings, dwarves, gnomes, etc. (with room for aasimar even, now that I think about it); and the Podmenysh fit-in elves, halflings, dwarves, gnomes, half-elves, etc.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Last Apprentice and 5e D&D

Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice is a cracking series of books. (It’s also called the Wardstone Chronicles in the United Kingdom.)

The novels in this series are about a young man named Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son. Being the seventh son of a seventh son opens up a strange job opportunity for Tom; he’s apprenticed to John Gregory, the "Spook" of their County.

Although something of a lonely outcast, a Spook is entrusted with dealing with the witches, boggarts, and ghosts that make mischief (and worse) in the area they’re sworn to protect. Armed with folkloric knowledge, bladed staves, a bit of the second sight, and a silver chain, Spooks are the common man’s protector against the forces of the Dark.

Though the books are intended for an audience of young readers, the writing is brisk enough for an adult to enjoy as they breeze through the volumes. The characters are compelling enough to hold interest, without being overly cloying or naive.

The books have great chapter illustrations done by Patrick Arrasmith. I mean, just look at this:

The way that British folklore has been woven into the books is subtle, but also sometimes unnerving. Some of the elder witches are quite monstrous. You wouldn’t want to find this in the your attic:

* * *

If you’re looking for a darker point of inspiration for a campaign about novice adventurers, the Last Apprentice novels would be the perfect starting place for young adventurers being trained-up to the task of protecting their village from evil. It would be a good fit for 5e D&D characters at the early levels, say 1-3 with 3rd level being their "graduation" into junior Geisters.

As an example from my own Krevborna campaign setting, the characters would all be apprentices or agents of Mad Meg, the local Geister, an aging woman who was once an adventurer in service to the county of Lychwyck-supra-Mare, but who now finds that the years weigh too heavily upon her–age makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties.

The characters would receive guidance from the Geister, but would also be expected to investigate and solve problems involving the supernatural in her stead. In their downtime, they would make their home at the Geisterhaus, and have access to its amazing library of occult lore.

Another gameable item: there's a lot in these books that helps situate what character classes look like in a setting based more on folklore than fantasy.

If you want a cool model of how the relationship between a warlock and their patron might go down, check out Alice and the Bane in Curse of the Bane. Damn. If you want a model of how a pact can go horribly wrong, check out what happens when Morgan tries to obtain power from the "winter god" Golgoth.

One way to envision the 5e ranger is to think of them like the Spooks in Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice books:
  • Spooks are specialists in dealing with ghosts, witches, and boggarts (favored enemies!). 
  • They travel around their assigned county protecting the people from evil supernatural forces; indeed, the first part of a spook’s training involves them learning the lay of the land so that they might use it to their advantage against their foes (favored terrain!). 
  • To combat the forces of the Dark, they use martial skill (combat styles!) and folk magic (ranger spells!). (The Spook even sets his apprentice to learn all the witch-lore he can from the young witch Alice.)

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Master Claims a Soul

Tobias and Tristan's exploration of the Unseelie fey manse in the last session gave the group a good idea of its layout and its diplomatic purpose, but it didn't necessarily point in a definite direction as to how to proceed. There was some talk of returning to the manse to rescue the abducted child kept by the Lover of Twilight; the idea of tracking down the Knights of Lilith to forge an alliance against the Master was considered; finding an alternate cure for the curse that afflicts Kylic, Tristan, and Luka was a possibility; investigating Ivara or the Rue sisters was also floated as a potential course of action.

Ultimately, Kylic decided that it was best to confront the Master's threat against Krevborna directly. By using the fingerbone of St. Othric, Kylic had a vague notion of where they could find the Master. Kylic assembled a crew with Anton and Tobias, and hired a young coachman named Rafael to drive their carriage. Since the saintly relic pointed south and east, the group was traveling toward Krevborna's coast. The dog days of summer had ended, the air is turning chill and the leaves have begun to turn as the harvest approaches.

Eventually they were forced to abandon the roads and travel across open ground. The fingerbone finally brought the party into view of a black castle that sat upon a rocky outcropping of a dark stone precipice overlooking the sea. The castle looked to be in good repair, and yet, there was no well-worn path leading up to it; the castle looked as though it has simply been dropped into place. Oddly, no one in the party had ever heard of a castle being located in this particular place.

Since the group had arrived at the castle toward the end of day, they decided to make camp and approach the castle under the full light of the sun. Unfortunately, Anton was surprised during his watch by a cold "hand" upon his neck that drained his strength. Anton shouted a warning to his friends sleeping in the carriage and engaged the man-shaped shadowy figure that had attacked him as a similar blot of vile darkness approached the carriage's door. 

Despite the creature continuing to drain his strength, Anton's agility and prowess with a rapier got the best of the shadow-monster. Tobias blasted the figure of darkness through the window of the carriage--destroying the window in the process--but the figure still managed to reach in and drain away his vitality as well. Kylic tapped into the power of the cosmos and managed to banish the remaining shadow-monster. The party saw that it snaked away into the night and made its way toward the black castle on the precipice. 

The party chose to take another extended rest to regain their strength after the night's skirmish, putting their approach of the castle at midday rather than morning. The gate of black iron bars proved to be a challenge to entry, as it had no hinges to swing upon and no obvious way to raise or lower it. Anton decided that the easiest way through was over the walls. Using a grappling hook, he managed to scale the wall; luckily, he was able to avoid the shards of broken glass that had been embedded in the top of the wall. Wrapping his hand in his cloak, Anton smashed the glass away in an area large enough to make for safe passage over the wall for his compatriots.

The castle proved to have three stories, a number of connected towers, stained glass windows throughout the second and third levels, and only one obvious door at the front. Tobias sent Malphas to scout the perimeter of the castle, which discovered an ornate spiral staircase decorated with heraldic beasts that led up to a door on the second floor. It was decided that the back entry perhaps provided a safer entrance into the castle.

Anton attempted to pick the lock on the door at the top of the stairs, but found it immediately beyond his abilities. Other methods of entry were discussed, but Anton decided to give the lock another go. As he bent to work on it again, the door swung open on its hinges ominously. Within the room stood a long dining table. At one side of the table sat two bloated and eyeless corpses. On the wall facing the party was hung a painting consisting of two panels: one panel showed a religious figure in a white cassock being led in chains by fiends, the other panel showed the same figure in the white cassock having his tongue removed by fiends using metal pincers.

The party cautiously edged their way past the corpses at the table by sticking to the opposite side of the room. The door near the disturbing painting led them into a hallway, where they began to open doors to get the lay of the land, discovering a grand staircase leading down to the castle's main entrance and a conservatory equipped with a pipe organ. A crash was heard from the room they had just left, a likely indication that the corpses had left their seats and were coming after the group now that they were within the interior of the castle.

Anton hid in the room with the pipe organ, setting himself up to snipe at the corpses. Kylic readied himself to take action should a corpse appear in the doorway, which it did. Using his mystical power, Kylic slammed the door shut in its face. Meanwhile, one of the bloated, gas-distended corpses entered the room that Anton was hiding in from the adjoining door between the conservatory and the dining room. The shambling corpse did not notice him, which allowed him to pierce its belly with an arrow. A hiss of escaping fumes could be heard issuing from the wound. Now that the animate dead thing knew Anton was in the room, combat was joined. Switching to his rapier, Anton proceeded to stab the abomination in its gut, releasing more and more of the gas within it until its belly hung like a deflated balloon. Unfortunately, in the process Anton took a number of vicious, stunning blows from the thing's decaying fist. A final blow sent him reeling to the ground and everything went black for the ne'er-do-well nobleman.

Things were also grim in the hallway, where Kylic attempted to shield Tobias as the warlock attempted to best the walking dead man that had shattered the door and was now attacking them. Kylic took several wounds from the undead monstrosity, but kept himself alive through healing magic, all the while Tobias was blasting away at it with his fell sorcery. 

The situation became dire when the shambling corpse that had felled Anton stepped into the hallway behind Tobias and Kylic. Tobias turned his attention to the new interloper and dispatched the already badly-damaged thing with a well-placed blast of eldritch power. Kylic chose to risk taking a glancing blow from the monster he had been holding at bay to rush to the side of Anton. Tobias managed to blast apart the final abomination.

It was, however, too late for Anton Sellvek. Though he made a valiant effort to to save his compatriot, Kylic arrived in time to hear the death rattle of his fellow adventurer.

Deciding, perhaps wisely, that the black castle had already taken too much from them, Tobias and Kylic carried Anton's body from this sad scene and made good their retreat. On the way through the dining room to the black spiral stairs, Tobias noticed that the figure in the white cassock being tormented by fiends in the painting had been replaced by the likeness of Anton Sellvek, now forever trapped in spirit within the Black Castle of the Master.

Back in Chancel, funeral rites were performed for Anton Sellvek. Attending were a number of Anton's upper-class swells from his gambling and drinking forays, as well as an inconsolable Mirella--the woman who still assumed that the dead man she mourned was her savior.

* * *

The Spoils
XP - 693 each

Krevborna Death Count

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Perugian Witch, Carl von Cosel, Defining Ghost Hunter Fiction

Perugian Witch, 1908 (Beachcombing's Bizarre History, sent to me by Gustavo Iglesias)

Carl von Cosel Documentary (Charlie Hintz for Cult of Weird, sent to me by Kreg Mosier)

Toward a Definition of Ghost Hunter Fiction (Tim Brasil for The Merry Ghost Hunter)