Spooky Movies

In the last post, I spent a lot of words talking about a handful of games, and in this one, I think I’ll spend a few fewer words to talk about a great number of movies. And, uh, yeah, I own a great number of movies! October is time for me to finally dig into them and watch as many as I can.

I’ve spent the past twenty years collecting all sorts of physical, disc-based media but to be honest, I don’t have much time to watch them lately. I’ve got over 2000+ DVDs, I think, and at least 600+ Blu-Rays at this point, I suspect. And many are still in shrinkwrap! So, when the confluence of general societal collapse and a global pandemic have left me at home with the family 24/7, as well as terrified about the future of all of us, I have found myself drawn back to horror. Perhaps as a balm for my tormented soul; there’s some evidence that people who enjoy horror media are coping better with our current times. Now that it’s October, this obsession of the last few months seems to have lined up well with the season.

A caveat: I’ve never really been much of a “horror guy.” There are plenty of people I like and respect who have been (e.g., Patrick and Katie Klepek, who ran/run the excellent Til Death Do Us Part podcast), but this is still a new thing for me. Beyond the big titles/franchises, I’m still largely ignorant of great swaths of horror movie history, especially at the schlockier/grindhousier ends of the spectrum. I only recently — like, last year — started dipping my toes in these murky waters, and had a wonderful time at our local Alamo Drafthouse’s annual Dismember the Alamo marathon (the poster for which adorns my home office wall).

But, as I started writing about at the top here, I’m also a media hoarder. I’ve been sorting through my collections during the pandemic, and have several stacks of horror books, horror comics (both of which I’ll discuss in future posts), and horror movies. Here’s the one that was by my bed — a number still in shrinkwrap, and most of them still unseen.

The Vincent Price boxset has been sitting there since mid-summer, when I was briefly running my own little horror movie night over my personal Discord (let me know if you want an invite). We watched Tomb of Ligeia (not in that box, actually), which was fun enough but clearly a lesser Price/Corman movie. The movie series petered out shortly afterward, as people stopped attending and the feedback I received was “This is fun, but why do we have to watch horror? Let’s watch old French New Wave movies instead.” I conceded to that understandable desire but soon came to regret it; my tastes are inexorably drawn to the macabre, the schlocky, the dreadful lately, and so that’s what I’m watching exclusively now.

So, it was a nice surprise to see that Shudder (the AMC-owned horror streaming service) added a number of Vincent Price films for October of this year. This synced up well with current events, so we watched Masque of the Red Death the other night.

It wasn’t my favorite, but was pretty fun. It was garish and silly, but genuinely creepy in spots. Much is made of the garish sets and hammy acting in these films — those are its main appeal to me, as this one didn’t work as anything truly scary, just a fun diversion.

I also watched Price in the glorious Theatre of Blood in a watch party with members of the Shudder Discord (see their Twitter account for an invite link). It’s a fan Discord that exists primarily to run movie nights, I believe (so, right up my alley). This movie was really something else: Almost a thematic remake of The Abominable Dr. Phibes in some ways, Price plays a Shakespearean actor who is denied a prestigious award by a circle of critics, and then goes on a rampage, killing them one by one in ways that match specific deaths in the Shakespearean canon. With a supporting performance by Diana Rigg (?!) as his daughter, this was one of the funniest and weirdest early 1970s horror films I’ve ever seen. Here’s the trailer (but bewarned, there are a ton of spoilers in it):

Also, a couple of days ago, I finally watched House of Usher (or is it Fall of the House of Usher, as the original book was titled? IMDb and the title card differ from how several sites record the name). And I was totally blown away — the Richard Matheson screenplay is taut and creepy, Price’s performance is wonderful (and he’s blonde), and it has a pervasive, wonderful sense of dread. By far my favorite of these Price films, and now one of my favorite Gothic horror films ever. I was happy to learn that my favorite line and delivery in the film — “I can hear the scratch of rat claws within the stone wall” — was apparently also John Waters’ favorite line.

So, I guess I’ve become a Shudder fanboy. I’ve subscribed to this service for two years, but haven’t used it much, to be honest. I suspect they have a huge uptick in subscriptions in October anyway, but I’ve been reading (anecdotally) that many have been flocking to the service in recent, dread-filled months.

One very cool thing they’re doing is a weekly “Shudder hotline” on Friday afternoons in October. For one hour, and if you can get through, you can call a number and chat with the lead curator for Shudder, Sam Zimmerman, and receive personalized movie recommendations. I actually did this on Friday! As I’ve been working my way through these Price movies, as well as enjoying some cosmic horror (I really liked Color out of Space; a flawed film but really interestingly flawed), I asked Sam for suggestions on what to watch next.

Pretty cool. I knew of Ring 0 before, but haven’t watched it; it’s not a film I would have assumed fit any definition of “Gothic,” but I’ll definitely check it out now. The other two were movies I had never heard of — Voice from the Stone seems to have pretty bad reviews, but, sure, I’ll check it out, and Beach House has excellent reviews and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Shudder original. I suspect this hotline is primarily to promote Shudder originals these days (as they seem to be adding a bunch lately), and I’m okay with being a vehicle for that promotion.

Speaking of Shudder originals, I’ve been a member for a couple of years now and can recommend a few other things that might help one get in the seasonal mood. First is Video Palace, a faux-investigative audio podcast about VHS collecting and the mysterious history of a now-defunct video rental store. I greatly enjoyed this whole series, and Shudder has them up on YouTube still. Here’s episode 1:

Also, the kids and I absolutely adore their “Ghoul Logs” — they’ve made three of them so far, one for the last three years, and each one is cute, often a little clever, and wonderful thing to have on the TV in the background as we proceed with our spooky quarantine days. Here’s the trailer for the latest one:

And finally, several months after everyone else watched it, I finally checked out Host — the Zoom-séance-gone-wrong movie — and I loved it. It was short (less than an hour!) and sweet, with some clever uses of everything from virtual backgrounds to a Zoom contact list as the credits. I love that these smaller streamers can be free to support little genre experiments like this.

This post is quickly turning into an ad for Shudder, so I’ll stop there and then redirect the rest of the post to something else. But I do think Shudder is worth checking out — especially at only $5.99/month — but I have heard that it’s a pain to cancel your subscription, so caveat emptor.

Since I’ve been watching a number of horror films this year, I found myself gravitating toward those “watch a bunch of horror movies in a month” challenges. This is an extra-big challenge given the kind of things one sees in these films and because I’m cohabitating with a seven-year-old and a four-year old. But drawn to them I am. Going back to September 11th, I’m actually at a very spooky 13 movies watched at 11 days into October (at the time of writing this; the list linked will change in the coming days). I’m ahead of the pace to do this.

I’ve looked into the details of some of these movie-watching challenges, and they do seem like a lot of fun, if not exactly for me in their current forms. Take, for example, Hooptober (named after Tobe Hooper, director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among other things). This was the one that seems to have started it all seven years ago. The current Hooptober challenge is:


6 countries

6 decades

7 2nd films of franchises

4 body horror films

2 films from this year

3 disease based films

The highest rated horror film from the 50s that you haven’t seen and can access.

1 film that is set entirely inside one location

1 Invisible Person film

1 Non Dracula Hammer Film

2 films with a black director or predominantly black cast or lead.

1 film with a movie theater in it.

And 1 Tobe Hooper Films (There must ALWAYS be a Hooper film).

There’s more, but you get the gist. 13 different categories to fill before the end of October. People participating on Letterboxd started in mid-September and many are already done or close to done! I’m not really interested in a lot of these bits of the challenges (7 2nd films of franchises seems like a great way to kill any enjoyment in this for me), so I haven’t done it.

But I do like the idea, and realized it could work for me with a few tweaks. I frankly have no interest in watching Tobe Hooper movies, but I am curious about a bunch of other directors. I don’t feel like watching a movie about an invisible person this year, but I do feel like watching a were-person movie. I feel like adapting this to my tastes and my collection, as an incentive to finally watch a bunch of these.

So, here’s my “Hooptober” list (sans the “Hoop”) of my own 13 categories, with what I’ve watched so far (13 movies in, having started in mid-September). Numbers are minimums, of course, and there are still a ton of blanks here:

1. One movie from each of the following seven decades:

• 1930s: The Old Dark House

• 1940s:

• 1950s: The Curse of Frankenstein

• 1960s: Carnival of Souls; Blood and Black Lace; Masque of the Red Death; Fall of the House of Usher

• 1970s:

• 1980s: The Changeling; Re-Animator; Cat People (1982)

• 1990s:

• 2000s: The Devil’s Backbone

• 2010s: Color Out of Space

2. One movie I haven’t seen before from each of the following five directors:

• David Cronenberg:

• Ana Lily Amirpour:

• Guillermo del Toro: The Devil’s Backbone

• Jacques Tourneur:

• Mike Flanagan:

3. Five films not originally filmed in English: Blood and Black Lace; The Devil’s Backbone

4. Five watched via Criterion Collection DVDs/Blus: The Devil’s Backbone

5. Three movies with titles that include “Blood”: Theatre of Blood; Blood and Black Lace

6. Three movies prominently featuring a were-being (wolf, cat, dog, slug): Cat People (1982)

7. Three “classic” (Victorian-ish and actually haunted) haunted house movies: The Changeling

8. Three Lovecraft adaptations: Color out of Space; Re-Animator

9. One “Universal monsters” movie:

10. One movie primarily set in the American South: Cat People (1982)

11. One movie released in 2020: Host

12. One found-footage movie:

13. One Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan; there must always be Bava’s Black Sunday):

Plus: No more than five movies (excluding Black Sunday!) may be movies I’ve seen before. So far, that’s: The Changeling

That’s a bit more like it. My tastes lean toward “classic” horror of various sorts from before 1970s (Universal horror, Hammer, Amicus, Corman productions) and frankly the rise of slashers in the 1970s started ruining horror for me. (That didn’t, uh, stop me from ordering the ridiculous Friday the 13th box set from Scream! Factory, however).

So far, I’ve had a lot of fun digging movies out of boxes and off of the shelf that I’ve wanted to watch. And the kids are getting caught up in it a little, even if they are not allowed to watch some of them (yet). Well, I’m certainly not going to let them watch any more than the Blu-Ray menus for The Devil’s Backbone until they’re older.

Basically, I’m hoping to learn a lot and fill in some gaps in my horror movie knowledge, while watching some of the massive pile of movies I’ve amassed.

I’m forcing myself to watch almost entirely new things (to me), while also making myself watch Black Sunday yet again — some people watch Hocus Pocus every year, but Black Sunday has been my holiday tradition for years. I saw it at our local Alamo Drafthouse on the big screen last year, and even screened it over the summer in my Discord. It’s such an endearing movie to me — you can see where Roger Corman, Tim Burton, and dozens of others ripped Bava off.

Anyway, a horror movie per day for the rest of the month, at least. I’m still barely underway and would welcome anyone who wanted to join me! If anyone wants to coordinate watching over a Discord or social media, please let me know. Regardless, I’ll continue to update my progress on Letterboxd and post about my progress here at least one or two more times before the end of the month.

Next post, I think I’ll shift media again, and post about monster and horror comics. Be forewarned: There will be a brief discussion of the enduring power of Gomdulla, the living pharoah.

Thanks for reading!

Spooky Games

Whoa, I guess I forgot to post to this blog for a month? It’s suddenly October and lots… hasn’t changed. I’m still in quarantine with the family, still obsessed with horror, still plodding along and hoping that our nation/planet doesn’t completely collapse in the next few months. That said, the season has now aligned with my evolving sense of continual dread, and I might as well share that with whomever reads this.

So, this will be the first of several posts this month where I will talk about seasonal things of various kinds. Typically media-oriented, sometimes not, but all spooky/autumnal/horror-ish as that’s what I’m thinking about, like, all the time these days. I’m taking a major cue from Laura Hall’s wonderful 31 Days of Halloween newsletter — this is the sixth year she’s been sending off a seasonal email every day for the 31 days of October. I highly recommend it! Laura’s got great taste and an infectious attitude toward the creepy season, posting pictures, links, and (lately) online Halloweeny events to attend.

So, here’s my pale imitation in my own fashion… I’ll start off talking a bit about games, as, well, games have been on my mind. (When aren’t they?)

I think I mentioned a few posts ago that I’ve recently been obsessed with Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and have in recent weeks blinged out my Arkham game in some fun ways. I’ll have more to say about that, especially since the most recent big box expansion just arrived yesterday: The Innsmouth Conspiracy.

But rather than let this first spooky post be (s)hogg(oth)ed by that one game, I think I’ll start off discussing a variety of things I’ve been playing with the family.

We just received Horrified in the mail yesterday and have already played it a couple of times. I’m a bit surprised to say that it’s already become one of my favorite recent board games! Horrified is a completely collaborative board game themed around players stopping up to six different monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein(‘s monster)/the Bride of Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In other words, the classic Universal Monsters. I’m honestly surprised there haven’t been any other games (that I know of?) that have focused on these iconic horror movies, but I’m glad this one exists.

Horrified was designed by Prospero Hall, a Seattle-based studio who seems to employ a shockingly large number of people and whose design resume seems to be almost entirely media tie-in games with high production values. This game is no exception, clearly, and it wears its inspirations on its sleeve: It feels a bit like a simplified Pandemic mixed with, well, Arkham Horror. And that’s a good thing! It’s got monsters that inexorably hound you and will eventually kill you and/or the random villagers that spawn in the town. Unless, of course, you (playing the nameless Archaeologist, Scientist, Professor, Courier, etc.) team up, collecting weapons and bit characters from the classic Universal Monsters movies, and advance the tasks needed to get rid of them.

The way each monster is dispatched is something I absolutely love about this game. Each monster has its own little minigame you have to complete in order to beat them — each is unique, and uses unique mechanics. The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s is a bit like Candy Land, but in a good way: You expend resources of specific colors to move yourself on a little track toward the Creature’s lair. Dracula requires you to find and destroy (using only red resources) each of his coffins, dispersed across the board, before you can take him on. Wolf Man’s, shown below, makes you expend resources to find a cure for his lycanthropy before you can defeat him. It’s clever and I can see it making each matchup of two or three or four monsters really fresh and fun.

My son and I played the demo matchup (two players versus Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and it was pretty fun! Not too difficult on this setting, but still hard to complete completely unscathed. Horrified is just a charming little game — it’s, again, lighter than Pandemic and Arkham Horror: The Card Game by a long shot, but its love for the source material and refined, and its simplified mechanics are really nicely done. It’s a rarity: A thematic, media tie-in board game that I actually enjoy, and I anticipate we’re going to play it every Halloween from here on out (and perhaps more often in the short term, since quarantine appears to be never-ending).

A quick aside: I suspect we are the target audience for Horrified, as we are also fans of these original movies. Every Halloween, we dig out this beautiful Blu-Ray set I picked up a decade ago or so.

Horrified has some great connections to these movies, including a number of secondary characters from them as the villagers, and a bunch of the objects. Prospero Hall seems to have a lot of affection for the Universal Monsters, and included a lot of cute touches, including this amazingly cute bit printed on the back of the game board, which is the first thing you see when you open the box.

This is, of course, the cold open for Frankenstein, which you can see here:

And, incidentally, this is how Mark Gatiss opened his (generally excellent!) first episode of A History of Horror, a documentary series from the early 2010s about a, well, history of horror. The first episode focuses a great deal on the Universal Monsters, while subsequent episodes and the sequel Horror Europa focus on Hammer, 1970s American horror, and the rise of European horror. It’s worth a look, if you haven’t seen it before.

I would love to see Gatiss revive this series someday, focusing perhaps on Japanese and Korean horror, as well as whatever people are calling the movement of recent directors like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. (Edit: I guess people are calling this “elevated horror?” Okay.)

Anyway, back to games: We’ve also been playing a lot of Ghooost! — yep, three Os. It’s a game by Richard Garfield, the brilliant designer of Magic the Gathering, King of Tokyo, the original Netrunner, RoboRally, KeyForge, Artifact, etc. This game ain’t as brilliant or as strategic as any of those other games, but it’s a fun enough way to pass the time. I picked this up years ago, when our oldest was still a baby and I was obsessed with finding out what other more obscure games Garfield had made. Hadn’t really played it until recently, and it’s… not terrible?

Basically, it’s a themely Uno with some special cards and twists, as well as clever naming of piles of cards that should be familiar to anyone who’s played Garfield’s card games. Though it took a few reads of the poorly written instructions to figure it out, it’s pretty simple: You have to put a card number higher than what was just played in the Graveyard, or you can take all the cards in the Graveyard, or take your chances that the top card of the Crypt is going to be a valid card to play. You play cards to the “graveyard” (a location on the fold-out box; a nice touch), draw cards from the “crypt” (a open-gravey looking card holder in the box) and then banish cards to the “discard.” Your goal is to get rid of all of your cards, plus all of the cards in your “mansion,” a reserved deck of cards that serves as a clock to end each round.

Each round is supposed to take only 20 minutes or so per round, but perhaps because I’m primarily playing with an almost-seven-year-old, they’ve taken a lot longer. That’s okay, the kids love it — it’s a game where an almost-seven-year-old and a four-year-old can easily figure out their way, as it’s, well, still basically Uno, and they just need to know what number is great than another. It’s a fun filler game for our family, and beyond how easy it is to pick up, it’s got cute spooky art, plus the kids love the idea that the box becomes the board you play in.

I’ve also been itching to dig out some old horror videogames that I haven’t played for various reasons. Perhaps because of my recent revisitation of Lovecraft, I’ve been drawn to finally check out Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. I’ll be honest — I bought this an egregiously long time ago. I think it was, along with the first Animal Crossing and Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, one of the very first three console videogames I ever bought, way back in the autumn of 2002, though I didn’t play this very far in. (I can’t think of a better three games to encapsulate my early taste in games, either).

During quarantine, we converted a space at the bottom of one of our stairs into both a “play zone” for the kids initially and now it’s also become our eldest’s virtual classroom during the week. But it’s still full of my old games spanning the last two decades, and we just got a little cart to put a projector on, along with the old GameCubes, PS2s, Wiis, and N64. In the process, I found not just Eternal Darkness but the Prima guide I’d picked up from a Half-Price Books in the late 2000s — so, I really have no excuse to not play this, do I?

If you’re unfamiliar, this was the cosmic horror game for the GameCube. Many loved Resident Evil, sure, but this was a generation-spanning, cult-featuring, sanity-tweaking game that attempted to mess with the player in novel ways. Instead of simply mimicking Call of Cthulhu and other games explicitly adapting Lovecraft —where you’d have a decreasing amount of “sanity” level akin to health, mana, or some other simple metric — this game would also genuinely try to mess with the player, breaking the fourth wall. It would tell you that your save file was corrupt when it wasn’t, it might flash “VIDEO 1” repeatedly on the screen, making you wonder if your TV or remote was broken.

I’ll be playing on an old thrifted projector, so that last bit won’t be very effective for me, but I’m looking forward to finally digging into this game this month. And, perhaps, again on the Switch sometime soon, if Nintendo filing a new trademark this summer means what I hope it means.

Finally, speaking of Nintendo, it’s also time for a new update to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’ll be honest that we haven’t played the game much in the past few months, having binged enough of it for a while back in April. But the opportunity to grow pumpkins, get new Halloween-themed costumes, and to give candy to island residents? Yeah, we’re down with that.

As you can see in this perhaps-too-dark picture here (also now the header image for this site), I hopped on this morning and redecorated one of my rooms in as spooky of a fashion as I could manage with what I already had. I look forward to further spookifying over the next few weeks with whatever comes my way. I have, sadly, partially dismantled my Victorian/Sherlock Holmes room to make this sparse little creepyhole, but sacrifices had to be made. Someday, I’ll write a longer post on how my summer obsession with Sherlock Holmes led me to spookier territory.

Oh, and one final, final thing: I couldn’t resist trying my best to bring John Carpenter into the lovely world of Animal Crossing. If you were playing Animal Crossing and trying to make it seasonal, what melody would you pick for your town theme?

I mean, can’t you just imagine this guy shopping at Able Sisters?

That’s all for now. More soon — probably in just a few days, when I’ll regale you with stories of how much I just want to watch Vincent Price movies.

Stay spooky, my friends.

The Lurking Fear of 2020

I’ve been in a mood.

I quit social media in late July, during a period of dissatisfaction with the emptiness of conversation I’d been having on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Several months into this pandemic and its resultant social collapse, I found myself escaping into reading for fun for the first time in a long, long time. I was consoled originally by Sherlock Holmes stories — I reread them all in June and July, one per day — and then quickly found that the lurking fear of 2020 was not so easily ignored.

On this reread, I discovered that my new favorite Holmes stories were the cheapest, gaudiest, most lurid, horror-tinged ones. And there actually are a significant handful of these — the Sherlock Holmes Canon includes a story prominently featuring a severed ear! One with a gentleman storing his sister’s corpse in the family crypt! Another with a woman’s face which had been ripped off by a lion! Soon, I found my interests quickly turned into a brief obsession with Victorian penny dreadful literature (rewatching the Penny Dreadful television series, to boot). This morphed out of books and into games, and I pulled Arkham Horror: The Card Game off the shelf — a game I’d bought into significantly several years ago, but had never really played much of. I’ve played it a few times and really enjoy it, but I suspect that this and other Lovecraftian games beckon a longer, separate post down the road.

Anyway, my evolving summer reading as well as the devolving state of American democracy dovetailed nicely with the new TV series Lovecraft Country, which premiered on HBO a few weeks back. We watched the first few episodes, and I have since started falling down an ever-deeper series of figurative shoggoth-holes. I’d heard of this book a few years ago — the name of the novel by Matt Ruff was familiar, but I hadn’t read it (I have now read about 90% of it). I saw that Jordan Peele was associated with the series (as a producer), but otherwise didn’t know anything before watching. I anticipated a mixture of clever Lovecraftian criticism in the storyline, a lot of depiction of 1950s-era racism, and perhaps a few tentacles here and there.

First, if you haven’t seen the series, you probably should. Here’s the first episode in its entirety on YouTube:

I thought the premiere was very good! I have a ton of little quibbles with it, but overall its heart is in the right place, and it provides a Black-led cast and Black-centric framing of Lovecraftian horror that gave a novel and important spin to the old racist’s bleak world. It’s both a resounding middle finger to Lovecraft as well as a reclamation of his vision. The second episode was, to me, an enormous step down from the first episode (largely due to the directorial and acting choices more than the screenplay, which was largely faithful to the novel), but let’s focus on the positive for now.

That first episode opens up with the ostensible protagonist, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Turner in the novel), waking up from a dream that is like a 1950s sci-fi nerd’s dream: Jackie Robinson slicing a Cthulhu in half with his baseball bat, Dejah Thoris dropping down from a George Pal War of the Worlds-style flying saucer. All mixed up with memories that seem very much like his experiences in the Korean War. Very little of this was “Lovecraftian,” of course, but damn if it didn’t do a good job of setting up the weird joy of mid-century pulpy science fiction and horror, and bring in Lovecraft with the period in which Arkham House and Lovecraft’s devotees were starting to bring his work into the public consciousness.

The rest of the episode does a great and clever job of connecting the real horror of sundown towns/counties with the old horror trope of getting to safety before the sun falls. The end of the episode takes a number of liberties with the Lovecraftian inspiration for the series (and a few welcome ones with Ruff’s novel, reframing a story-within-the-story as part of the main narrative), but it showed a lot of promise for the core ideas of the series. As I mentioned above, I’m almost done with the novel, and it’s pretty scattershot, but has a few moments of brilliance (the Hippolyta-centric chapter, the Ruby-centric chapter) that I am very excited to see on the screen, even if some of the reviews seem to indicate that the premiere episode was the best of the ones provided for review.

I also enjoyed the Lovecraft Country Radio podcast — at least episode 1, I haven’t listened to episode 2 yet. Hosted by two women of color (Ashley Ford and Shannon Houston, the latter who is one of the writers for the series), they did a nice job of breaking down how the show is reinterpreting horror for this narrative world. Here’s the first episode:

But yeah, I like it even though the show’s not perfect (the opening musical choices of episode 2 made me cringe hard; some of the casting choices in episode 2 didn’t work for me; the end of episode 2 diverged from the book significantly, and in ways I think will be to the detriment of the series). That said, I am happy to see Lovecraft back in the world of pulpy media as well as with a new spin.

But, beyond this series, the resurgence in Lovecraftian horror has been noticed by a few. Meagan Navarro wrote a brief, but interesting little piece on Bloody Disgusting a few months back called “The Elder Gods Are Coming: The Resurgence of Lovecraftian Horror” that’s worth a look. From the films Underwater and the Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space to the third season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Navarro connects these to existential fears drawn from the uncertainty of, well, everything these days. From the never-ending pandemic to the evolving police state to the growing specter of climate change, there’s never been a better time for humans to feel powerless and insignificant in the face of a world out of their control.

And maybe that’s what’s going on, and perhaps that’s what’s motivating my slide from reading the “rational Victorian” at the beginning of the pandemic down to the depths of feeling like an ant in a cosmos built for Old Gods. Obviously, Lovecraft Country went into production well before the world fell into its current state, and has done a pretty good job of connecting this sense of dread and creeping terror with being Black in the 1950s (and beyond). But, I think I’ve found myself increasingly seeking out more stories that try their best to shatter any remaining simplistic views of the pre-2020 world.

That is to say, I’m a white reader of Lovecraft who has typically only viewed Lovecraft’s racism as a significant but not fatal speedbump in my appreciation of his nihilistic world. I say that without a lot of remorse, really, just as a way of acknowledging that my whiteness has, of course, given Howard Phillips Lovecraft a pass, when many could not do that. And so Lovecraft Country — both the novel and the series — have been flawed but intriguing things, pushing me to think more seriously about the impact of a nihilistic worldview created by an inveterate racist. Perhaps I should have before now, but I’m glad I am, finally.

So, up next for me to read is Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which is apparently a reimagining (at least in part) of Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” focusing on Black protagonists.

I haven’t read any of his other books, but LaValle wrote the introduction to the second of Leslie Klinger’s (mostly excellent) second volume of The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, and, in it, made a compelling argument for how we should dig back into these stories and come to terms with their racist underpinnings. His love of cosmic horror comes through clearly in this introduction, as well as in interviews he’s given about this novel.

I’m looking forward to diving into it further, while also looking forward to seeing how much more these works get reinterpreted, as they are largely in the public domain. I’ll complain talk more about this in my subsequent gaming post, but I look forward to seeing more folks take a look at Lovecraft and try to make sense of it for our current era, while eschewing the nauseating world that has, to date, made Lovecraft a corny joke: One of plushie Cthulhus and cartoons.

There’s nothing charming about Lovecraft (the man or his work), and there’s very little to laugh about in 2020 in general. I’m diving deeper into the bleakness, and maybe if you read this, you might too?


As I may have mentioned here, I’ve been running a very small, very sparsely attended movie night the last few weeks — every Saturday night at 8pm Eastern, we’ve been clicking play together and watching a number of (typically older) films. Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, The Tomb of Ligeia, A Field in England, Band of Outsiders, and others. Originally horror and now starting to branch out into other genres.

Last night, we started off by watching La Jetée, Chris Marker’s wonderful, evocative science fiction short from 1963. Here it is in its entirety below, if you haven’t seen it, and it’s well worth the 28 minutes of your time to watch:

(Apologies for the subtitle track — the version someone uploaded to YouTube seems to be off sync for some reason, but it’s still largely intelligible).

I don’t think I’d seen this in its entirety since (gasp) … thirteen summers ago? It feels like just a few years ago, but I guess that’s how aging works. Yeah, it’s been a long time since I lived in Madison. I saw it on the roof of the Contemporary Arts Center, projected on a wall during one of their wonderful summer film festivals. Here’s a blurry photo from that evening.

La Jetée

On last night’s rewatch, I was really struck with the similarities to Vertigo, a film that seems to be universally-loved but I have never fully warmed to. (A quick aside — I’m not an idiot, and understand that Vertigo is in many ways Hitchcock’s crowning achievement, but I’ve always preferred Rear Window for reasons that might deserve their own post down the road. Simply, though, Rear Window is (1) more fun as simple entertainment; (2) a movie with an insane, captivating set that I never tire of looking at; (3) more interesting to me to watch as a critique of film viewing instead of film directing, which I have little interest in.)

Anyway, the visual and thematic allusions to Vertigo were all over La Jetée for me on this most recent watch, and it led me down a few Google rabbit holes last night and this morning. Most interestingly, I learned that Vertigo was reportedly Marker’s favorite film — that was news to me, notable only because it shows you how little I knew about Marker! Here’s a lengthy 1994 essay by Marker on Vertigo. La Jetée and Vertigo are both films about memory, and Marker’s exquisitely detailed thoughts on the latter are both a testament to Hitchock’s film, but also show the major impact Vertigo had on Marker.

I also found this wonderful little visual comparison of shots from the two films, which is nicely edited and scored.

While some of these connections were obvious — the tree rings scene jumped out at me on viewing La Jetée last night — there are so many more small connections here than I first realized. It’s worth a look, after you’ve seen both films.

And, if you haven’t seen Vertigo, what are you waiting for? Again, it’s not my favorite Hitchcock film, but Vertigo always worth watching, studying, and thinking more about. Oh, and if you are interested in joining us for more films on Saturday evenings, let me know and I can send you an invite to our private Discord. Tentative plan for next week is something by Henri-Georges Clouzot: Diabolique, Wages of Fear, or maybe even Quai des Orfèvres. Let me know in the comments or privately if you’d like to watch with us.

(Now to rewatch Vertigo as I work on my course syllabi.)

Wait For Me

In self-quarantine, I’ve been finding myself trying to catch up on the world of story games/freeform/larps/ttrpgs whatever-people-call-these-games-nowadays. I’ve felt a real need to experience games with created stories that push players toward emotional resonance again — partially because I’ve been teaching an Interactive Storytelling course the last few years and some of the games I use in that are getting long in the tooth, but also because there’s something therapeutic about fiction, writing, and reflection during these kinds of global collapse moments.

So, I Kickstarted Jeeyon Shim and Kevin Kulp’s game Wait For Me, which looked right up my alley. It’s single-player! There’s journaling/writing! Ooh, time travel! It sounded fun and interesting, and I’m now through 5 of the 21 (or 22) days of this experience, and want to reflect a little bit on what it does well, how it’s disappointed in a few ways, and maybe muse a bit on what I think I’m searching for.

Here’s the gist — you’re playing as yourself, unstuck in time for reasons that haven’t been made clear yet and might never be made apparent. You journal your way through this experience, taking a writing prompt for each one of 21 successive days (with a 22nd as an epilogue), and have to address the prompt in a few (as short as 10 as many as 80 so far) words as the prompt gives you. I took an old, empty, faux-Moleskine notebook I picked up for free at a GDC booth about a decade ago and rededicated it to the game.

In the game, you’re writing every day in successive journal entries. You’re emailed a prompt every night around midnight, and then that day you should sit down, consider the prompt and… write. The prompts are ostensibly task-driven: About being unstuck in time, leaving yourself messages. But they’re really about you (the player) revisiting significant moments in your life, focusing on feelings and experiences presumably common to most people playing it (a happy childhood memory, the sad feeling of seeing a grandparent one last time, the fear of living in your first real apartment as an adult). And, you are regularly asked to tell your past self something. Usually this takes the form of advice, but sometimes it’s about taping in ephemera — a grocery receipt, a picture, doodling something significant about the place you’re in. Here’s me and my (disturbingly blurred) daughter, which I taped in for the grandparent prompt.

And one of the most interesting elements of it is that every day has an “optional” prompt wherein you are often asked to explore the fiction of your past self reading the notes and advice you’ve left for yourself through the game. I haven’t really warmed to this yet, perhaps due to the often-painful spots this game has inadvertently prodded me toward writing about, but also because after five days it’s just… confusing. Which version of myself remembers what? Why am I trying to intervene in my own past? Why am I unstuck in time at all? What’s the point of doing this beyond having an excuse to “do journaling,” an activity that I normally wouldn’t do? I’ve spent five days going along with it, but I feel like I’ve missed something important along the way, or the designers assumed a lot of their players.

I’ve never played a solo journaling game like this before, and I do love the concept. The idea that one uses these prompts to skip around in their own life and reflect on the choices they’ve made is a nice approach to making a therapeutic game, and one that for people who journal, might give them additional impetus to turn their journal into something meaningful for them. I’ve also never been a journaler or a diarist — something the game also seems set up to ignore, repeatedly suggesting that my past self had a diary, which I very rarely ever had.

I’m also interested in the ways that the game wants me to mark the journal with clippings and pictures, another thing that is great in theory but perhaps less useful in practice. I’ve been at home for six months, only ever leaving the house to get groceries! I have very little ephemera that I can paste in here — I had to dig out part of a medical bill from last month to satisfy the first prompt’s need for me to paste something in, and then I had to find that recent picture on my phone, print it out, cut it to size, and then paste that into the journal for the next one. These don’t feel like natural parts of journaling to me — but what do I know about journaling?

So far, the game’s dissonances make feel like it is:

  • Built for the “before times” when we might have had lives outside of our homes, picked up ephemera, took pictures outside, did anything other than be inside the house 24/7.
  • Aimed at someone much younger than me, without the same life commitments I currently have. It feels like a game designed for a young woman, perhaps, both in how it presupposes the diary/journal format as an activity someone has already experienced as well as the kinds of points in one’s life that you’re asked to reflect on (not to mention the inspirational messages you’re asked to communicate to your past self, which I find awkward).
  • Designed more for what it’s intended to make you feel rather than how it’s intended to make you feel it. The prompts seem blunt and directly about getting you to write about your emotions; there’s nothing subtle (yet) pushing you to consider yourself in a new light, no mechanics whatsoever other than just answering the prompt (and, if you wish, the optional prompt). I want to feel like the game is alive and doing something; instead, it feels like it’s just a cold, daily prompt.

This may sound odd, but the game is making me feel like an old man — which is, of course, what I am. But I expect there hasn’t been much thought put toward how the game might play with different audiences. Or perhaps the game is telling me it’s “not for people like you” (older folks, people who didn’t have diaries as children, people who aren’t used to writing reflective, inspirational stuff to themselves, etc). I dunno? I hope it’s not that, but I’m not certain that’s the case.

But, hold up, I do like Wait For Me, at least in theory if not practice, and I am going to keep playing for the time being. I want to reflect on one more reason why just a little bit more.

First, when I signed up for this, I was under the impression that it was, well, a game. And it’s clearly not a game in any sense other than the loosest definitions of “game” — at least not yet. Of course, “iS iT rEaLlY a GaMe?!” is the most beaten dead horse of dead horses out there, but it does seems relevant here. Even in freeform or the loosest of larps, I expect to have some kind of choice to make to propel the fiction or potentially propel the fiction. There’s nothing like that here yet, giving me no stakes for continuing to write in this little journal.

My expectations for a story game/freeform thing/whatever this is necessitate that there be (even small, meager!) decisions made by the player. And while I guess I get to decide which memory to journal about, that feels much less like I’m choosing something that interacts with game’s systems and more like I’m just writing atop the game. The game doesn’t care what I’m writing about — I could be making up anything I wanted to, crafting whatever fiction I find entertaining, lying about my past, whatever, and it has no consequence on what the next decisions I make are. That’s a little annoying; perhaps reflective of me and my positionality with games, but I expect there to be some kind of effect for what I am doing here on the fictive world of the game besides just “reflection.” (Otherwise, why not just call this a “journal” rather than a “journaling game”?)

Take, for example, one of the prompts, this one from Day 4. You’ve hopped for the third time, this time into a “place you love more than any other.” No specifics provided, very open-ended — they suggest that it can be “an arena, a lake, a room, a forest,” describing it in emotive terms as something that’s for you, a “happy place” per se. They go on and say that:

[Y]ou go to a secret place that only you might think of. This is a hidey-hole where you could leave paper or items without anyone else finding them. There’s a short note already here in your own adult hand, written by a slightly later version of yourself and still untethered in time. Clearly, you’ll be back to leave yourself this.

The note is simple, and kind, and welcomes you back to this place. Copy this note into your journal so you’ll remember what you’re going to say in a future prompt. You have exactly 20 words to welcome yourself here. If you wish, leave yourself a doodle or sketch that you think will make you happy.

When you have copied down the 20th word of the welcome note, close your eyes and breathe out, knowing that you can return. When you open your eyes you are pulled away to —

And that’s the prompt, ending abruptly as you jump to another time period. It’s cleverly written, putting you in a space that’s uniquely yours. Everyone will have something different to write about, and everyone will, presumably, have a nice moment of reflection on a period in their lives in which they were happy. That’s nice! Mine was, by the way, the living room of my apartment during a snowstorm in winter 2006/2007, when I had to curl up under a blanket by the room’s only source of heat — an old radiator.

(Please forgive my bad radiator drawing skills).

But, there’s no connection between this and anything else I’d done before — leaving a note for myself as a child, visiting a grandparent. It’s just skipping around through moments in one’s life, and there’s no fictive oomph to doing this. I’m just, well, being asked to reflect on my life. And, given that I’m writing about something as vague as my “happy place,” I have zero confidence that it will be referenced or connected back in any way in the future. There’s just too much range for this writing prompt — you can write whatever you want, and I doubt that a future prompt can meaningfully reference “happy places” that range from “sitting next to a radiator in a snowstorm” to “watching Judas Priest at a crowded sports arena” to “a bungee jumping spot on a bridge” to “drinking tea on the veranda with my grandmother” and ever have it make sense. Again, I wonder why I’m writing what I’m writing.

Anyway, I like reflection just fine, I just expected a little bit of fictional distance between what I’d be writing about here and me. It’s useful to get a sense of what journaling is like, I suppose, but during a self-quarantine with the world burning around us, I’m not sure I really needed a game that makes me look at me without at least the thin veil of a character or some kind of mechanics to explore. I’m introspecting just fine, and thinking about the past enough. I have never have much interest in just journaling, I backed this project because I was interested in building some kind of story, and I really do hope it gets there eventually. Fiction has its therapeutic uses, and I wish this game had built off of that rather than pushing you to write inspirational quotes.

The big issue, however, is that Wait For Me feels, at this moment, like it’s a therapeutic exercise couched in the terminology of games without much consideration of my desires or experiences. As such, it feels oddly cold for something that is supposed to be a transformative, reflective experience. Sure, I’m writing about periods in my life that I might not necessarily be interested in writing about (that’s fine and appreciated, that comes with the journaling territory), but when I have no choices about what I do with them, I’m left feeling like all this writing is for naught. I’m not building anything, crafting anything story-wise; my writing doesn’t impact anything I do later (at least not yet). I’m navel-gazing, and not constructing anything other than a set of (so far) disconnected memories. The prompts are mechanisms to get the designers to make me do something, but I have yet to find much here that makes it feel like they cared about what I would want to do with it.

I’m hopeful that it will turn around, and if it does, I’ll be sure to post again, discussing how it changed. Regardless, I’ll keep going for a while at least. And while others may be satisfied with Wait For Me as it stands (and good for them if that’s the case!), maybe I’m just yearning for something that’s more about building a character. This past week, I started my first Blades in the Dark campaign — a game that’s mechanically about as far away from Wait For Me as one can be — and maybe that will scratch my story-building itch, while I just keep writing for Wait For Me as a reflective journaling exercise. As I suspect that is what it’s intended to be.

Why don’t we blog anymore?


Good question. I think we know what’s replaced blogging — 95% social media, 3% Medium, 2% newsletters. And yes, yes, RSS being killed by Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Facebook, Twitter, etc. was the technical death knell of blogging. But blogging software is… still here, installed all over the place. And there’s nothing stopping me from using WordPress for its original intent; I’ve had this domain and WordPress installed on it for about 15 years, even though I haven’t blogged for about a decade.

During the ongoing pandemic, watching the USA slide deeper into fascism, and all the resultant social unrest, I’ve found myself getting pretty exhausted by social media. I can’t handle the doomscrolling, the incessant need to post pictures of my kids, the nonstop “hot takes,” and the constant shaving of new memes off of the endlessly rotating döner kebab of Twitter.

For the sake of my sanity, I backed away from social media. I’m just not going to do that bullshit anymore. But, I’m replacing them with two things — a Discord to chat with like-minded folks (post a comment if you’d like an invite) and a new blog! Or is it an old blog? I don’t know anymore, but this is it.

Long ago in internet time, blogs were really fun, loose, and easy. My very first blog from almost two decades ago is somehow still up!? Blogs weren’t about a writer trying to get a book deal, they weren’t about trying to improve one’s academic standing or (god forbid) become “an influencer.” To my eyes, they were just ways to connect with others and to find a way to share one’s self with the world (or at least that’s what it was about to me). Blogs were mixtures of public/personal journals, solipsistic spaces to bash out silly ideas, and opportunities to rant on something that bugged you without breaking them up into 140- or 280-tweet threads.

I miss the world that gave rise to these things, and even if it’ll just be me posting into the void for a while, I’m going to try to start blogging again. I will write about my academic interests occasionally, but I’ll largely be putting down my thoughts about whatever I feel like — this may end up being longer-form writing at times and newslettery style lists of links at other times. I dunno! I hope it’ll be fun?

I might post about a game I’m playing, or why I’m obsessed with a particular kind of fiction, what I think about the dumpster fire that is American politics, or maybe just a series of recipes for soups. To start, I’ll be writing about the things that have come across my mind while in perpetual lockdown: Role-playing games of various sorts; Netrunner and Arkham Horror living card games; my sudden obsession with the Gothic horror revival of the 1960s; the comics of the (sadly late) Richard Sala; my reread of the Sherlock Holmes Canon and my dive into online Sherlockiana; the joys of slowly watching The Rockford Files; my new, weird interest in old, weird pulp magazines; why What We Do in the Shadows is the only tolerable TV comedy right now; trying to make new comics, inspired by Edward Gorey, Eddie Campbell, and Julia Gfrörer; my expectations and fears for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune; my conflicted feelings about being an Alamo Drafthouse fanboy given the awful revelations about it as a workplace; cooking shows, the Bon Appétit YouTube channel, and why YouTube instructional cooking video drama still holds an appeal for me as an aging adult; and, well, other stuff I’m sure.

In sum, there’s no real theme here other than writing about whatever I’m into at the moment. While I’ll restructure the site to keep my professional info on here in some fashion, it’s time to bring WordPress back from the dead — away from the cold, static death of a “professional website” and into something a little more sloppy, genuine, and me.

I’ll start by doing just that tomorrow — I’ll begin by discussing some games I’ve been interested in lately, and how they’re both reflective of what I love about game design, what I dislike about writing, and how fiction is useful for coping during trying times. I hope you’ll come back and read it!

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