Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ketchum's Hide and Seek proves the worst terrors lurk within

So what scares horror writers? I imagine something like this: They draw back the curtain to provide the audience with a full look at their half-hidden ghosts, only to find that their readers react with indifference instead of terror at the final reveal.

This scenario has happened to me more than a few times during my reading experience, which is why I think that the old saw that horror writers "choose" not to write about vampires and zombies and ghouls because they're "overused" and "cliche" is so much bullshit. Horror writers avoid these elements not because it's hard to write about them, but because it's hard to write about them believeably.

Jack Ketchum's 1984 novel Hide and Seek unfortunately suffers a bit from this malady. Although its monsters are not truly supernatural, Ketchum's novel contains a beast that really isn't very scary, and its appearance towards the end of the book is a bit of a letdown--at least from my point of view.

Of course, it's only a letdown because the buildup to that point is so damned compelling.

Hide and Seek is set in Dead River, a sleepy, depressed tourist town on the coast of Maine, and follows the story of a 20-year-old townie, Dan Thomas. Dan is living a life of inertia ("A tired life breeds tired decisions," Ketchum writes), but the arrival of Casey, Kim, and Steve, three rich teenagers vacationing with their parents for the summer, shakes up his routine. Although he's from a very different background, Dan is drawn to Casey, a beautiful but cynical and wild girl with a volatile, dangerous streak in her. She returns his affections and Dan becomes an accepted part of the group.

The teens like to get their kicks by breaking the rules--skinny dipping and petty thievery, mostly. So when Dan tells them about the old Crouch residence--an abandoned coastal house with a grim past that includes rumors of a cannibalistic couple and a pack of wild dogs--the lure is too much to resist. Casey suggests a game of grown up hide and seek without flashlights at night in the house, and the fun (and horror) ensues.

I'll try not to spoil anything, but suffice to say that Hide and Seek has much more going on under the surface than a teenage slasher or haunted house movie. I wrote about Ketchum's depth as a writer in a recent post and he doesn't disappoint here. Hide and Seek is about the darkness we have inside of us. In a play on the title, Casey has her own dark secret that she keeps buried and hidden. Seeking it out at its dark core proves very dangerous, indeed.

The old Crouch house contains a tunnel of horrors in its dusty basement. Read as a symbol, the journey into this dark and rotten place is a voyage inside Casey's bleeding psyche. A horrible, vile truth lurks in this void, but it must be faced and stamped out if she is to become whole.

Hide and Seek begins with a brief meditation on how fate and chance are unpredictable, and how even a single, awful event can twist and ruin someone for the rest of their life. For Casey, a moment of unforgiveable weakness by her father in her 13th year causes her to develop a wild, nihilistic streak that threatens to consume her. Only when she finally faces her fear--the beast in the cave--does Casey grow up:

In the midst of all the terror, we were happy. The caves had shown us the worst the world could do to you. And for just a moment, something of the best.

But Ketchum is not a typical writer and happy outcomes are not guaranteed. His horrors--and those endured by Casey--are mean and nasty, and can kill.

In summary, if viewed in a purely psychological sense, Hide and Seek works and its implications are frightening. But with a literal reading in the cold light of day, the things in the Crouch house aren't really so frightening, after all.

Note: Hide and Seek is Ketchum's second novel and, although I still recommend it as a cracking good read, his later stuff (The Lost, The Girl Next Door) gets better.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ketchum proves that there is life after King

Like many other readers, I have a deep, abiding respect and appreciation for the work of Stephen King. For a long time (1974-86, or thereabouts) everything King touched seemed to turn to gold, and he was so prolific that I had no need to read any other horror authors. In short, I was spoiled and glutted on King.

Eventually I read myself dry of the master of horror and his newer stuff lost its appeal. So I turned to other, newer horror authors and King contemporaries. Unfortunately, I soon found that no one else could deliver the goods like King. Robert McCammon? Too imitative. Peter Straub? Not my style. Dean Koontz? I never met a Koontz novel I liked.

Then I encountered Jack Ketchum and found out that there is in fact life after Stephen King.

If you haven't heard of Ketchum you're not alone. Though he's a steady "mid-list" author, Ketchum doesn't have nearly the curb appeal of a King or a Straub or a Koontz. That's a shame, in my opinion.

Ketchum is one of those authors whose just darned readable. One mark of a good writer is the ability to craft effortless prose, and picking up a Ketchum book is like slipping into a comfortable pair of jeans.

At the same time, Ketchum can take you to unexpected places, raw and mean and dark. In his books, the worst monsters are people, and Ketchum pulls no punches in demonstrating the depravity of their souls. A great example is his fine 2002 novel The Lost, the story of an unsolved double murder in a small New Jersey town. Police reopen the case years later following another gruesome crime. Ketchum paints a disturbing potrayal of the murderer, but just as ably describes his two half-unwilling accessories, a pair of lost souls drawn in by his animal magnetism and cold-hearted charisma. Many B-grade horror writers settle for the shock; Ketchum gives you that but also provides the context and the characterization and makes it interesting and believable.

Like King, Ketchum is also adept at placing stories in familiar settings, typically blue collar or economically depressed suburbs or small towns that become part of the story and provide context for his characters and their motivations. Places like the town in which I live, or have lived in (which make his stories and the unfolding horror all the more chillingly real).

He is, quite simply, a very good writer.

My one charge against Ketchum is that his books start off white-hot, but don't seem to deliver on their early promise of greatness. For example, in The Lost Ketchum ably links the lost spirits of youth to the social upheaval in 1960s America. But he doesn't provide the answers as to what makes men monsters. His build-up is often great, but when he finally pulls aside the curtain I often find that the shattering revelation for which I had hoped falls short.

But I'm still holding out hope that Ketchum may one day put it all together and deliver a truly great novel. As of now I've only scratched the surface of his writing: Besides The Lost, the only other Ketchum novels I've read are The Girl Next Door and, currently, Hide and Seek. At last count Ketchum is up a dozen or so novels. I've also encountered a few of his short stories ("Gone," from October Dreams, is terrific) which I've also enjoyed. He certainly has all the raw materials and talent to make it happen.

Next post for me: A review of Hide and Seek.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pendragon: The holy grail of RPGs remains beyond my grasp

Question: What is the secret of the Grail? Whom does it serve?

Answer: Greg Stafford's Pendragon.

My experience with role-playing games is probably the same as that of your average gaming joe: 95% of my total hours in the hobby consist of playing D&D in all its various incarnations. The other 5% includes a smattering of Runequest, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, and Call of Cthulhu, along with a few one-shots here and there.

Now, I'm not complaining about this imbalance. D&D has served me well over the years as my go-to game of choice, and will likely continue to remain in that role going forward. But that doesn't mean that, from time to time, I don't ponder the alternatives. There is no one-size fits all RPG, D&D included.

Specifically, the one game that I have on my shelf but continues to elude me is the incomparable Pendragon, written by Greg Stafford. With all due respect to other great past and present RPG manuals, Pendragon is arguably the greatest read of them all, at least in my experience. To behold this game in all its glory is to see the art of role-playing at its pinnacle of development. It is, in my humble opinion, the Holy Grail of gaming.

Someday I hope to do more than read Pendragon and actually get to play it or run a game. But for now it remains as elusive as the Questing Beast, and my prospects for playing are as bleak as the Waste Land.

But I have often thought that, in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man, that Pendragon and I may meet. It is a dream I have...

But enough Arthurian references. Beyond my hopes of one day playing this great game, below I've laid out reasons why I think Pendragon has remained both an obscure, yet simultaneously long-lasting (currently in its 5th edition) and remarkable RPG.

Reasons Pendragon is not popular

Note that I don't necessarily consider any of the following list to be drawbacks, merely speculation as to why Pendragon never truly took off as a popular RPG:

It's not D&D. This is the big one. The RPG "industry" serves a niche hobby, and D&D/Wizards of the Coast is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. There's not a lot of room for other games--trying to find D&D players can be challenging enough, but locating groups willing to try out other, obscure RPGs like Pendragon? It's the modern-day equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

You're "stuck" playing knights. In my opinion this is actually a feature, not a bug. Pendragon's rules are built around knights--their training and upbringing, their chivalric traits and characteristics, their pasttimes (hunting, falconing, attending tournaments, etc.), running their manor, and more. In fact, in the latest edition of Pendragon, unlike past editions, you are limited to playing a knight only. This knight-only focus may preclude a breadth of options, but the depth of experience is remarkable. Unfortunately, players who want to play wizards, clerics, or Conan-like barbarians are out of luck.

It's deadly. The combat mechanics of Pendragon are not conducive to "rinse and repeat combats" like those found in D&D. Hit points are a fixed characteristic, and if you suffer a major wound you're in trouble: You can only fight on with great difficult, and likely it will be end of the combat and perhaps the adventure. You may even experience permanent negative effects from the wound, including statistical loss. I can understand why this isn't everyone's cup of tea.

It's not "high fantasy." While the Arthurian myths share a lot in common with high fantasy, they also diverge sharply from its most traditional "Tolkienian" conventions. So does Pendragon. You won't find magic swords and scrolls lying about in Pendragon games, unless they are rare and wondrous artifacts. Monsters are very rare (and suitably monstrous--you don't want to tangle with a giant). Magic is mysterious and extremely unpredictable--so unpredictable, in fact, that the GM basically "makes up" what happens. It's also the exclusive province of NPCs.

More to the point, the Arthurian myths don't always draw clear high fantasy divisions between good and evil. There are no cruel fantasy races (i.e., orcs) that can be slaughtered without compunction (although wicked mantichores, dragons, and giants do make the occasional appearance). And "evil" is hard to pin down: Is Launcelot and Guinevere's betrayal "evil," or simply an understandable failing of their human nature? Even Mordred can be seen in a sympathetic light.

Death is inevitable. If your character doesn't die on the battlefield, old age will ultimately claim him. A cool feature of Pendragon is that each "adventure" is assumed to take a year, as PCs have to return to their castle to tend to lands and business and enter a period of rest, recouperation, and character growth called the Winter Phase. Aging is a part of the game, so if you're not prepared for character death, you had best look elsewhere than Pendragon.

Reasons Pendragon has lasted, and should be more popular

The above "drawbacks" aside, Pendragon's brilliance is undeniable, and below I've listed a few of the reasons why:

It's brilliantly researched. Greg Stafford is steeped in Arthurian myth and it shines through in Pendragon. He built the game to simulate the acts and deeds and tales described by Malory and T.H. White and Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes, and in my opinion succeeded.

It has a singular, sharply-defined focus. Related to point #1 above, Pendragon is not an amalgamation of Tolkien and Howard and Lieber and Moorcock. It is about Arthuriana. You know exactly what you're getting and the mechanics and rules are built to serve that purpose. Generic fantasy games, with their kitchen sink approach, may have more breadth and options than Pendragon, but that approach has its drawbacks, too. For example, in D&D each player brings with him or her a different expectation of the campaign world and style of play. Also, it isn't the best game for accurately depicting actual heroes from fantasy (what is Gandalf, exactly: A fighter? A wizard? A paladin, perhaps)? You don't have this problem with Pendragon: It allows you to create heroic, passionate knights, and is damned good at it.

It possesses a great game engine. Pendragon is built with the nuts and bolts of basic role playing (BRP), a "D100" percentile system designed by Stafford and fellow game designer Lynn Willis. BRP was originally used for popular and well-designed game systems Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. Pendragon adds to the BRP engine traits and passions, which inspire and support role-playing through mechanics.

It has potential for epic, generation-spanning campaigns. There are some great scenarios published for Pendragon which can be played rather like a D&D module for an evening or two of entertainment. But the game is truly meant to be enjoyed as a decades and even centuries-spanning mega campaign. Characters are born, become squires and knights, fight and die or die of old age, and give birth to the next generation. The Great Pendragon campaign (a Pendragon mega-supplement whose cover I've pictured here) spans 81 years, including the rise and fall of Camelot/King Arthur, great wars and invasions, and mighty quests. Weapons and armor evolve over time from simple chain mail and spears and swords to halberds, morning stars, and gothic plate. Although it's an overused term, Pendragon campaigns are truly epic in scope.

Its inspired by amazing source material. Others around the Web have recently noted that the older editions of D&D succeeded in large part because of the flavor and character they picked up from the fantasy fiction roots upon which they are based. I can't argue with that, but I also note that no game can rival the rich tradition of literature that serves as the foundation for Pendragon.
Although the number of fantasy fans who have read Tolkien or Howard, or Leiber or Dragonlance, likely far outnumber those who have read Malory or T.H. White, everyone knows at least the basics of the Arthurian myth. The legends are timeless. Pendragon is drawn from the tales of Camelot, the shining kingdom illuminating dark ages Britain and the wild Forest Sauvage; the sword Excalibur, drawn from the stone; Stonehenge and druidism; evil knights and bandits that need to be quelled; tournaments and fair maiden's hearts and favors to be won; mythical quests for rare artifacts to undertake; invading armies to be fought; kingdoms to carve out and win, and, eventually, to fall into ruin. This is the stirring stuff of Pendragon.

In summary, take up the quest that is Pendragon. I'll be waiting.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Quote of the day

From J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.

I love this quote because it nails the reason why I love (good) fantasy fiction: It elevates your spirit and lifts you above the mundane. A well-told tale can stir the hearts of even the smallest, meekest fellows.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Egil's Saga: Mail-clad storytelling from an age gone by

Now my course is tough:

Death, close sister

of Odin's enemy,

stands on the ness:

with resolution

and without remorse

I will gladly await my own.

--Egil's Saga, The Sagas of Icelanders

While writing a review of the Poul Anderson novel Hrolf Kraki's Saga, I vowed to finally crack the dusty cover of The Sagas of Icelanders. For too long this massive tome (around 800 pages) has gone unread on my bookshelf. I recently made a commitment to work on it a bit at a time, so as not to get burned out on it, and so I began with the forward material and the first and longest work in the volume, Egil's Saga.

Egil is one of the great heroes of Icelandic Saga but he's surprisingly multi-faceted, especially given the age (circa 1220-1240 AD) of the work. He's certainly no hero by modern standards, and commits some acts which would amount to murder nowadays. Ugly, bald, ill-tempered and moody, huge of stature and strength and a feared warrior, he's also more than meets the eye: Egil is a great skald and composes several lengthy poems which weave their way into the tale. I found these at least as interesting (and in some cases, more so) than the action of the story.

In fact, the most memorable sequence of Egil's Saga is a poem he writes to honor the memory of his young son, Bodvar, who drowns at sea in a storm. In one of many moving passages in the poem, Egil in his rage wishes he could destroy the sea-god for the deed:

The sea-goddess has ruffled me,

stripped me bare of my loved ones:

the ocean severed my family's bonds,

the tight knot that ties me down.

If by sword I might avenge that deed,

the brewer of waves would meet his end;

smite the wind's brother that dashes the bay,

do battle against the sea-god's wife.

Egil's Saga spans 150 years of history, beginning with the story of Egil's grandfather and his early clashes with the king of Norway, which led to Egil's grandfather and father moving/fleeing to Iceland. Egil is born there, reaches an early maturity, and, after becoming a seasoned fighter on some viking raids, begins to build up his land, wealth, and reputation. But he never forgets his family's roots in Norway, and his long memory causes him to run afoul of King Harald Fair-Hair and his son Eirik when he makes repeated claims to his ancestral land. Egil's steadfastness/stubbornness draws him into numerous conflicts and bloody battles with the king's men in which he keeps Odin's corpse hall full of enemies hewn down on the battlefield. The tale eventually spans the course of Egil's life and also includes some details about the lives of his children.

If you're looking for straightforward narrative about epic heroes and their deeds, The Sagas of Icelanders will meet your needs, at least from my early experience with Egil's Saga. The language is lean and vivid and iron-hard, with scarcely a wasted word. Unlike the Norse myths, there's no outright magic or monsters to be found in Egil's Saga, but there are deeds of strength and endurance and feats of arms that only larger than life heroes could achieve.

There's also some shocking violence described in such an offhand way that you're left with the impression that violence was rather routine in that age. Men settle disputes by laying down hazelrods on the ground and fighting duels to the death within their deadly perimeter, with the winner declared the victor in the dispute. Other disputes are settled less formally: A good example is a conflict over farmland boundaries between Thorstein, one of Egil's sons, and Steinar, a quarrelsome and unlikeable neighbor. Steinar sends Thrand, a huge, fearsome slave with a double-bitted axe, to challenge Thorstein's claims that Steinar's cattle have been illegally grazing on his land, and to provoke a fight:

'I don't care whose land it is,' Thrand replied. 'I will let the cattle be where they prefer.'

'I'd rather be in in charge of my own land than leave that to Steinar's slaves,' said Thorstein.

'You're more stupid than I thought, Thorstein, if you want to risk your honour by seeking a place to sleep for the night under my axe,' said Thrand. 'I'd guess I have twice your strength, and I don't lack courage either. And I'm better armed than you.'

Thorstein said, 'That's a risk I'm prepared to take if you don't do anything about the cattle grazing. I trust there's as much difference between our fortunes as there is between our claims in this matter.'

Thrand said, 'Now you'll find out whether I'm scared of your threats, Thorstein.'

Then Thrand sat down to tie his shoe, and Thorstein raised his axe high in the air and struck him on the neck, so that his head fell on to his chest. Thorstein piled some rocks over this body to cover it up and went back to home to Borg.

That's one way to settle a quarrel over land!

However, the Icelandic sagas are told in a very different manner from a modern novel, and the techniques take some getting used to. For instance, I was confounded and a bit frustrated by the multitude of names in the sagas, many of which are duplicates of the names of men from preceeding generations. This convention makes sense when judged against the purpose of the Sagas--a means to transmit information and history as well as tell a story--but their overwhelming number breaks up the flow and caused some excessive page-flipping on my part. Also, expect deeds and words from the main players in the story, not thoughts or internal dialogue. There is characterization here, but its not delivered in the same means as a modern novel. I also found the lack of description a bit disappointing--details about ships, armor, clothing, battles, etc., are scare indeed, about what you'd expect from a tale that takes only 182 pages to span 15o years.

Still, Egil's Saga is a promising early start to this thick volume and I'm eagerly looking forward to more.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Frank Mentzer--coming to a Con near me

As a member of the Yahoo group, which caters to Boston-area roleplaying game enthusiasts, I receive a stream of regular messages in my inbox about area RPG games, news, and conventions. I ignore most of these messages because my gaming needs are already met, and because I view RPG conventions with a skeptical eye. The entirety of my convention experience consists of a single con--Total Confusion, which I attended way back in 1993 or thereabouts. I found the experience to be wildly uneven: The few RPG sessions I sat in on were crowded, disorganized, and largely un-fun, but I did have a blast playing a couple wargames. Overall though I had no urge to return to another con any time soon.

But a recent message from Bostongamers grabbed my eye and is causing me to consider lifting my 15-year self-imposed convention ban. Open Gaming Convention (OGC) in Nashua, NH--a short 30 or so minute ride from my doorstep--is hosting Frank Mentzer as its special guest. The convention runs from July 25-27.

That's right, D&D fans--the Frank Mentzer who authored the famous "BECMI" Dungeons and Dragons boxed sets, will be appearing at OGC. Published during 1983-86, Mentzer's legendary Basic, Expert, Companion, Masters, and Immortal sets took you from first level wimpdom all the way up to 36th level epic hero status and beyond, into the glorified air of god-hood. Although I never had a legitimate character attain Immortal or even Master's level status, I have a lot of very good memories of playing with those old box sets during my youth and teenage years (we played a D&D hybrid in those days, throwing together the AD&D and D&D rules in a mongrel but incredibly fun mix).

In fact, I still have those box sets on my shelf today, and turn to them from time to time for inspiration. Mentzer also wrote a number of other D&D modules, including a co-writing credit on the legendary The Temple of Elemental Evil (pictured here) with the master himself, Gary Gygax.

Part of me now wants to attend OGC just to shake the hand of the man who brought me so much joy all those years ago. Although Frank is still relatively young and as far as I know in the best of health, I can't help but think of Gygax's recent passing, which drove home the point that we should give thanks to the visionaries and creators of our favorite hobbies now, rather than look back with regret when the chance has passed. Besides, a Mentzer autograph would look quite nice on the inside flap of my own treasured copy of the The Temple...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Dark Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft: A review

I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the dark planets roll without aim--
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
Without knowledge or luster or name.

--HP Lovecraft, "The Haunter of the Dark"

Seminal horror author H.P. Lovecraft may have a loyal following, but he also gets a lot of flak for his style--which some describe as overly archaic and distractingly adjective-laced--or by those who approach his short stories looking for a scare, but leave disappointed that he's not frightening enough.

I think both points have some validity though largely I don't agree with them. I love Lovecraft's style, mainly because it's so darn unique: All it takes is one or two sentences and you know exactly who you're reading. It also perfectly fits the atmospheric, slow-to-build horror for which he's known. As for the second criticism, Lovecraft really doesn't scare me, either. You're not going to get nasty shocks out of his stories, though I would describe them as occasionally unsettling: He can deliver a good chill and at times evoke strong feelings of dread.

But people who pick up Lovecraft for simple scares are missing the boat. Think of him instead as a dark spinner of stories set in a detailed and grotesque universe of his own creation, a world of dark cults, evil tomes, ancient curses, and formless, tentacled monsters from space. His subject material is just plain cool. Also, Lovecraft has the ability to draw you effortlessly back in time. Born in 1890, Lovecraft set his stories in the 1920s and 30s, when America was a bit wilder and stranger than the place we know today, a country of deeper woods and darker mountains and strange phenomena that science had not explained away.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that I enjoyed the heck out of The Dark Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 5, an audiobook read by Wayne June. The 3 CD set contains three Lovecraft short stories, including "The Lurking Fear," "Haunter of the Dark," and "The Thing on the Doorstep." I've read quite a bit of Lovecraft, but this was the first time I've ever had his tales read to me, and it was a very enjoyable, immersive experience.

All three stories are excellent. "Haunter of the Dark" tells the story of Robert Blake, a horror writer/artist who becomes obsessed over a far off, decrepit church spire spied from his rented studio window. Blake's investigation reveals the place to be an abandoned, ruined church once used by a dark cult, and now inhabited by something far, far worse.

The best of the three tales is probably "The Thing on the Doorstep," which features full-blown Lovecraftian goodness. The tale is set in the famous, fictional town of Arkham, and involves Arkham University, the Necronomicon and other assorted monstrous tomes, a strange intermingled race of men and fish-like deep ones, mind control, a descent into an unholy pit "where the black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate," and much, much more. Although I've never read a Lovecraft biography (a fact I hope to rectify soon), I couldn't help but draw parallels between the author and Edward Derby, the protagonist and victim of the tale. I would imagine that essayists looking to peer inside Lovecraft's mind have veritable a goldmine to draw from in "The Thing on the Doorstep."

"The Lurking Fear" is the most straightforward horror tale of the three and explores one of Lovecraft's recurrent themes, that of cursed blood and hereditary corruption. Here an investigator of the supernatural looks into a strange massacre in the mountainous Catskills region of New York, where a deserted mansion holds the key to an unspoken horror living beneath the earth. The terrors he uncovers leave him a gibbering wreck at stories' end, a common fate for Lovecraft's narrators.

Reader Wayne June deserves a lot of praise for delivering the stories with a smoky, menacing, baritone voice perfectly suited to the tales. My only criticism is that I wanted to hear him scream the line, Kamog! Kamog! -- The pit of the shoggoths--Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young! in "The Thing on the Doorstep," but he chose to deliver it with a half-whispered shout. But it's probably for the best, I guess, as hearing such unutterable phrases spoken aloud may have fractured my sanity, or worse, stirred Something That Should Not Be from its uneasy sleep.

Addendum: Although it hardly resembles anymore the place described in Lovecraft's stories, it should be noted that I live in East Massachusetts, the heart of Lovecraft country. Right next door is Newburyport, which is named in at least one of Lovecraft's tales, and every day to work I drive through "witch-haunted Salem" and directly past (now torn down) Danvers State Mental Hospital, both of which make appearances in Lovecraft's universe. I'm also a short drive from Gloucester, which many attribute as Lovecraft's inspiration for the fictional, twisted town of Innsmouth. It's no wonder his stories resonate with me.
Postscript: This review has appeared on

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rediscovering Rush: Musings after a July 11 concert in Manchester, NH

Any escape might help to smooth

The unattractive truth

But the suburbs have no charms to soothe

The restless dreams of youth

--Rush, Subdivisions

At one time I was unbelievably passionate about Rush, the venerable Canadian progressive rock trio known for such hits as "Tom Sawyer," "Spirit of Radio" and "Limelight." But in the last few years my ardor had cooled quite a bit and I had largely stopped listening to them.

Given my age (35), upbringing (a suburb of Boston), and college education, it's no surprise that I was a huge fan of Rush back in the 1980's and 1990's. Although they attract all manner of fans, they seem to have a special appeal to folks who enjoy thought-provoking lyrics and technical musicianship--the nerd crowd, in short. For a long time Rush had the honor of being among my top three favorite bands (Iron Maiden and KISS sharing those other spots).

Rush put out a string of terrific albums over a 20-year span of their career, starting with their 1974 self-titled release all the way up until (in my opinion) 1993's Counterparts. But I wasn't nearly as impressed with later efforts Test for Echo (1996) or Vapor Trails (2002). When Rush released Snakes and Arrows in 2007 I had pretty much stopped caring and didn't even bother to try and listen to it.

But there was more to my recent separation from Rush than just a cool reaction to their recent albums. I like bands with which I can form an emotional attachment, and for a while Rush was the soundtrack of my life and spoke the messages I wanted to hear. I was the surburban teenager under pressure to "be cool or be cast out," and the young man with big dreams and tough realities leaving college:

Proud swagger out of the schoolyard, waiting for the world's applause, rebel without a conscience, martyr without a cause

But as the years went on I started to lose interest in Rush's message. Even their indisputably great albums--2112, Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves--were no longer getting play on my CD player. I was working, getting married, having kids, etc., and I no longer felt as connected to the music. Or perhaps it was simple overload and burnout, having listened the heck out of their albums for years. In July of 2002 I saw Rush on the Vapor Trails tour (my seventh Rush concert) and recall feeling afterwards that, while the show was good, I had seen these guys enough. My Rush CD collection soon developed a layer of dust.

Fast forward six years to 2008. A couple weeks ago my wife bought me a surprise pair of birthday tickets for a July 11 show at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, NH. I had no idea the tickets were even coming and I had even less idea how I'd react to seeing Rush in concert once again.

As a concert-going geek (who has had to cut way back on the number of shows I attend due to soaring prices and competing interests), normally when I attend a show I like to "build up" to it by listening to the band's albums and watching video of concert performances, videos, etc. But I didn't have the luxury of doing that with Rush: I was on vacation until July 7 without a computer (no Youtube) and my Rush CDs were all at home. My birthday falls on June 26 and barely two weeks later, the show was here. My geeky routine was all out of whack.

But it didn't matter. On Friday my wife and I were headed into the show and suddenly, although I had no expectations, I felt the excitement begin to build. Perhaps it was the contagion of the enthusiastic mass of concert-goers all heading inside, but I soon realized that it was just the simple happiness of seeing Rush in concert once again.

I'm glad to say that I was not disappointed by the show. Although I didn't know any of the Snakes and Arrows material, Rush sounded great, and I actually became a fan of the Main Monkey Business, an incredible instrumental off of their new album.

But the audience's strongest reaction came during their classic material. The best song of the night for me was "Subdivisions," which the band absolutely nailed. As Geddy Lee hit the familiar opening synth notes one of the three on-stage projection screens zoomed in on his hands, another showed an overhead of Neil Peart's drum kit, and a third focused on Alex Lifeson's guitar work. The net effect was tremendous. Damn, I thought, these guys can still play.

Speaking of Lifeson, I left the concert more impressed with his ability than ever before. Rush is known its great musicianship, with Peart getting the lion's share of the credit, and for good reason--he's probably the best rock drummer ever. Likewise, Lee has gotten many props for his bass playing over the years. Lifeson seems to get lost in the shuffle. But on this night I thought he owned the show, playing some tremendous solos and riffs, switching effortlessly between acoustic guitars and lutes and other stringed instruments back to his electric, all while distorting and changing with a mass of petals at his feet. He was into it and on top of his game.

Overall, I must say that Lee, Lifeson, and Peart remain the most talented musicians that I have ever seen in concert. Iron Maiden is my favorite band, and I've seen dozens of other acts, but no one can play like Rush. Monkey Business and later YYZ were a stunning reminder of their talent. It never ceases to amaze how a three-man act can produce such amazing music. Peart did his usual virtuoso solo, and even my wife--a casual fan of Rush at best--was floored.

The only annoying bit of the night was the dork behind me who insisted on yelling out all of the upcoming song titles right at the end of the previous song, serving as a serious spoiler since I hadn't checked the set list prior to the show. I do miss the pre-internet days when concert setlists were hard to find and you often went in blind. I felt like turning around and telling him (in an extremely sarcastic voice,) "Geez, you must be a fucking psychic!"

Just today I found myself listening to Rush in my car again, cranking up Presto, one of my favorite albums. While I might not feel the same personal connection to their music, I did find myself enjoying it for the incredible musicianship and artistry. And you know what? That's good enough for me.

Long live Rush!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tomb of Horrors: A D&D classic, or an unplayable deathtrap?

The iron men of visage grim do more than
meets the viewers eye
You've left and left and found my Tomb
and now your soul will die.

It's the module whose name sends chills down the spine of any serious D&D player. Chock full of spiked pits and other assorted death traps, dead-ends and false finishes, and a final encounter against a nearly invulnerable creature that can kill a PC every round, it's notorious as a character-destroying meat grinder, and the epitome of old school D&D. Those who (claim) to have played and survived it wear their experience like a Purple Heart.

I'm writing of course about S1: The Tomb of Horrors, as penned by the late, great Gary Gygax. What I'd like to know is whether anyone has ever legitimately played through this module and lived. I just don't see how it's possible.

My own experience with this module is non-existent. In the interest of full disclosure I've never played or DM'd the Tomb, and for most of my life I didn't even own a copy. But the information I gleaned about it online over the years simultaneously intrigued and scared the crap out of me. I knew I had to eventually get my own copy.

A couple years ago I had the fortune to find and purchase a used copy of the legendary S1 at a local gamestore. My reaction upon reading it was: Holy Shit, you can never play this, straight up and legit, make it through the tomb, and come out alive. By legit I mean playing without any foreknowledge of the killer, no saving throw, instant death traps that litter the tomb of the demi-lich. That's very hard to do nowadays: It seems like everyone at least has a passing familarity with the module, due to the internet and the fact it's been around for 30 years.

S1 strikes me as the ultimate stand-alone scenario. Even though Gygax placed it in the World of Greyhawk and provided a backstory, The Tomb of Horrors really cannot be part of any long-running campaign. Unless your players are the type who don't mind watching their carefully-crafted 13th level fighter--built up through years of hard-fighting and treasure gathering in memorable campaigns--slid into a molten lava pit to die screaming with no save, they're probably going to end up angry. In the Tomb you can be sucked into Acererak's eye (annihilated with no save), crushed flat beneath the roller of a massive stone juggnernaut (death, no save), turned into green slime (no save!), and generally snuffed out of existence in a million other ways.

This leads me to believe that S1 is not intended as a serious module, but rather a strange and amusing artifact to be read and put back on the shelf. Or perhaps it was written as a means to punish cocky players.

Despite its propensity for killing PCs, I do think The Tomb of Horrors has plenty of merit and deserves a place of honor in any serious D&D player's collection. The reasons include:

It's amazingly well-written and illustrated. It oozes flavor. Gygax was on top of his game here. Here's a good example:

The mists are silvery and shot through with delicate streamers of golden color. Vision extends only 6'. There is a dim aura of good if detected for. Those who step into the mist must save versus poison or become idiots until they can breathe the clean air above ground under the warm sun.

In addition, the Tomb of Horrors comes with a beautiful 20-page illustration booklet, containing 32 illustrations showing various features of the Tomb. If you're a fan of old-school art this alone is worth the purchase.

It's a marvel of economy. Outside of the illustration booklet the module itself is a dense, compact 12 pages, which includes pre-rolled PCs! Pretty amazing.

It's hard-core and the essence of old-school. Gygax writes at the outset what could be a treatise of old-school gaming. He states the following: This is a thinking person's module, and if your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy .... it is this writer's belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly benefit from playing this module, for individual levels of skill will be improved by reasoning and experience.

Later on, he adds as a tip for running the module: Read aloud appropriate sections, but never give any additional information which player characters would have no way of knowing, and avoid facial expressions or voice tones which might give helpful hints or mislead players. The real enjoyment of this module is managing to cope, and those players who manage to do so even semi-successfully will appreciate your refereeing properly and allowing them to "live or die" on their own.

In other words, S1 challenges the skill of the players, and not the abilities of the PCs.

And what a challenge it is. So again I'll ask: Has anyone played through S1 and lived? Or is the Tomb of Horrors widely regarded as simply not a "serious" module?

One other interesting sidenote to the Tomb of Horrors: Inside it says that it was originally used as a tournament module at Origins I (which is probably the ideal way to play it). Me, I would kill to enter a time machine and watch a few sessions of that.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Camelot on a pontoon boat--'tis a silly sight

This, folks, is what a first-place entry in the Highland Lake Fourth of July Annual Boat Parade looks like.

And further on down is what a ridiculous man with a tinfoil-covered cardboard box/faux helm looks like.

During my family's recent July 4 vacation we put together the above float and managed to win first place in the boat parade, taking home $50 and more importantly the Highland Lake Protective Agency first place banner for another year. It's hanging proudly in our lakeside cottage now.

Camelot, I'm proud to say, was an invention wholly my own (shocking, the theme I chose!) I got all of the boxes for the castle walls free from Wal-Mart, and had only to buy five cans of spray paint, a few items at the party store, and a plastic sword, shield, and greaves. A few other props I had kicking around at home, including the viking helmet and axe. All told it cost me just under $50, so I earned about $1.50 from our epic victory over the 6-7 other boats who had the temerity to compete against such an awesome and threatening float.

I built the walls and cut out and decorated the shields on the side of the boat, and also constructed my awe-inspiring helm. My crew pictured above helped assemble the final product and added a few touches of their own. My favorite was my fellow warrior, Greg, who fashioned his helmet from a empty 12-pack cardboard container of Bud Light. Notice the "old queens" in the back with their chalices, my two daughters in the castle tower who posed as princesses in dire need of rescue, and the drawbridge in front.

But neither big cash prizes nor fame motivated us to enter. I'll leave it to you to imagine the fun we had parading around the lake perimeter in our boat, shouting, "We're the knights of the round table!" "Camelot!" "Hail to King Arthur and his old queens!" etc., etc. to all the cheering spectators on shore. It was sheer awesome.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold. A review

If you like a big, heaping helping of vanilla with your fantasy, you'll probably like the flavor of Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold.

Me, I'm a New York Super Fudge Chunk guy and I thought Magic Kingdom tasted like shit.

Yeah, that's harsh. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, etc. etc. But I have an obligation to review Brooks' work for two reasons: I owe it to, and I figure I might steer away a couple potential readers who might stumble with tragic results into the banal minefield that is Magic Kingdom.

To be fair, Brooks can write, in terms of stringing gramatically correct sentences together. I've read much, much worse stuff than Magic Kingdom. I also have fond memories of Brooks' Sword of Shannara series, which I read as a teenager and liked (although I knew even then that they were derivative of Tolkien). But I'm afraid to revisit Shannara these days, especially after Magic Kingdom. I just know its not going to hold up.

Magic Kingdom is about the tale of Ben Holiday, a 40-year-old lawyer burned out with his profession and his life, having lost his wife to a car accident and finding no satisfaction in his work. While thumbing through a specialty catalog he finds a literal magic kingdom for sale for a million bucks and decides to make the purchase. The broker, a wizard, whisks Holiday away to the fantastic realm of Landover, a once shining kingdom now in serious decline. The land is failing and the great castle of Sterling Silver is tarnished because Landover has been without a king for 20 years.

Holiday soon finds out that he's not the first king to try to ascend to the throne in that time, however. Far from it. Instead, he's been duped by the broker, and learns that dozens of previous kings have failed before him, and were meant to. Landover's peoples are bitter and disenchanted with the string of would-be kings turned failures, and Holiday has a fight on his hands to win their pledges.

But Holiday has help in the form of a doddering old wizard (Questor), a talking dog who once served as a court scribe (Abernathy), a beautiful shape shifting sylph named Willow, a pair of Kobolds, and a pair of hairy, grubby, earth-tunneling gnomes.

The biggest problem I had with Magic Kingdom is that this is kids' stuff, but it's not labeled nor probably intended as such. I don't buy that Magic Kingdom is written for an adolescent audience: its clearly marked as "adult fiction" on the cover of the audiobook I've reviewed. Nor is its subject matter for adolescents: At it's heart it's about a man's middle-age crisis, hardly the stuff to captivate a young audience. And because Magic Kingdom doesn't know what it wants to be, it suffers mightly. I enjoy good adolescent fantasy lit--C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, for example, are terrific reads for folks of any age--but Magic Kingdom failed to satisfy my grown-up tastes, or my childhood love for good, simple stories.

Secondly, Landover as a world is completely unrealistic and devoid of any personality or charm. With generic place names like "The Greensward," "the Deep Fell," "The Wasteland," and "The Mountains of Melkor," Landover may as well be anywhere fantasy USA. And the way Brooks describes Landover you'd think it was the size of a postage stamp--two sentences of description here and there and Holiday and his crew have traversed the whole continent without breaking a sweat.

Thirdly, I didn't much like the main character. There's nothing to dislike about Holiday, but there's not much to like, either. He's bland and featureless. Holiday stumbles around most of the story, avoiding scapes by luck or occasionally pluck and wit, but mostly because he's "fated" to become king. He's revealed as the chosen one almost from the outset of the story, so there's really no tension or doubt that he will ascend to the throne of Landover. I also found his companions extremely annoying. The kobolds, gnomes, and even Abernathy and Questor resemble a troupe of circus clowns who are there to provide levity, a sounding board for Holiday's questions, and occasionally bail him out of trouble, but do little else.

Fourthly, the underpinnings of the story have some serious flaws and holes. We find out that the evil wizard who "sells" Landover to Holiday is doing it for the money. Keep in mind that this is a wizard who has powerful magic at his disposal--and can use it freely on Earth--but can't seem to figure out how to use it to make a few honest bucks. Lame. Brooks draws some extremely tenuous connections between the health of the king and the health of the land, an old Arthurian trope that is not at all developed in Magic Kingdom. Other than a few brief mentions of blighted crops, swirling mists and gloom, and some unhappy farmers, there's no overt suffering, darkness, or disease, nor any explanations about why a king is needed to restore the land's health. In short, I had no emotional investment in whether Holiday succeeded or failed in his mission because I didn't find myself caring about him or the plight of Landover. By the conclusion of the story I was simply glad to see it end.

I could go on and on with the criticisms (the evil wizard allowed Holiday, a brilliant lawyer and a golden gloves boxer, to buy Landover because he thought Holiday was a good candidate to fail at becoming king?) but it's like shooting ducks in a barrel. I do think there is an audience for Magic Kingdom, and you could do worse if you're looking for a brainless beach read, but suffice to say that it's not for readers like me.

Edit: This review also appears on