Saturday, November 15, 2008

'A Study in Emerald' MP3 Download & 'Missing' Post

A recent post on put me on to this one: Neil Gaiman's audio rendition of his Hugo Award winning short story 'A Study in Emerald' can be freely downloaded as an MP3 file for your listening pleasure here.

If you haven't encountered this tale before, you are in for a treat. This was the only worthy contribution to the otherwise execrable Shadows Over Baker Street anthology wherein(as the title suggests) Arthur Conan Doyle's famous consulting detective enters Wold Newton-like into a twisted relationship with the universe of Lovecraftian horror. Gaiman's tale is marked by its daring originality and its witty subversion/inversion of the basic assumptions of both the Lovecraftian and Holmesian milieux. A pdf of the story, produced as a 'facimile' of a late 19th Century news sheet can be found here.

Also a brief note on a recently 'missing' post (for those of you who caught it, the one entitled 'Some Heads Are More Haunted Than Others'). Said post has now been removed - I was moderating a comment when I realised that the posted version was a highly unsatisfactory rough draft and not the revised version (which, it seems, I have inadvertantly deleted).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lovecraftian Traveller II (Prologue): Three Men Seeking Monsters

Ok, ok, so I haven’t quite managed to update this blog as regularly as expected. Nonetheless, I’m back for another crack of the whip. One forthcoming post will be a belated entry in my Lovecraftian traveller series, relating sundry adventures in Dunwich and surrounding environs back in July this year. Which brings me to a Fortean tome acquired just prior to the Dunwich jaunt, Nick Redfern's Three Men Seeking Monsters - a book of interest to myself because a) it involved some of the locales I was planning to visit and b) more importantly, it’s about monsters.

Redfern may be well known to some of the readers of this blog for his ufological writing and indeed focus of this book covers related conceptual terrain - in this case a kind of cryptozoological road-trip involving Redfern, Jonathan Downes and Richard Freemen (well-known figures on the UK’s Fortean scene and regulars at the Fortean Times’ annual UK UnConvention). The fact, however, that the six weeks of said road-trip is fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol and (I'm afraid I do feel somewhat qualified to make this claim) amateurish occult theatrics as the ‘gang’ seek to unravel a range of monstrous mysteries does little to support Redfern’s requests to be taken seriously.

Even so, the book warrants mention here due to the fact that what unfolds is a story that meshes Lovecraft with John Keel via an ancient possibly pre-human conspiracy. To cut a long story short, said conspiracy is co-ordinated by the usual bunch of occult hidden masters (in this case ‘The Nine’, who seem to appear fairly regularly in New Age discourse) seeking to open gateways to a nightmarish realm of unreality inhabited by the ‘Cormons’. A rather rubbish and unscary name for an equally unimaginative bunch of entities who thrive on human emotion but, like Forbidden Planet’s creature of the id can only sustain itself through the power of the mind. Incredibly, Redfern asks us to believe that the British Secret Service has, since WWII been involved in a massive occult cover-up as they seek to thwart the plans of the Nine (a consequence of this being, apparently, the appearance of a sea monster near MI5's HQ on the Thames and the existence of giant worm-like cryptids lurking in the obligatory underground bases near, in or around Rudloe Manor - which, it seems, the gang have little or no trouble accessing ). Indeed, like many of the monsters Refern and his friends are chasing, Lovecraft lurks as a constant albeit unseen presence at the periphery of the book. The only difference being that, unlike said monsters, the Old Gent actually does appear (at least in name) on a couple of occasions. Also of note is Redfern's recounting of Freeman’s youthful attempts to summon up Clark Ashton Smith’s spider god Atlach Nacha, along with a second-hand account of astral time-travelling to view the summoning and capture of a Nightgaunt-like creature (albeit with glowing red eyes) by a bunch of Neolithic hunter gatherers.

Sadly, none of this comes across as being anything close to believable given the aforementioned state of inebriation that characterises the gang’s ‘investigations’, the key methodological principle of which is invariant reptition: if a witness tells the same story twice without elaborating on it the second time, they are deemed a worthy and truthful witnesses. A twisted logic also prevails in Redfern and friends' evaluation of witnesses: in one instance, the mental aberrations that the gang detect in one individual (who believes the UK Government is involved in covering up the existence of roving bands of cannibals) is deemed to be the result of trauma caused by an encounter with a genuine paranormal entity. The fact that the encounter might itself be the product of mental illness is not considered. on top of all this circumstantial evidence, vague supposition and half-glimpsed shadows are constructed as powerful evidence that something crytozoological really is afoot in this green and pleasant land: for example, a rustling in the treetops at night accompanied by a vague feeling of a nearby ‘presence’ is taken as evidence of the reality of some weird bat-winged entity. In another instance we are told that after hearing mysterious howls during a nightime exploration of Rendlesham Forest (site of the now generally discredited ‘British Roswell’), that the sound ‘could not have been a fox’ - the insinuation being that if it could not have been something entirely natural, it must be something altogether...unnatural.

This is one of the points at which Redfern’s book intersects with my own experience in and around Dunwich, as I also heard howling whilst strolling through Rendleshem Forest (only to discover about twenty minutes later that it’s source was an altogether mundane pack of dogs visible in the garden of a house next to Woodbridge RAF base). I also saw what looked to be a giant black dog (a repetitive cryptozoological feature of Redfern’s narrative) running through the undergrowth, only to realise as it came running toward me (owner in tow) that it was of regular size and provenance.

The book also displays a frightening lack of reflexivity when, despite a willingness to believe some very outlandish tales, the gang apparently refuse to believe overweight geeky twenty-something Gavin - a caricatutre all too reminiscent of the monster hunters themselves - who claims to have encountered some kind of wild man of the woods (Redfern rather callously disbelieves Gavin's claims to actually having once had a girlfriend, despite being more than willing to accept far less credulous claims.

All in all, what this boils down to is a bunch of inexpert forty-somethings acting like over-excited adolescent occultists who have a) just discovered how cool Chaos magick is five years after it is no-longer derigeur and b) subsequently making a nuisance of themselves after having supped a glass too many of Henry Weston’s Vintage Cider whilst reading Lovecraft.

If you are looking for a slightly surreal rock n' roll Fortean road trip book, ignore this and try Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail instead.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Praying to the Aliens

It is always, for me, a profound disappointment when someone on the very cutting edge of scientific discovery falls prey to the gravitic pull of metaphysical wish-fulfillment fantasies. Though perhaps this isn’t so surprising when said discoveries literally and in a very corporeal sense bring to attention the fact of our very insignificance.

Such, it seems, is the case of Edgar Mitchell, NASA astronaut and New Age mystagogue who walked on the moon in 1971 as part of the Apollo 14 mission. While his involvement in New Age jiggery-pokery is nothing new (he apparently conducted unsanctioned remote viewing experiments on the moon ) Mitchell has (at least according to a short piece in issue 240 of the Fortean Times) now bought wholesale into the Roswell crash shebang - apparently in part as a consequence of his experiences on the moon.

Mitchell has chosen to refute the Lovecraftian strains of 1990s ‘Darkside’ ufology (which was generally dominated by a bunch of paranoid pre-Ickean neo-Nazis) in favour of the reconstructed contacteeism characteristic of post-1990s New Age ufology: in other words, ETs are abducting humans and subjecting us to the ubiquitous anal probe as a means of facilitating our spiritual evolution. A bit like Thelemic magick, by the sounds of it.

Call me cynical, but I’m prone to view this as ET-valorised positive valuation of human beings’ place in the cosmos as a negative reaction to the massive cultural impact of the space age and the likes of Mitchell’s moon walk: finally we were presented - via the first pictures of the Earth from space - with empirical evidence of our insignificance. (Oddly, I’d see the conspiracy theorists who reject the Moon landings as fake as inhabiting the very same conceptual space as Mitchell. As with Mitchell - and like Creationists - their claims are not so much founded on hard evidence as on an deeply rooted psychological need to affirm absolute faith in a divinely ordained pre-Copernican anthropocentrism, albeit one that is usually disguised by ill-considered psuedo-scientific tomfoolery). By no means a new or original point of view, but nonetheless foreshadowed by what are probably the most recognisable lines from the Lovecraft canon:

'The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age'.

In some respects, this returns me to my criticism of Darabond’s The Mist in the previous post. There I talked about ‘the expiation of consciousness’ - a concept that returns me to an article I wrote some years back for Mark Pilkington's Strange Attractor where I stated that

‘the ultimate horror of the Old Ones lies not in their physical appearance, but in the irresolvable existential conundrum they signify: that human sentience generates a desire for meaning and purpose which, in Lovecraft’s abundantly strange and ultimately meaningless cosmos, is denied fulfilment’.

Although I failed to recognise it at the time I was using Lovecraft's pseudo-mythology to paraphrase a point with which Thomas Ligotti’s J.P. Drapeau was already well aquainted. Indeed, Drapeau offers us what is, perhaps, the most concise summation of the materialist nucleus of Lovecraftian horror - and something which, I think, provides an important insight into both Mitchell’s optimistic New Age refutation of a Lovecraftian cosmos and the more general turn towards supernaturalism that seems (almost counterintuitively) to have come to dominate the social, cultural and political life of modernity:

‘But is there really a strange world? Of course. Are there, then, two worlds? Not at all. There is only our own world and it alone is alien to us, intrinsically so by virtue of its lack of mysteries. If only it actually were deranged by invisible powers, if only it were susceptible to real strangeness, perhaps it would seem more like a home to us, and less like an empty room filled with the echoes of this dreadful improvising. To think that we might have found comfort in a world suited our nature, only to end up in one so resoundingly strange!’

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

This week I have been mostly watching (SPOILER ALERT)...

I’ve never been a huge Stephen King fan, but along with the short story ‘Crouch End’ his novella The Mist rates high on my list of favourite Lovecraftian genre literature. In truth it’s been a while since I’ve read the novella, but was pleasantly surprised to discover this week that Frank Darabond’s cinematic adaptation does an outstanding job of remaining true to its source material - up to a point (about five minutes before the end to be exact).

Notably, I wasn’t put off by the quality of the CGI effects (which seems to be the principle criticism levelled at the film) - perhaps a result of Darabond’s skill at keeping me engaged with the story rather than the spectacle. Indeed, I felt that the film made excellent use of the eponymous mist - especially toward the end of the film - as a means of suggesting rather than depicting some of its monstrous inhabitants. However, I have a rather different view of what is, perhaps, the most controversial issue surrounding the film, namely its 'shock' ending which deviates from (or rather provides a coda to) the novella’s original ending. Much has already been said about the film’s denouement - especially by the hoards of dullard internet critics who found it too depressing (it’s a horror movie for god’s sake!). Even so, I feel bound to add my tuppence to said discussion. Undoubtedly Darabond makes an exceedingly brave attempt at producing a horror movie with what is (at least in relation to most horror films) a very dark and horrifying conclusion. And, admittedly, he succeeds in some good measure.

That said, I maintain some reservations about the ending wherein - SPOILER ALERT - the protagonist shoots his own son and a host of other folks to spare them from the mist, only to discover moments later that the cavalry - in the form of flamethrower-weilding military types - has arrived to save the day. Added to this the fact that said protagonist's distress is made all the worse by the appearance of a young mother and her children amongst those saved by the military. This moment is, presumably, meant to evoke a moment of horrifying irony given that said woman appeared briefly at the beginning of the film, where she flees into the arms of certain death after being shamefully refused help in finding her children by the frightened men holed up in the mist-beseiged supermarket.

A few minutes before the shock ending (and the point at which King’s novella actually ends) we are treated to a much more powerful scene where the surviving protagonists, having fled the supermarket, encounter the absolute apocalyptic enormity of the film’s narrative premise when they are overtaken momentarily by the massive tentacular thing of cyclopean proportions striding through the mist. Darabond, at this moment, manages to captures a sense of utter incomprehending despair and resigned horror on the face of the actors that is, in this reviewers mind, far more powerful than the very human horror that unfolds in the concluding moments of the movie. This moment of realisation exemplifies a very Lovecraftian expiation (to borrow a term from the film) of consciousness where the very fact of self-awareness becomes blasphemous in the face of what an awareness of the wider cosmos has to offer. Indeed, this expiation of consciousness is not only foreshadowed in the mindless and totalitarian immersion in religion explored earlier in the film, but also via the three suicides that occur during the movie (although guilt rather than a refusal to face the horrors of the mist are suggested causes in two of these cases). In this respect, the subsequent mercy killing by the protagonist of his son and companions isn’t the problem here - in fact, the shock ending would have been more powerful if the protagonist actually had enough bullets to kill himself, fade to credits. Self-immolation is, after all, the most rational of responses to a Lovecraftian cosmos!

As such it is the addendum to the mercy killings where Darabond’s film ultimately disappoints. At this point the facade of a intelligent horror film is stripped away to reveal a rather banal morality tale aftyer the forces of darkness have been dispersed by the cleansing fire of military might. By way of explanation: initially the film sets itself up as a kind of Lovecraftian Lord of the Flies - a commentary on the fragile and ultimately brutal, self-serving nature of the human condition: ‘as a species, we are insane’ comments one character. Yet the film's finale appears to offer a moral condemnation of the actuality of a Lovecraftian universe at the precise moment it accepts that actuality. This is, indeed, the final nail in the film’s coffin: it is not that it’s suggestion of apocalyptic cosmic horror is undermined by the emotional horror of having unnecessarily taken the life of one’s child, but what the reappearance of the young mother and her children signifies. In the same way that those that have sex end up the first to die in typical slasher movies, the young mother's re-appearance implies that the horrible fate of the other characters was deserved - a punishment for transgressions of socio-moral norms and a lack of faith in the fundamental goodness of human nature. Thus, while trying to challenge our assumptions about the actual scope and nature of human 'good' (especially those grounded in religion) the film ultimately emasculates itself by inadvertantly supporting those assumptions. In other words, this is actually a film with a happy ending.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Venger Satanis Interviews Ligotti!!!?

Not something I would typically comment on here but for it's somewhat surreal nature: word has recently reached Ghooric Zone central of a rather curious event, namely Darrick Dishaw - aka ‘Venger Satanis’ aka 'I AM the way' and head honcho of the Lovecraftian magical group the Cult of Cthulhu - posting his interview with Thomas Ligotti here. Regular readers may already be familiar with Mr. Satanis from his various escapades on and from his occasional run-ins with Dan Harms (details of which Dan has posted on his own blog).

The fact that this involves Ghooric Zone’s most favoured of all juxtapositions - the occult and weird fiction - is interesting enough. The fact that this involves the even stranger juxtaposition of Lovecraftian cult-of-one Darrick Dishaw and enfant terrible of the weird Thomas Ligotti might lead one to expect the kind of deranged metaphyicial catastrophe found only within the pages of Ligotti’s own tales. Especially when Darrick asks Ligotti if he is currently dating.

I've been waiting expectantly for someone to begin integrating Ligotti's work into an occultural framework, so was extremely gratified to note that Darrick appears to have elevated Ligotti to the position of 'prophet' of the Cult of Cthulhu. The fact that Ligotti has elsewhere indicated that he sees much the post-60s occult and New Age scene as a variety of spiritual hucksterism is an irony, it seems, lost on Venger Satanis.

That said, I can’t find it in my heart to entirely condemn Darrick despite his youthful fumblings and schoolgirlish exhuberance for Ligotti (‘the earth’s greatest living writer ’). Indeed, as one of the contributors on Thomas Ligotti on-line notes, Darrick does display an refreshing openness about his own shortcomings as an interviewer whilst Ligotti’s responses to Darrick’s sometimes unusual questions are full of sinister wit. In particular Ligotti’s comments about the ‘cornfield’ are also revealing insofar as they indicate a probable influence on his novella ‘My work is not yet done’ - one of the few genre tales (along with Danielewski’s House of Leaves ) that has left me feeling genuinely disturbed.

Go Darrick!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Lovecraftian Traveller I: Non-non-Euclidean Geometry at the South Bank

No doubt the observant amongst Ghooric Zone regulars (if such a rare beast truly exists) will have noticed the lack of updates for some time. In yet another attempt to stave off apathy and encroaching cosmic ennui, we at Ghooric Zone central have decided to introduce a new ‘series’ of articles (amongst other things) detailing some of the strange journey’s we have undertaken of late. Some of these are reports on genuine sorties undertaken by us (often at great personal peril) into abysmal zones of abject horrors (Suffolk comes to mind), whilst others may - or may not be - the products of our fevered imagination...

First up a trip to the Psycho Building exhibition at the Hayward Gallery at London’s South Bank Centre, ostensibly for a viewing Mike Nelson’s ‘To The Memory of H.P. Lovecraft’. I wasn’t able to take any photos at the time, so a stock image from the internet will have to suffice:

By the artist's own admission ‘To The Memory of H.P. Lovecraft’ owes more to Borges’ take on Lovecraft in his short story ‘There Are More Things’ than the writings of the Old Gent himself. Indeed, given the character of the exhibition, it seems something of a missed opportunity that the artist didn’t opt to construct a piece more in tune with the theme of architectural strangeness which Lovecraft so often uses to signify alien otherness. Other than an oddly shaped concrete bench (which again Nelson takes from Borges) the exhibit makes no sustained attempt to evoke non-Euclidean geometric principles or strange angles. Instead we are presented with something akin to the Whateley Farm following the escape of the Dunwich Horror. Even though Nelson’s piece is suitably suggestive in attempting to engage the viewer’s imagination (i.e. inferring the shape and substance of the monster by its aftermath) the piece is less interesting as a result of emphasising the theme of the unnameably monstrous (and let’s not forget that Lovecraft invariably describes his indescribable monsters in exacting detail) instead of the cosmicism that is Lovecraft’s unique trademark .

Psycho Buildings is on until the 25th August 2008.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Gaming

This sad specimen - once a virtual superman but now a disgraced dissolute and notorious aesthete - demonstrates the unhealthy dangers of refraining from regular boardgaming

A while back back on the yog-sothoth forums, Blair Reynolds made
the following announcement.

In brief, Reynolds bemoans the trivialisation of Lovecraft not only in the field of roleplaying games but within popular culture more widely. One wonders what Blair Reynolds would have to say at the venerable Ken Hite’s recent supplement of Lovecraftian superheroism for The Mutants and Masterminds rpg, or indeed Hite's forthcoming Lovecraftian children's picture book...

No doubt Lovecraft would view much of what is produced in the name of the Cthulhu mythos as a crass commercialisation of his cosmic vision. Perhaps, then, the only genuine route to a ‘pure’ Lovecraft experience is to abandon all attempts at replicating the master’s vision in other media and simply spend one’s time reading Lovecraft in the original.

Needless to say, many respondents on the forums challenged Blair Reynolds' somewhat petulant tantrum, citing the way Lovecraft’s treated his own pseudomythology with a certain playfulness. Indeed, this leads me to ruminate more generally on Lovecraft and gaming. While Lovecraft did not seem to hold much thought for gaming in adult life, his childhood was replete with rich imaginative efforts that many miniatures wargamers and rpgers would recognise (a point I hope to return to in a later post about roleplaying and the occult). Indeed, this leads me to speculate that perhaps Lovecraft’s adolescent roleplaying did continue into his adult life. Yes, you heard me aright. Lovecraft was a roleplayer: as S. T. Joshi suggests, Lovecraft’s ‘Yog-Sothothery’ came to constitute a kind of parlour game and a shared imaginative space which Lovecraft and his literary circle explored - a form of collective storytelling (one might even say proto-geekdom)which I'm sure many contemporary rpg players would not only recognise but also feel a deep sense of kinship with. Indeed, the elements that inform today's roleplaying experience also informed Lovecraft's literary theory (an emphasis on verisimilitude) and his personal aesthetics (the evocation of particular moods - 'adventurous expectancy' - often via the imaginative suspension of natural law).

To push the gaming analogy further, the protagonist in virtually all of HPL’s tales was Lovecraft's own player character - usually an idealised imaginary of his very own self as genteel New England aesthete himself as genteel aesthete. In addition, we can see HPL as engaging in a kind of proto-Call of Cthulhu rpging during his literary exchange with Robert Bloch in their Haunter of the Dark – Shambler From the Stars escapade: each 'player' (Lovecraft and Bloch in turn taking the role of the GM) sought to drive mad and ultimately kill off the other’s player character in the context of an interesting and engaging narrative. Indeed, in a hyperreal twist the kind of literary and epistolarian roleplaying in which Lovecraft indulged formed the methodological basis of an actual rpg (the Lovecraftian themed letter-writing game De Profundis).

On a more personal note, this has led me to reflect on my own experiences of gaming and rpging, which I've been doing for nigh on 30 years now - although more of an occasional activity during the last 15 years or so. 2004 – 2006 was an especially fallow period, during which I set out to uncover the ultimate solitaire gaming experience in lieu of more social forms of the activity. Thankfully, at London's Dragonmeet in 2006 at London’s Dragonmeet I bumped in to a friend from university I hadn’t seen for over ten years, and have since resumed gaming on a quasi-regular basis. However, the kind of gaming that we have both come to involve ourselves in has changed considerably from the halcyon years of rpg all-nighters and non-stop dungeoncrawls during the summer holidays. The gaming industry has also transformed to reflect the changing demographic of its customers: in brief, the kind of games I’ve been playing of late are the Eurostyle and Ameritrash kinds of boardgames and cardgames; in fact, it seems that this 'new' breed of boardgames has become the dominant order of the day in contemporary gaming geekdom: as gamers get older and have less time (and more responsibilities), rpging is becoming less of a viable option (especially those of us approaching - of having surpassed - middle age!). To this end, rpging has also transformed , with game systems becoming more streamlined, requiring less prep time and emphasising storytelling over simulation. This is also mirrored in the structure and content of rpg books, which are often more visually appealing than in the heady days of the now almost mythical D&D white box, emphasising setting, background and plot over rule complexity and the guilty pleasures of killing imaginary monsters and taking their imaginary stuff while exploring an imaginary hole in the ground. Although roleplaying is becoming a distant memory to me, I’m sure I’m not the only person who buys rpg books just for the pure pleasure of reading them (like China Mieville, I’m especially partial to the odd rpg bestiary or two).

Back to boardgaming though. Earlier today I participated in a marathon 7 hour session of Fantasy Flight Games’ Twilight Imperium. Twilight Imperium is Big. Epic even. And in all senses of the word: it covers the sweeping saga of galactic empires in conflict whilst taking an epoch to play (in addition to which, the game is housed in a box of monolithic proportion). Six of us played and, although unable to finish the game, it was (for me at least) an immensely enjoyable and incredibly involving and immersive experience. Fantasy Flight Games are one of the main players in this new kind of boardgaming which offers outstanding production values, tension, strategy and, importantly, theme and setting to facilitate a kind of condensed rpg experience which far outstrips the abstract mechanics at the heart of most of these games (although with the best of this ‘new’ breed of games, the mechanics are often closely tied to theme). Despite the often competitive nature of these games, theya re often rich enough and grande enough that the playing itself - and not the winning - suffices(no, really!).

I might even go so far as to say that boardgaming is the new rpging. Well, perhaps not. Yet this ‘new’ boardgaming milieu maps out the topography of a genuinely unique gaming experience - albeit highly commodified and neatly packaged - which is more immersive and involved, often engaging players (albeit minimally) in forms of rpging. This, of course, is a godsend to those of use who are rpgers at heart, yet lack the time or opportunity for roleplaying. That said, the high production values do offer a lazy way into the gaming experience: the gaming worlds are presented through outstanding graphics which mean that on a visual level the imagination becomes a little redundant. Even so, with the best of these games offer potential for tense and engaging immersion into the themed player interactions.

Bringing this back to Lovecraft, it struck me that there exist one of this ‘new’ breed of boardgames that neatly encompasses a highly immersive Lovecraftian experience within a solitaire gaming medium - and in doing so might even be more ‘authentically’ Lovecraftian than the classic Call of Cthulhu rpg experience. Playing Call of Cthulhu is great fun, but often it does become something closer to a pulpish world-spanning Indiana-Jones-meets-the-Mummy kind of affair rather than evoking the nameless dread indicative of the Lovecraftian milieu.

In any case the boardgame in question is Fantasy Flight Games reissue of Arkham Horror: a cooperative boardgame in which the players take on the cosmic awfulness of the mythos. And usually lose. The game is gorgeous (especially in its first printing - the second printing included a less colourful board) and is appropriately cyclopean (it comes with one of the biggest boards I’ve yet encountered, barring Railroad Tycoon - though add the Dunwich Horror expansion and it probably eclipses the RT board). Where the game excels is in generating a sense of tension and impending doom through the clever mechanic of the, erm, doom track. What this means is that the players are involved in a battle against time and the forces of the mythos. When the doom track is filled, it pretty much means you will be eaten by some Monstrous Thing From Beyond Time and Space and the world will end. This, coupled with a few other clever mechanincs allow a single player to battle against the game system goes a long way to evoking the structure and content of many of Lovecraft’s best tales which, unlike the Call of Cthulhu rpg rarely involve loosing gangs of borderline-psychopathic gun-toting pyromaniacs (i.e. the player characters)amongst the tropes of Lovecraft’s mythos.

Not only does Arkham Horror neatly fuses an elegant and fairly simple system (although it might not seem so from reading the rather poorly organised rulebook), it also ties mechanics to the rich and evocative themes of Lovecraft’s mythos - and in such a way that even loosing the game by going insane or dying horribly (as often the end result of the game as it is the fate of Lovecraft’s protagonists) is fun.

Dare I say it: gaming is dead. Long live the new gaming!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Lovecraft in Italy DVD

As an addemdum to my last post, it seems that Il Mistero di Lovecraft - Road to L is in English (with Italian subtitles - and presumably English subtitles to the parts of the film which are in Italian). It is available in DVD format and distributed by Raro Video of Italy.

Lovecraft in Italy: Il Mistero di Lovecraft - Road to L

I've recently dug up a few intriguing scraps of information concerning a Blair Witch style mockumentary - Il Mistero di Lovecraft: Road to L - which claims to have uncovered evidence of Lovecraft's travelling to Italy in 1926. There he apparently encountered a decaying town (somewhere within the Po delta) harbouring strange rites and abominable...things which would become the model for Innsmouth. Il Mistero di Lovecraft was made in Italy in 2005, but I've yet to track down any information regarding an English language DVD release. A trailer (in English with some Italian) can be found on Google Video, though it's unclear as to whether the film was produced for an English- or Italian-speaking audience. A three-part background documentary (in Italian with English subtitles) to the mockumentary (akin to the Curse of the Blair Witch that preceded the release of the original movie) can also be found here.

Based on the available documentary-of-the-mockumentary, the film seems to regurgitate the usual misguided fare about Lovecraft - that he was extremely knowledgeable about the occult, believed in Cthulhu, etc. Of course, Lovecraft's life is extremely well-documented, and the fact of the matter is that Lovecraft was nowhere near Italy in 1926. Nonetheless, those who recall Ghooric Zone Central's good friend H.P. Albarelli and his claims concerning Lovecraft's alleged involvement in the strange case of the 'Awful' will no doubt be wondering how long it will take the Cthulhuvian conspiracists out there to jump on this as 'evidence' of Lovecraft's occult proclivities and the reality of Cthulhu et al...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Night Thoughts: On Cloverfield (SPOILERS)

While Cloverfield is far from being a 'Lovecraftian' movie in any purist or canonical sense, I did feel that at times a Lovecraftian mood was nicely evoked. The monster itself being a case in point.

Although not explicitly Cthulhoid (whatever that means) I've noted that the monster has been described variously as 'weird' and 'creepy' on some of the internet forums about which I've been lurking of late. Indeed, these do seem apt descriptors: although not entirely unanthropomorphic the beast does have a rather curious - one might even say 'strangely angled' - anatomy and mode of locomotion, attributes suggestive of its 'outsideness'. Certainly the monster is a bit different from what one usually encounters in the standards of the giant-monster-on-a-rampage movie genre. This on top of what I felt was already quite a 'weird' movie, where an intrusion of otherness leaves a trail of chaos, confusion and ambiguity where nothing is fully or satisfactorily explained. In turn, this leaves plenty of scope for the play of the imagination and the mapping of one's own vague fears and terrors onto the tabula rasa of Cloverfield's monster(s).

Interestingly, after I'd seen Cloverfield a number of friends expressed their concern about watching a monster movie where one never actually gets to see the monster. In actual fact (and as should be evident from the above), the monster is seen on a number of occasions (especially toward the end of the film). All in all, the revealing of the monster is handled rather expertly and in what I took to be a very Lovecraftian fashion: you do get to see what it looks like, but the shaky-cam gimic means that it is never revealed too clearly or for too long - somewhat akin to Ridley Scott's strategy in Alien. That is until very close to the end of Cloverfield where the director has seen fit to go for a close-up of the beast - presumably the film's 'money shot'. Here we are given a very clear view of the thing's torso and head (and in full daylight). Whether this was supposed to evoke horror I can't say, but at this point Cloverfield departed from what was presumably J.J. Abrams' original vision, and in doing so nearly ruined the movie for me. In revealing everything, you invariably reveal too much - in this case something like the hybrid bastard of the Rancor from Return of the Jedi and the Honey Monster.

So, Hollywood still seems a long way off from producing the quintessential Lovecraftian movie (and as the HPLHS' version of Call of Cthulhu demonstrates, maybe Hollywood isn't the right place to be looking anyway). Still, assuming it gets green-lighted we at least have del Toro's touted At the Mountains of Madness to look forward to a few years hence.

A Forgotten Episode of Lovecraftian Ufology?

Gray Barker’s famed 1956 book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers first introduced the mythology of (what was to later become) the Men in Black into ufology. In the book Barker documents his friendship with Alfred Bender, who claimed to have stumbled upon the truth about flying saucers. Before making this knowledge public, Bender was apparently visited by three strange men dressed in black. The men (who, with diabolic aplomb, always left behind them a faint smell of sulphur) initially claimed to be representatives of the US government. Bender was left terrified and in fear of his life, refusing to say more on the matter.

Bender’s silence lasted until 1962 when he revealed the horrifying truth in his own account of events, Flying Saucers and the Three Men (New York, Paperback Library Inc.) There he states that the MIB’s are in fact aliens in disguise, having established bases on Earth (usually in remote locations) with the intention of siphoning-off a chemical from sea water for some unknown purpose - an activity not so far removed from Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth. Bender also claims that the MIB’s visited him numerous times, on one occasion - and here the story takes a truly Lovecraftian turn - spiriting him off via some sort of teleportation or hyperdimensional travel to their central base of operations buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice.

There, one of the MiB’s reveal its true form: according to Bender a ‘hideous monster, more horrifying than any I have ever seen depicted in the work of science fiction or fantasy artists’ (p.81). This latter admission of familiarity with the sci-fi genre may be important, and a point I shall return to. Needless to say, in true Lovecraftian fashion the alien is so horrific as to be indescribable. Or in any case, Bender apparently lacks the vocabulary to do so as there is never any attempt at description made in the manuscript.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact, in marked counterpoint to the utopian and millenarian messages offered to other contactees of the period, that the MIBs reveal to Bender a nihilistic cosmology that seems to have jumped right out of the pages of Lovecraft. The monstrous aliens tell him that the physical universe is the product of a ‘vast glowing body so immense one cannot calculate its density. It is the creator of us all, and more families of planets are constantly being formed and thrown off into orbits’ (p.79). I certainly discern here something quite similar to Lovecraft’s Azathoth.

Later in the book this cosmology is elaborated in more detail:

‘there is a large main body from which all the planets and their suns are formed by means of being cast off into the vast void we call space. This main body seems to grow in size and never diminishes, despite the fact that it discards new bodies constantly. It is so hot a mass you could not go near it, even in terms of billions of your light years. All the bodies cast off are hot burning balls of fire, and as they reach the cooler parts of space they explode and form smaller bodies that circle them. These smaller bodies become planets as they cool off, but the cooling-off period consumes many, many years. We have sent out spacecraft to explore the regions beyond the circling bodies where there is an area that is deep black and in which you are unable to see anything…We have lost many of our exploring craft who went too far into the deep black and never returned’ (p.98-99)

This rather dark, melodramatic - and suitably cosmic - vision of the cosmos is reified in the aliens' comments on religious matters: they reveal that there is neither god nor life after death, and that Jesus was a fraud. Morally ambivalent entities themselves - perhaps akin to Lovecraft’s Old Ones who are ‘beyond good and evil’ - the aliens are quite open about the fact that they have abducted, experimented upon, and even killed humans to protect their interests; they also implant Bender with a small metal disk (foreshadowing a key element of later abduction narratives) and make dire warnings not to reveal what they have shown him until they have left the planet. Almost as an afterthought, the MIBs tell Bender that the Dero of Richard Shaver are real (and, in fact, the source of most human accounts of supernatural beings).

Indeed, the themes of abduction, experimentation and implantation by sinister forces which Bender’s apparently experience owe a massive debt to Shaver’s imagined underground worlds book (and in turn inspired the tales of alien underground bases which gained renewed vigour in the 1980s and 1990s when American ufology took a decidedly disturbing turn). Elements of Bender’s tale also seem strikingly akin to themes found in Lovecraft - even moreso given the disparity of Bender’s paranoid vision with the more optimistic provisions supplied from within the contactee movement. A likely source of inspiration for Bender's tale would be The Whisperer in Darkness which seems to have set the template not only for the ‘abductee’ phenomenon that swept ufology in the 1980s – 1990s, but also introduces MiB-like figures in the strangely hypnotic human agents of the Fungi from Yuggoth. Similar to Bender’s narrative, and central to Lovecraft’s Whisperer, are the awe-inspiring but nihilistic revelations of cosmic magnitude revealed to the narrator - albeit only hinted at for the reader - by the character of Akeley (or an alien who is impersonating Akeley).

Sadly, there is no hard evidence to support the claim that Bender was drawing upon Lovecraft in the construction of his and Gray Barker’s conspiratorial narrative (one that set the tone for later ramblings of ‘darkside’ ufologists). However, I noted earlier Bender’s implied familiarity with genre fiction: Bender does, in fact, admit to a fascination with the literature of the weird and supernatural, mentioning Shelley, Stoker and Poe as favourites. No sign of Lovecraft per se, but it seems that Bender was familiar with the later pulps such as Palmer’s Amazing Stories, so it is possible that he had a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s tales. If so, Bender's work may represent an additional link in the chain between Lovecraft and contemporary ufology.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Night Thoughts: Lovecraftian Tarot - Deal or No Deal?

These (somewhat pompously titled) 'Night Thoughts' are brief commentaries, odd musings and inane ramblings - usually written late at night - about whatever Lovecraftian topic takes my fancy. I plan to post these two or three times a week (depending on how the fancy takes me) in addition to a more substantial weekly post.

On this occasion, I have taken as my topic Lovecraftian tarot, of which a number of sets exist. Principally, there are two commercially available decks: one published by Mythos Books which constitutes a monotone/sepia deck (and to my mind the more Lovecraftian of the two), and Donald Tyson's full colour Necronomicon deck published by Llewellyn. This latter deck is more closely tied to Tyson's novels Necronomicon and Alhazred, and deviates somewhat from 'canonical' Lovecraft.

As regular readers of our missives already know, we at Ghooric Zone Central have a long standing fascination with such occult gewgaws. Thus we wasted no time in charging our agents with the task of purloining copies of these strange artifacts. After a careful examination of the cards for evidence of genuine otherworldly power, I was reminded of the observation (which I think was first made by Jason Colavito) that worshipping or otherwise placing one's faith in Lovecraft's Old Ones constitutes a kind of 'cargo cult'. Given that the role of the tarot is to elide some kind of structure or meaning from the seemingly random occurance of events, it strikes me as odd that producers of a Lovecraftian tarot are not in the least dissuaded by the possibility that the Old Ones, in their indifference, would simply have no interest in providing humans with such a useful tool of divination...

Still, the cards do look rather nice on our bookshelf.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Night Thoughts: Post-Lovecraftian Lovecraftian Fiction

Recently, we at the Ghooric Zone have been pondering what shape a post-Lovecraftian Lovecraftian fiction might take. In other words, if we recognise that Lovecraft's 'non-supernatural cosmic art' radically overturned the established themes and tropes of supernatural fiction, what (if anything) could replace push Lovecraftian fiction forward and beyond Lovecraft's original cosmic vision? Is such a thing even conceivable? Did Lovecraft, as Erik Davis suggest, mark the limits of human conceptual boundaries with his fiction? If so, could it be that a post-Lovecraftian Lovecraftisn fiction could only be suggested through the scrawl of a Burroughsian word-salad, or via an inscription of alien sigils perpendicular to reality?

These perverse and impious ruminations aside, a few viable contenders to the post-Lovecraftian Lovecraftian throne spring to mind: Thomas Ligotti, of course. No doubt a worthy successor to the Lovecraftian mantle; though perhaps Ligotti's work strays a little too close to personal horror to fully qualify as 'cosmic' in the way that Lovecraft's best work does. China Mievielle at his best wonderfully evokes the cosmic in new and alien worlds although his work ultimately revolves around a very human politics. Jeffrey Thomas' 'Punktown' novels also merge Lovecraftian themes with the urban decay and inhumanity of far-future cyberpunk: a universe populated by chameleon private dicks and tentacular-eyed alien prostitutes, where Vietnam-like corporate wars are waged across dimensions and the dead communicate through the latest cell-phone technology. However my personal recommendation - and about as far from trad Lovecraftian as you can get - is M. John Harrison. His most recent novels (Light and Nova Swing) come very close to articulating the inconceivable via the fractured physics of an alienated and alienating (almost)posthuman universe.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Coming in 2008

Christmas Cthulhu Cornucopia!

Alas, yet another yawning gulf between posts...
Undaunted by my seeming inability to add something to the blog on a (semi-) regular basis, I'm yet again setting myself the task (New Years resolution!) of trying to produce one post - no matter how brief or banal - per week. To facilitate speed of writing and publication, I've neglected to include links in this post. Sorry, but if you're interested in any of the below it should be easy enough to find via Google.

The Christmas/pre-Christmas season was marked by a dearth of Cthulhoid rpg goodness, including: pre-release copies of Cthulhutech and Trail of Cthulhu (both of which I managed to pick up at Dragonmeet 2007), as well as the long-awaited Delta Green: Eyes Only. In addition, Worlds of Cthulhu issue 5 also appeared just prior to Christmas. In light of which, this first post of 2008 constitutes a brief review of the former three volumes.

Cthulhutech: an interesting Mecha-style take on the Mythos (not as bad as it sounds!). The book is glossy full-cover and looks beautiful - only marred by the cheap print-on-demand style binding. The mythos is dealt with in an interesting (but often 'non-canonical') manner, and although the idea of giant robots taking on Mythos beasts sounds counterintuitive to Lovecraft's original vision, it is dealt with intelligently and is well supported by some of the short fiction found in the volume. Probably something I won't get around to playing. Unless, of course, they were to turn it into a tabletop miniature game...

Trail of Cthulhu: the pre-release version was very nice looking, with some great illustrations and gaming content geared towards an innovative, storytelling style of play. I still have issues with one of the central claims of this book - that it 'fixes' what was 'wrong' with Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu (namely that finding clues is dependent on die rolling, and a bad die roll can blow the game). In my opinion, this is a non-issue and is easily dealt with by thoughtful scenario design(most Keepers worth their salt will ensure that there are multiple routes to clues built into scenarios). I haven't yet had time to fully read and digest the rules, but one problem I noticed with the Esoterrorist rpg (upon which ToC is based) is that it seemed to encourage a kind of railroading when it comes to character creation. Even so, a worthy effort, and worth picking up for Ken Hite's take on the the Mythos alone.

Delta Green: Eyes Only: Of the bunch, the one I was most looking forward to, and the one I was subsequently most disappointed with. I'm avoiding spoilers here for fans of the DG universe so some of the following may seem rather vague. Despite the hype, Delta Green: Eyes Only (published in a limited run of 1,000 copies) didn't quite deliver. The book is essentially a collection of material that didn't make it into the original Delta Green sourcebook. This was put out in a series of three chapbooks in the late 1990s, now collected for the first time in this volume with some additional material. The piecemeal nature of the material shows - particularly in the first section of Eyes Only. Overall, the first half of the book doesn't really seem to add anything substantial to the DG background, and only one major secret concerning a member of the Fate is (kind of) revealed to be pretty much what was hinted at in earlier volumes. The latter half of the book is an improvement (especially the stuff on the Philadelphia experiment), but overall Delta Green: Eyes Only failed to excite despite the anticipation.

That's it for now. Be seeing you!