Katie by Michael McDowell


Here’s a contender for favorite read of the year.

Katie‘s a delightfully dark pastiche of penny dreadfuls and Victorian sensation novels, like Wilkie Collins by way of the grislier Hammer horror flicks. It’s set in the north eastern USA during the 1870s  with a good-hearted heroine, Philo Drax, pitted against the evil Slape family, and in particular their hammer-wielding, utterly bonkers, clairvoyant daughter, Katie.

If any of that even seems slightly cool, don’t walk, but run to read this. It’s just brilliant page-turning entertainment, gory, wry, and more literate than it has any right to be.


Stars Without Numbers 004: Grenade Mishaps For Fun and Profit

12189656_10101740855673447_4062966560410006700_nThe party decided to follow-up the mention of more pirates (and hopefully loot) located in another one of the sky tombs.

Healed up, regeared, and after getting a brief earful of archaeological palaver from the local expert, they left Logodav station and made for the asteroid. Inside they found the sky tomb in much better condition than the previous one they explored. For one thing, no pirates had drawn dicks all over everything.

The party set about exploring, Zhukov in the lead, Felipe and Jonah in the middle, Rana Bai bringing up the rear. They quickly encountered a strange garden of flowering (and edible) plants, large organic insectile pods at odds with the interior construction, and bas-reliefs sculptures depicting the tree-aliens, the Ushan, worshiping the sun.

They encountered a group of large scarab-wasp-like aliens. Felipe attempted to communicate with them by using an Ushan greeting, but only succeeded in provoking an attack. The firefight ended. The party was victorious. Explorations continued. Rana Bai cautioned the party against tampering with anything in the tomb since it might be an environmental control. They found some more wasp-beetles, and Zhukov thought he had the drop on them. But all he ended up having the drop on was his fumbled grenade. The wasp-scarabs retaliated while the party was confused and did some damage before getting wiped out.

12188964_10101740991905437_1534886149690306785_nThe party rested and discovered several dead wasp-scarabs lying on platforms. They also found the scarab hatchery when they opened a door and had a rain of live baby scarab-wasps fall on them. The room inside contained four casket-like structures. The first two contained recently dead Ushan, their bodies hollowed out. The other two contained live Ushans.

Both of them were in debilitated conditions and terrified of the party. However, Rana Bai was able to forge a psychic connection with them and communicate. She learned that the wasp-scarabs used the Ushan as a food source and hosts for their offspring. Even now other Ushan were alive in the tomb and locked in conflict with the Chittick, the wasp-scarab aliens. The Ushan wished to go back to their fellows and the party escorted them there without incident. The party communicated with these new Ushan, learned where the Chittick were holed up, and said they’d help the Ushan get revenge. But first they wanted to check out this room the Ushan seemed to be in awe of.

This turned out to be a meditation chamber constructed by an ancient Ushan high priest where he went to atone for his failure to save his people. The room was guarded by a large chittick that knocked out Jonah and Felipe before getting splattered by a shotgun. Deeper in the chambers amid strange holographic projections the party discovered the Sun Tower, a powerful Ushan artifact.

After a bit more exploring (and resting to at least get Felipe back up on his feet – no one could repair Jonah and the Ushan carried him for the rest of the adventure) they reached the main chittick nest for the boss battle. Felipe was knocked out, Zhukov managed to remember the correct way to throw a grenade, and even one of the Ushan managed to get some payback for a millennia of enslavement. At which time we were all tired and decided it was time to go home.

So the party returned to the space station, not much richer, but having to settle for single-handedly rediscovering a lost race of aliens and freeing them from enslavement. Before finishing, one of the Ushan (the psychic one) approached Rana Bai with a message.

“Your sister waits for you,” he said. “Beware the Still Lady.”

None of which made any sense to anyone.

A Year of Weird: 12 Weird Books

Here are twelve weird books to get you through the year until next Halloween. They’re not all horror, but they’re all certainly weird. And if they’re not enough for you, you can always dip into the weird world of old whaling ship logs to hold you over.

000bGoose of Hermogenes – Ithell Colquhoun

This surreal fantasy novel tells the story of an unnamed heroine trapped by her uncle, a magician who rules over a magical island. It features all the opaque density of Peake’s Gormenghast at a 10th of the length. Definitely not for all tastes, as what exists as plot or character owes more to medieval alchemical texts than to formal story-telling structure, but the vignettes are rich and beautiful in their strangeness.

000b2The Star Thrower – Loren Eiseley

Eiseley writes like Thoreau filtered through Weird Tales. One essay in here “How Natural is “Natural”?” could have been written by Lovecraft in how it explores evolution and eternity.

“I too am aware of the trunk that stretches loathsomely back of me along the floor. I too am a many-visaged thing that has climbed upward out of the dark of endless leaf falls, and has slunk, furred, through the glitter of blue glacial nights. I, the professor, trembling absurdly on the platform with my book and spectacles, am the single philosophical animal. I am the unfolding worm, and mud fish, the weird tree of Igdrasil shaping itself endlessly out of darkness toward the light.

I have said this is not an illusion. It is when one sees in this manner, or a sense of strangeness halts one on a busy street to verify the appearance of one’s fellows, that one knows a terrible new sense has opened a faint crack in the absolute. It is in this way alone that one comes to grip with a great mystery, that life and time bear some curious relationship to each other that is not shared by inanimate things.”

001Wylding Hall – Elizabeth Hand

This short novel is a bit like one of those VH1 behind the music specials penned as a ghost story by Arthur Machen. In the early 1970s members of a British acid rock band hole up in mysterious Wylding Hall to record what will turn out to be their greatest album. However while recording their lead singer will disappear into the hall and never be seen or heard from again. Years later the musicians, their friends, and associates meet with a documentary filmmaker to try and solve the mystery.

Hand clearly evokes the late 60s early 70s music scene, and I’ll admit that half way through the book I went on youtube to see if I could listen to any of the fictitious band’s music.

002The Other Side – Alfred Kubin

A Gothic fantasy novel from 1908 by noted expressionist illustrator Alfred Kubin that dissolves into decadent surrealism at its end. It’s a book you’re either going to love or hate. I loved it, but I enjoy long slow train rides to oblivion. It’s easy to see that this book influenced both Kafka and Peake, as well as provided a satire of all reactionary, idealistic utopias where one wealthy genius (or man of ego), heaves off to some isolated spot with his followers and impresses his will completely upon them until disaster results.

003The Virgin of the Seven Daggers: Excursions into Fantasy – Vernon Lee

This collection knocked my socks off largely because it was an impulse buy, I liked the cover, and being the ignoramus I am I’d never heard of the author. What I expected was some quaint “English” ghost stories. What I got was startlingly different.

Lee was the pseudonym for Violet Paget a Victorian writer in the circle of Henry James and Walter Pater. She wrote poetry and travel essays, but she’s now mostly known for her supernatural stories like those collected here. Favorites include the titular “Virgin of the Seven Daggers”, “Amour Dure”, and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”. If you happen to see this on the remainder table definitely grab a copy.

004The Elementals – Michael McDowell

McDowell’s probably best known as the screenwriter for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He was also one of the highlights of the 70s/80s paperback horror boom and an advocate for taking delight in all aspects of trash culture.

The Elementals reads like a weird cocktail mixing Capote, Salinger, and Stephen King at his goriest as two Alabama families decide to spend the summer at their isolated beach houses, doing their best to forget the empty third house nearby that’s slowly being swallowed by a mountain of sand. Unfortunately, things in the third house won’t forget about them.

Both trashy and creepy, and hats off to Valancourt Books for bringing McDowell back into print again.

005Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century – Muireann Maguire (translator)

Eleven horror stories by seven authors written in the early decades of Soviet Russia, a time of civil war, strife, and untold hardship. None of these stories have been printed before and with the exception of Bulgakov (and maybe Krzhizhanovsky) I suspect most people don’t even know the authors, but damn… these stories are great, Chayanov’s and Krzhizhanovsky’s being my favorites with doubles, duels, and medical specimens run amok. Definitely a collection worth tracking down.

006Revenants – Daniel Mills

The year is 1689. The place is Cold Marsh, a village on the border of civilization fourteen years after King Philip’s War ended when the village men slaughtered the inhabitants of a nearby native village. Now a series of disappearances have occurred and the men set out once more into the wilderness to confront whatever evil they can find. This novel captures that awe that exists close beside our fear of the unknown.

007Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo – Miyuki Miyabe

What makes these stories stand out is how firmly they’re grounded in the world of the marketplace and the ties between masters, servants, craftspeople, and… ghosts. Taken as a whole you get this sense of the supernatural sharing mundane qualities with the everyday world. If you’ve ever had a temp job where you stepped into a place and instantly your skin crawled and you thought “some bad shit’s going on that I can’t see here”, then you’ll enjoy this book.

008Beasts – Joyce Carol Oates

So imagine Dead Poets Society at an all women’s college circa 1975, except swap out Robin William and replace him with Charles Manson. That’s this book.

A student falls under the spell of her charismatic English professor and his wife. Moral degradation, debauchery, and revulsion ensue. It’s a Gothic horror novella without any supernatural elements in it. I recommend it, but it’s a f’d up book. Not for everyone.

009White Is For Witching – Helen Oyeyemi

Near the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House there’s a chapter or two where the haunted house takes over the protagonist and warps all her perceptions. This entire book is like those chapters as a young woman with an eating disorder slowly gets taken over by the ghosts of her mother and grandmother lurking in the house. Meanwhile her brother may be making the whole story up and a refugee crisis is brewing. So if you ever wanted to read a stylish, but weird, haunted house story from multiple POVs this is your book.

010The Rim of Morning – William Sloane

This is a twofer as it collects both of Sloane’s mystery-horror novels from the 1930s, To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water. I’d wanted to read them since seeing the old Boris Karloff movie The Devil Commands, which was based on Edge of Running Water and gives you sights like this one.

p.txtBy far Edge is my favorite of the two novels collected here, but both are curious in that they suggest an alternate horror genre that never quite emerged. If mad scientists, unsolvable murders, and explorations beyond space and time float your boat, then track this down and give it a shot.

Stars Without Number 003: Overwatch Appears

Here’s the write-up from last Monday night’s SWN game.

First off was a reminder that when players own a spacecraft someone needs to play the clerk and keep the spreadsheet. It had been two weeks since our last game, so it was a bit hard figuring who owed who money from the scribbled notes on the back of the captain’s character sheet.

Done with that, the game began with the party receiving a message from the secretive Overwatch organization. Overwatch is a bit like Anonymous with spaceships. They’re paranoid security specialists and encryption nuts. They built the box the treasure map’s in, and one option was to have them open it instead of tracking down Ace’s friend Lootman, the owner who’s on some hell-world and may or may not be alive.

The party had been trying to contact Overwatch for a few sessions, but had no luck until now. Overwatch contacted them and set up a meeting.

On an abandoned spaceship.

In an irradiated system.

The party flew out, and Overwatch wanted Captain Bai to cross to the derelict ship. She said she wouldn’t go without Zhukov. Overwatch agreed. The two crossed over and boarded the ship. Felipe ran a scan and saw that the ship was rigged to explode. He told this to Captain Bai, and she and Zhukov fled back to the Far Drifter with only minor incident. Overwatch contacted them again and asked what the problem was. Bai said, like hell was she going to board a ship rigged to explode. Overwatch replied it was just a security measure. Bai consulted with the crew and ultimately decided to cross over alone. She boarded the ship, went to the cockpit, and began negotiations with Overwatch.

Turned out that Overwatch was interested in finding the Wild Card and wanted to partner with the party. They agreed to open the box for a fee and to enter a partnership with the party. There was some negotiation as to what this partnership might entail, and in the end it was decided that an Overwatch representative would accompany the party and make an appraisal of any relics found. This rep would meet the party the following standard day on Logodav Station.

The party returned to Logodav and met with their former passenger, Kameron Litvak. She’d been talking with station security and had a hunch her sister was being held captive at a pirate base in the system. The crew agreed to help her and said they’d go to the pirate base after the Overwatch rep arrived. The next day a small packet boat arrived at Logodav carrying Jonah Gnosis, an AI.

jonah 001Introductions were made. Questions were asked. The party seemed to take a shine to Jonah, especially after he displayed his surveillance abilities.

Happy to be working together, the crew boarded the Far Drifter and went to talk to the pirates, posing as smugglers. The pirates agreed to negotiation. The crew landed at their base and were told they could board, but couldn’t wear armor or weapons. Everyone hid a small weapon on their person, but the armor they left behind. They entered the base and quickly met up with a group of pirates who wanted to know what they had to trade. Captain Bai let them sample the space heroin. (The pirates brought out a captive “entertainer” and used her as a test subject.) Pleased with the results the pirates agreed to the deal. But when asked what they wanted in payment, the crew asked for the prisoner – but the pirates refused, which prompted mayhem from Zhukov.

Weapons were drawn. People were shot. Some of them even pirates.

Captain Bai and Felipe were wounded pretty early and went back to the ship once the pirates were done. Zhukhov and everyone else pressed forward, kicking down doors.

More people were shot.

By now Felipe and the Captain had armored up and returned to the hideout. Zhukov was just subduing the pirate chief when they got to him. They then dragged the captain to the prisoners. Where the captain managed to escape and lock himself in with the prisoners. He then began negotiating through the locked door, but when things went south he opted for trying to kill Kameron’s sister. The party managed to bust in and kill him and get a Lazarus patch on the sister. They then killed the last pirates (who had surrendered) and looted the place before boarding the Far Drifter, voiding the hideout’s atmosphere, and flying back to Logodav with the rescued captives.

So now, they have the box open and the jump map to the Wild Card. They have some loot (but never enough). They could set out next adventure for the Card or they could do some tomb raiding in system or take on another cargo and make some money doing some more of that space trucking. The choice is theirs.

All I ask is that they give me some clue beforehand.

One Book Four Covers: The Monk by Matthew Lewis


I figured Matthew Lewis’s The Monk warranted some one book, four covers treatment on account of my recent read through.

First cover is your standard fine art crop job where you take some old painting that fits the work and hone in on a detail, which in this case suits the book perfectly. The scene shown could be that moment when Ambrosio realizes Satan is’t actually going to save jim.

I like the second over even if it is a bit silly and calls to mind those old Italian movies where Mickey Rooney would dress up as a devil and cavort about. So if I were reading that I’d expect some comedy along with the weirdness. That tongue would be firmly in cheek, which isn’t the case really at all. Lewis may have willfully indulged in melodrama, but he seemed pretty sincere.

The third cover reminds me of Andres Serrano’s Piss-Christ. Is that good? Is that bad? I don’t know. But the eyes above the cross… meh. They gotta go.

The fourth cover is the one I rad, and it’s pretty hohum and dull, but I do love the skull and blood drops on that whole Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural. The cover doesn’t stand out on its own, but stands out as being part of a particular series. But looking at the robed figure beside the rest of these, I like it. The whole of it fits well together.

Stars Without Number 002: Space Trucking!

AKA “This time let’s make sure we check the hold for killbots!”

900 words of actual play report incoming! If reading that sounds awful, run away now!

As promised/threatened here’s a play report from our most recent Stars Without Number game. The main party consists of Captain Rana Bai, psychic explorer searching for her family’s lost fortune, ex-commando Estevan Zhukov, sleazy pilot Felipe Mazin, and Ace Stanton, a conman who’s promised to bring the party to a lost ship full of treasure.

The adventure before this one saw the crew taking on a payroll delivery job, getting into a dog-fight with a pirate ship, getting high-jacked by pirates, and defeating said pirates at the expense of two of their crew’s lives. After that the party cruised into Highline Station and was promptly paid money, which they promptly turned around and paid back to the company that hired them in the form of having the heavily damaged Far Drifter repaired.

Phillip Maeda took this moment to announce his retirement. Yup, space was proving too dangerous for him and he figured he’d rather find a steady job piloting orbital tugs. So down a pilot, the party sat around the station’s shitty spacer bar where Ace bumped into an old buddy, Felipe, who happened to be a pilot. He quickly joined the crew, especially once he heard talk about the lost treasure ship, the Wild Card.

A day later with the Far Drifter repaired, they flew back to New Omsk where they picked up cargo, and Estevan found a message from his former employers at Silverlight Enterprises waiting for him. It told him to be at a dingy bar at a certain time. He set out with Felipe while Captain Bai stayed behind to go over possible routes and cargoes.

Of course, it was an ambush. Of course, people got knifed in the face. Surprisingly none of them were Felipe or Estevan.

zuke 001After they were done taking care of the Silverlight goon squad, a stranger approached them wanting passage off planet. She was willing to pay and said she had some skill as an astronautic tech. Estevan said it was up to the Captain, and they brought the woman, Kameron Litvak, back with them.

By now Captain Bai had got a line on enough cargo to fill the hold. Computer parts and data cells for Davenbando Station, nutribars and 20 tons of boxed up pigs destined for Logadav Station. She’d also turned down a xenoarcheologist passenger (which surprised me but was likely for the best as he probably would have gotten the party killed in a treasure-hunting mission) in favor of an old doctor and Kameron.

Loaded up and ready to go they left New Omsk and had no problem making their first jump. Unfortunately the pigs didn’t react well to intergalactic travel and several of them quickly became ill. There was some quick debate over what might be causing it, and since they had a doctor (or two if they counted Captain Bai) onboard they decided to operate and see what was wrong with the pigs.

Something about this picture... the vomit just pours out of it.

Something about this picture… the vomit just pours out of it.

Doctor Soledad cut open a pig and discovered that it had space heroin hidden inside. Most of the other pigs had similar cargoes. The crew did what they could to keep the pigs alive, but they also kept a pack of space heroin.

The only other incident came when they exited jump and intercepted a distress signal from a hijacked shuttle. The decision to ignore the call proved non-difficult. They jumped again and found themselves in the Davenbando system. They encountered a police cruiser, made no resistance despite the drugs onboard, and were sent on their merry way to the station, where they refueled, sold off their cargo, and said goodbye to the Doctor. They then took in a museum/amusement park set up to emulate the quarantined world below that once housed a now extinct race of intelligent one-eyed miniature tyrannosaurus rexes. Captain Bai proclaimed the park the highlight of the trip.

Unfortunately, after doing a bit more book-keeping it was pretty clear that the party had made very little money on the run once they discounted for expenses. Fortunately there was a cargo waiting to go to Logadav Station, and the crew quickly loaded it up. Not wanting to take any chances Captain Bai had Felipe attempt to shear their travel time by doing some course trimming. While not without some risks, Felipe proved more than capable to the task and succeeded. The party reached Logadav without incident. Except for the fact that nearly half the pigs were dead and all of them (except one) had space heroin inside. They decided to rendezvous with the buyer as quickly as possible, which they managed to pull off without incident.

Now they’re on Logadav Station, a mining colony less than a century old, and suddenly famous on account of the fact that the ruined tombs secreted within asteroids throughout the system. Captain Bai has her hopes on doing some treasure-hunting, while Kameron Litvak, the passenger they brought out here, asked for the crew’s help in finding her sister who disappeared several months ago while visiting the system.

Also Logadav is only two (uncharted) jumps away from Valcuba the world where Ace says his ex-partner Lootman is, and he’s needed to open the box that has the map to the lost treasure ship inside.

Unfortunately, those are two uncharted jump routes, and Valcuba is a notorious death world.

The party’s other option for opening the box is tracking down the box’s manufacturer, a mysterious group of paranoid security operatives known simply as the Overwatch Pact. So far they’ve had no luck finding leads.

* And yes, I’m doing the whole art for XP thing again. The vomit from the pig on that one is quite good.

** And yes, I went full space trucker with box pigs and everything.

YesterWeird: Whaling Ship Log Books: O, Solitude Where Are Thy Charms!

Screen shot 2015-10-08 at 11.31.28 PMHere’s a link to the Nicholson Whaling Collection at the Providence Public Library. It has a huge archive of whaling vessel logbooks full of squirrelly handwriting and cryptic doodles.

Screen shot 2015-10-08 at 11.39.50 PMI’ve only poked at the thing haphazardly, but one of my favorites is the log of the Levanter out of Boston, MA from 1861. It’s reel #397 if you scroll down. The ship’s master is listed as simply “Clifford”. The picture above comes from that log as do the following doodles, including a ship board obituary:

Screen shot 2015-10-08 at 11.45.28 PMScreen shot 2015-10-08 at 11.47.00 PMScreen shot 2015-10-08 at 11.49.00 PM

The files are big and take a while to load. I suggest if you want to peruse them that you view the PDFs at 25% their size. It makes scrolling easier.

This is one of those things I have no idea what use I have for it, but take great joy in knowing exists.


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