Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fiction Review: The Old Gods Waken by Manly Wade Wellman

Cover from Goodreads.com
I was recently flipping through Goodman Games' "The Chained Coffin" adventure. Author Michael Curtis refers to his primary inspiration being Manly Wade Wellman's "Silver John" stories. Manly Wade Wellman appears in the original Dungeon Master's Guide "Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading". I decided to do a quick ebook search and much to my disappointment there wasn't an ebook to be found. I did order a few used books and discovered his first "Silver John" novel, The Old Gods Waken, available on audible.com. Most people seem to have a preference for Wellman's short stories but I figured "why not" and purchased the audiobook. It's a well done narration by Stefan Rudnicki.

There's two things to discuss. First, what the book is about and second, what it feels like. In this case the feel is more important aspect but I'll discuss both.

The "Silver John" stories (as far as I can tell, Wellman never referred to them as such) takes place in the 1950s in the Appalachian region of North Carolina. This time was contemporary when Wellman first began these stories but the novels were written in the late 70s and early 80s while the tales remained set in the 1950s.

They are about a wandering minstrel named John - no last name is ever given. John is a friendly fellow who knows a ton of people, gets along with nearly everyone, and seems to know a little bit about most everything and if he doesn't know something, he'll know someone who does.

In this story Wellman becomes involved in a dispute between two neighbors on Wolter Mountain. The Forshay family has new neighbors, two Englishmen who star causing trouble, making a claim for land that has been with the Forshays since before the American Revolution. John is a guest of the Forshays and decides to help smooth things over. Without giving away the whole story, John becomes involved in a conflict involving druidic magic, Native American magic, folklore, and ancient civilizations predating modern humanity.

Tonewise, the book is a delight to read. As a New Englander I imagine I view the people of the southern Appalachians through a certain stereotyped lens. Wellman makes this region into a magical place. Creed Forshay is a self-reliant man, not formally educated but his time in the navy during World War I gave him the knowledge to provide his house with electricity and plumbing. Despite his lack of education he is proud of his son Luke's college degree. Creed and Luke are both open-minded towards the magic they encounter in the course of the novel. John is with the Forshay's as Luke's guest. Over the course of the novel John enlists the help of Molly Christopher, an anthropological expert, and Ruben Manco, a highly educated Cherokee. Manco is great fun to read - when he doesn't like someone or just meets them he can be very standoffish and will talk like a Native American caricature and then when he warms up to someone he takes on the role of a highly educated social scientist. (Wellman uses the term "Indian" to refer to Manco - it's not so much political correctness that has me using "Native American" as the fact that as an engineer I work with many people from the Indian subcontinent which is what I think of by default when I use the term "Indian".)

Wellman captures what I assume to be accurate regional speech patterns. He was a long-time resident of North Carolina and the speech patterns feel very natural. He also effortlessly transfers you to a world where magic is right behind the nearest rock if you just look for it and believe. I love the Appalachians that pass through my part of the United States - when I was in my twenties and early thirties I made many trips to the White Mountains of New Hampshire (and as I try to return to some semblance of my younger fitness, I'm hoping to return). There's nothing quite like the view you earn from climbing a four thousand footer with your own two feet, nor is there a feeling like it, with the unbelievably fresh air and cleansing breeze. (And then a thunderstorm hits and stays with you the long hike down - glad I always packed my rain gear...) I can tell Wellman had a similar love for his Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. I often thought about having a fantasy RPG campaign set in some analogue of the White Mountains and it was a delight to find an author who gracefully tapped folklore and legends to do something just along those lines.

While on the topic of fantasy RPGs I can definitely see what Wellman was doing in Appendix N. John is clearly an inspiration for the D&D bard class. I don't know if druidic magic played a role in earlier Wellman works (as this book came to late to be an inspiration for the druid class), but it is also a fine example of druidic magic and lore in a fantasy setting.

I mentioned earlier that Wellman's works are tough to get a hold of in digital (or even printed) form. Below is a listing of his "Silver John" works and how best to obtain them.

  • Silver John Short Stories - probably the easiest to obtain. 
  • The Old Gods Waken (1979) - This is where things start getting more difficult. It's out of print but it wasn't difficult to find used copies at a reasonable price. Also, Audible carries this as an audiobook as well, though not the rest of the novels.
  • Later novels. The following are the remaining Silver John novels. They seem to get more difficult to obtain as the series goes on.
    • After Dark (1980)
    • The Lost and Lurking (1981)
    • The Hanging Stones (1982)
    • Voice of the Mountain (1984)
Final note. Manly Wade Wellman is a wicked cool name.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Whole New Civilization Over the Valley

Tull from "The Gunslinger" by Stephen King;
Art by Michael Whelan
Games like Dungeon Crawl Classics make the suggestion that one should strive for a smaller scale world - a world where the way to find out what is in the next valley is to go to that next valley. Maybe there's travelers who can give you some hints of what is out there if you're lucky, but if you want to be sure, you need to go there.

I'm a big fan of works like A Song of Ice and Fire which deals with large nation-states, battles for the throne, long distance travel, worldwide threats and organizations. That's pretty far in the opposite direction.

I got to thinking what are some examples of works that focus on a smaller world. Worlds where when you go into a new village it feels different, with a whole new set of traditions. It's been a while since I read Jack Vance's Dying Earth series but that is one inspiration that came to mind quickly. It's also something you see in his science fiction - the novel/collection Ports of Call is a great example of of this, where every place the characters visit is greatly different from the last one.

A more modern example that came to mind was Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Though it is in many ways an epic fantasy with multiple worlds, the main setting is a world that has "moved on". Time is funny, the great civilizations have fallen. However, people live on. Throughout the protagonist Roland's journeys, we see a variety of settlements, all distinct from one another. From memory, I can think of several:

  • Gilead - Seen only in flashbacks, once a shining beacon of civilization, now just ruins.
  • Tull - In The Gunslinger, a stereotypical "Old West" town, with a honkytonk bar and a revivalist preacher.
  • Great Western Woods - seen in The Waste Lands. We don't see any civilization here but we do see remnants of one, a rather primitive one.
  • River Crossing - Also in The Waste Lands, inhabited solely by old men and women who give the heroes a well needed rest and provide them with some idea as to where they are headed and what transpired here.
  • Lud - A great ruined city in The Waste Lands, it is nearly abandoned, with rival tribes eking out a living and making sacrifices to a PA system which occasionally plays ZZ Top.
  • Hambry - Capital of Mejis, the main location for the flashbacks in Wizard and Glass. Roland and his companions are sent here, primarily for their own safety, only to uncover a plot against Gilead. Mejis has the feeling of a southwestern American or northern Mexican town, with its large cattle ranches. It is also home to numerous ruins of the world before (the Citgo) and a creature/location where reality breaks down (the Thinny).
  • Calla Bryn Sturgis - The main location of Wolves of the Calla, a friendly settlement with the unusual trait that nearly all births are twins. Like other settlements, it has remnants of the world before, including a robot that provides occasionally useful information.
Each of these is a distinct setting. If one were running a game set in this world, most of them would be able to support a fairly lengthy campaign. As I've gained in experience in the DM-ing front, I've finally begun learning one doesn't need to create everything. It's a tough habit to break, as world-building is a fun activity. However, overdoing it runs the risk of creating things which never get used and worse, needlessly constrain yourself in the future.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Some Random Kickstarter Results

Like a lot of gamers, I support a lot of Kickstarter projects. Most of the projects I've supported have come through though I've had a few busts. I was going to make this a Google+ post but it kept getting longer and longer until I realized I'd pretty much written a blog post.

This is a bit of stream of consciousness, so don't consider it a detailed analysis. I'll get the bad news out first...

Accepting I've lost my money on two Kickstarters. As far as percentages go it's not horrible - like I said, most projects I've funded have either delivered or at the very least stayed in communication - special credit to Autarch to pulling off Dwimmermount in the face of the author vanishing on them.

The lost causes are Todor Minev's "Cthulhu and Zombie Mugs" (yeah, kinda goofy) and Jess Nevins' "The Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes". The Encyclopedia is especially disappointing as I was in it for just digital delivery of it and two already existing ebooks, Some people did receive a physical copy so it's not a matter that the product failed to be realized or even funds ran out.

Also some praise to folks who delivered.

  • Arc Dream, though often behind schedule, has always come through. 
  • Goodman Games fulfilled Metamorphosis Alpha quickly and awesomely.
  • Autarch, like Arc Dream, has some problems with dates but moved heaven and Earth to come through.
  • Ron Edwards delivered Sorcerer close to schedule and with constant communication.
  • Robin Laws' Hillfolk came out without much drama.
  • Modiphius' has been doing a fantastic job running Achtung! Cthulhu.
  • No drama from Luke Crane's Torchbearer (the Kickstarter - the RPG absolutely invites drama).
  • Kevin Crawford actually delivered Scarlet Heroes before its advertised date.
  • Chaosium came through with an overdue yet beautiful Horror on the Orient Express and so far so good on Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. Though both were well overdue they maintained constant communication. White Wolf/Onyx Path is similar with their deluxe WoD games (and they've gotten better at estimating their dates).
  • Golden Goblin Press has been extremely reliable. Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign?
  • I'm especially proud of supporting "The Crawler's Companion", the iOS and Android Dungeon Crawl Classics app.
  • Evil Hat's Fate Core Kickstarter was another joy to fund.
  • In the aftermath of Gamergate, I'm glad I funded Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. This is a product whose delivery has been ongoing but I'm satisfied with how it's been released - and I can't believe the vitriol and abuse Anita Sarkeesian has received.
  • The Esteren Kickstarters have been reliable. I'm a little bummed I didn't support the most recent but I've just not yet found a chance to use these beautiful games. I need more time to game...
A few projects I support are way, way behind, and I'm a bit nervous about them but the project owners have maintained contact. These include:
  • The revised Metamorphosis Alpha RPG. I've been receiving previews but November 2012 was a long time ago. It was a bit disheartening to see the Goodman Games classic Metamorphosis Alpha Kickstarter launch, get funded, and deliver while waiting for this one.
  • Miskatonic River Press' Punktown. Communications have been happening, but way overdue. 
  • Space: 1889 - looks to be getting back on track with some behind the scenes changes.
  • Mekton Zero - regular previews but pretty late. Looks like it will be beautiful.
Clearly I'm getting more than I could ever find time to play. Did I mention tons of free time (while being independently wealthy) would be awesome?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Fiction Review - Kindred by Octavia Butler

I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
  • Opening line of Kindred
I recently wrote about some of the controversy around an award being named after HP Lovecraft, given his creepy-even-for-its-time racist attitudes. There had been some suggestion of renaming the award for Octavia Butler. As I said there, I'm not certain of the wisdom of naming an award after anyone - everyone has some baggage. For example, Pulitzer was both a reformer and a sensationalist who pursued scandals; today he has a prestigious award named after him.

That said, I realized I'd never read an Octavia Butler story. That seemed something most definitely worth remedying. The story I chose to read was Kindred, a novel I read both as an audiobook and via Kindle, bouncing back and forth between the two formats. The narration provided by Kim Staunton is very well done and made for a very engaging listen.

The story is about a young African-American woman, Dana, living in 1976 California (which, at the time of its writing, was the modern day). She and her husband Kevin, who is several years her senior, are both writers. Kevin is a white man, a source of some tension with members of both of their families.

Dana finds herself traveling in time to early 19th century Maryland. The reason becomes apparent - she is being "summoned" unknowingly by her white ancestor, Rufus. Whenever his life is at risk she appears bodily. He is a very young child on her first visit to the past. While mere hours or days might pass for her in the present day, entire years pass for Rufus. This literary device is reminiscent of the time between trips to Narnia in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Butler considered this work a fantasy in that she makes no attempt at explaining the mechanics time travel that takes place - it is a plot device to put a modern black woman (and at a later point, her white husband), into antebellum Maryland. When she returns, bare minutes have passed in the present, even though she might have been in the past for months.

For the most part Dana likes Rufus. He treats her with dignity as they get to know one another and he learns about her background. But he has a temper which often gets him into trouble and can cause him to perform acts of cruelty. Dana learns this to his horror as he takes a liking to her female ancestor, Alice and takes advantage of his position as a white slave owner. As some of Dana's trips last for months she is forced to pose as a slave and finds herself subjected to the degradation and abuse that slaves were subjected to. Rufus is for the most part a decent man. But only for the most part. And God help you if you are his property when he is angry or hurt.

Kindred makes for both an engaging and a difficult read. As the reader I wanted Rufus to move become better than his time. But Butler does a skillful job immersing the reader in Dana's viewpoint. And in so doing Butler puts the reader, whatever his or her race or gender, into the position of a modern-day black woman propelled back into the time of slavery. It's an excellent narrative device and one well worth employing in this topic matter. I experienced something similar several years ago when I participated in a reenactment of a Jump the Broom ceremony in Colonial Williamsburg. It took place after sunset, with the only light by fire, and commemorating the marriage of two black slaves until death, or distance, parted them. After spending about an hour within the slave's culture, the visit of the master was extremely powerful. He was there to congratulate the couple and not threatening at all. Except he was at the same time incredibly threatening. You felt the powerful gulf between you and him. He owned you. Yes, he was being kind, but he could do anything he wanted to you or with you and you had no rights at all. Butler achieved a similar effect with Kindred. You are Dana, you are living among the slaves, and you know just what could be done to you - and you experience it being done to you.

It's difficult for me to separate my own views on slavery in the United States from this review so it's probably best for me to state it. It's a horribly ugly part of our history as a nation and neither denying it nor apologizing for it will change what happened. I hear arguments how "in the long run" slave descendants might be better off because their ancestors were taken from Africa. I don't buy that argument. It smacks of justification for a horrible act. Taking people from their homes to a brutal passage across the sea - one which survival was nowhere near guaranteed. To a life of slavery. Where one could be beaten, raped, separated from one's loved ones at any time. With no rights. Obliged to obey the commands of another person, for no compensation. And a fate which your children and your children's children and all your descendants would inherit. It is a horrible stain on American history. We owe it to those millions who died as slaves to at the very least know about them, how they lived and how they died. And Octavia Butler succeeded in bringing those people to life, making them real people, not some abstraction.

It's worth noting that this isn't just some pseudo history text. It's an excellent work of fiction. The setting feels vivid and the characters are very well realized. You sense Kevin's concern for his wife, trapped back in time. You want to like Rufus, feel he's on the verge of becoming better than his time many, many times, only to feel frequently frustrated. You feel Dana's shame as she adapts to life as a slave.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 - My Year in Review

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea
- The Hobbit
2014 was a very light year for this blog. The mood to write for public consumption wasn't particularly high. In fall of 2013 the charter school where my wife taught went out business, leaving the teachers unemployed and spreading the kids out into a variety of public and private schools. This made for some very stressful times at home, with my wife taking a variety of jobs to stretch out unemployment, at one point working two jobs. Life on the home front was stressful to say the least.

I'm hoping 2015 is better. In August my wife accepted an offer for a full-time teaching position. It's a pretty rough commute for her, having us both up at 5 in the morning, leading to the interesting situation where on occasion we are asleep before the kiddies… However, the return of stability has been a good thing for our family, allowing for planning for the future. My writing has been inching upwards again, which I view as a good thing - your mileage may vary.

Consider this my 2014 year in review. It'll mainly be about my own life, both from a techie and a gaming perspective, with some personal life thrown in.

One thing I've greatly enjoyed is my younger daughter's continued entry into the world of geekhood. Jasmine and I often watch Doctor Who together and we go on various Minecraft adventures in multiplayer Minecraft sessions. She's becoming quite the expert in redstone. Some day I need to write a blog post about Minecraft - it is an awesome example of a "sandbox" setting.

Tech

Fancy Tech

Let's start with tech. My gaming nowadays is primarily done online. I miss having an in-person group but real life has made that quite the challenge. On the other hand I've had the opportunity to meet some awesome people from all over the country, people I'd never have the opportunity to game with or talk to without tools like Google hangouts and communities like Yog-Sothoth or Google+. I know Google+ is often considered a distant-second to Facebook, but when it comes to meeting people of similar interests, I much prefer Google+. What I find is that Facebook is handy for getting back in touch with friends from childhood and college whereas Google+ is great for meeting new people.

When my wife started working again we took the opportunity to upgrade our family computers. I'm writing this post on a Microsoft Surface 3. Microsoft gets a ton of criticism, and several years ago you'd have heard much of it from me, but I think competition has been good for Microsoft. I find the Surface to be an awesome machine for me. It's not a powerhouse machine, but it has enough horsepower for me to play the various Civilization games and Minecraft which for me is really all I need. Windows 8.1 on a touch screen machine is a great experience and the pen interface, especially when using OneNote, is awesome for my creativity and gaming - and it makes a great tool at work during meetings. I'm the type of person who really prefers taking notes by hand and then moving to more advanced tools. During gaming sessions I pull character sheets into OneNote and make adjustments as the game goes on, tracking lost hit points, fate points, sanity, etc. Jotting things down is far preferable to trying to type them, at least for me, and a digital copy is preserved after the game session ends. I'd been trying to use two computers during game sessions, with my Chromebook dedicated to Google Hangouts and Roll20. However I've been finding the Chromebook just doesn't have enough horsepower - in my most recent Call of Cthulhu session I got booted as I was uploading a handout. Grr.

In the fall I also upgraded my phone, getting a Galaxy Note 4. My wife makes fun of the giant screen but I really like the form factor. I'm able to watch videos on it, play games, and jot notes down. When I do pen and paper notes I can use the camera to pull in an image of it for input into OneNote.

On the tablet front, I do use my Surface quite a bit but when I want something smaller I make use of the Kindle Fire. I tried a Nexus 9 but wasn't happy with it, returning it and replacing it with a Fire HDX 8.9. I do miss having access to the Google Play store and the whole Google infrastructure - I use my phone for email, calendars, etc. - but as a media consumption device, I find the HDX to be the best tool for my purposes. I'm pretty deep into the Amazon infrastructure as far as media consumption goes so it's a good device for me.

(And thanks to all the people on eBay who bought my older but immaculately cared for older gadgets, enabling me to support my gadget habit.)


Cutting Down on the Distractions

I've also learned the value in cutting back on distractions. When I'm reading an ebook I'm finding I prefer to use a Kinde eInk reader. Nothing disrupts the flow of reading more than a chime indicating a new email or Facebook post. Yeah I can shut notifications off but I also like the nice, non-backlit screen when I'm in a long reading session.

When it comes to producing content, I've discovered Markdown and distraction-free editors. Markdown is a non-wysiwyg format for producing content, basically a shortcut to producing basic HTML. My new method of blogging involves writing my post in Markdown first and then pulling it into blogspot. I'm also using the WriteMonkey editor - I'm on my Surface and all I see is an entire screen dominated by text. For good measure I've got a funky typewrite sound-effect going on as I type away. It shouldn't make me any more productive but man it does.

The Year in Gaming

I'm sure I'll be talking more about my gaming on this blog in individual posts, but I'll at least give a basic summary.

I've played two main games this year - Call of Cthulhu (6th and 7th editions) and Fate (mainly as Atomic Robo).

Fate

Let's start with Fate. I'm going to give some mixed thoughts on how I've found Fate to be going for my group. I've a number of "traditional" gamers in my group. I've found when we play Fate-based games we're using a lot less of Fate's narrative tools than one would expect - not a ton of compels, self-compels, etc. I'm not immune to this and I'm not criticizing my group at all.


This isn't to say we didn't enjoy ourselves. Atomic Robo is an absolutely awesome and fun setting and we enjoyed it greatly. We tried doing a Dresden Files game using Fate Accelerated and that's where it became clear to me this wasn't quite the right tool for us.
I'd like to do Fate or a similar game again but I'd need to give some thought as to how I'd do it. The biggest thing I'd want to achieve is more player buy-in - all the players knowing the rules and actively involved in creating the setting. Not just creating a city like is done in Dresden Files but in the entire campaign, answering big questions like "what's the premise", "what's the setting", "is there magic", "what's the technology"?

Call of Cthulhu

The year began and ended with Call of Cthulhu. When it became clear Fate wasn't working and we began running into scheduling hiccups we switched games and I went on a recruitment drive. I'd say I'm pleased with the results. For the first time in ages my group has played multipe times in December - in my experience December is murder on gaming schedules. This December we got three Call of Cthulhu sessions in.


I've come to learn the BRP system is one of the great unappreciated gems in the gaming world. Those people who love it love it with a passion. And I'm one of them. It's so simple that it gets underestimated. How do you resole a task? Roll percentile dice, try to get under a target number based on your skill.

The 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu tidies up the game but I've found it plays very much like older versions of the game. I'm eyeing an old 2nd edition adventure from Chaosium for our next game and the work I'm doing is fine-tuning the story of the adventure, not the stats. I'm just going to be using the stats within it as-is, making the few needed conversions on the fly.

I'm not saying BRP is the "one-true-only-system" but I truly appreciate what it can do. I'm sure I'll be going another D&D-like game at some point in the future. I've grealy enjoyed Dungeon Crawl Classics and Adventurer Conqueror King and 5th edition D&D looks to take what I liked about both the older and newer editions of the game. I've not given up on Fate and games like The One Ring, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Doctor Who often call to me. But I'm also mulling around ways to use BRP/Call of Cthulhu. I'd love to see Chaosium revise BRP with changes from the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu (not that doing it on the fly would be difficult). The Laundry Files RPG from Cubicle 7 is an odd twist on your normal Call of Cthulhu setting, based on Charlie Stross' novels. I'd love to give an American version of the setting a try - not the creepy Black Chamber of the novels, but given America's reliance on contractors, I could easily see some sort of private organization in the US doing much of the work of the Laundry while also trying to stay clear of the Black Chamber. Note - if you've never read Stross' works, I recommend them unconditionally - one minute you're reading something that feels like Office Space, the next you are reading a dark tale of horror. Just like my typical Call of Cthulhu session.

Media

One thing about lower incomes (the gadget bonanza occurred when we returned to two incomes) - Netflix is a good friend. As far as new stuff goes, one of our discoveries was House of Cards. Kevin Spacey is an absolute joy to watch as he turns to the camera and addresses the viewer. I've also been working my way through "Arrow" and have been watching "Gotham" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.". For the most part, it wasn't a superb year in the movie theaters. I took my youngest daughter to multiple viewings of "Frozen". "Guardians of the Galaxy" was a pleasant surprise, proving greatly enjoyable and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was also an enjoyable popcorn film. I had low expectations of "X-Men: Days of Future Past" after seeing the Phoenix Saga handled so poorly. However, X-Men was a surprisingly fine movie (and also undid much of the damage done to the Phoenix Saga). However, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" was a bit of disappointment, trying to cram far too much into one film. The final Hobbit movie was enjoyable but like the rest of the series, stretched far too long. "Interstellar" is on my list of films to see on video.

As far as new (for me) books go, I did my first Dennis Lehane reading over the past year. It's nice to read someone with such a feel for the pulse of Boston, both contemporary and historical.
I did some Cthulhu Mythos reading over the past year. I've yet to read all of Lovecraft's works (sorry, please don't hate me) - one area I'm especially lacking is his more fantasy Dreamlands works. In addition to some rereads, I did read some of his collaborations/ghost writing, most notably The Mound. I've also been diving into Clark Ashton Smith - in my newest Call of Cthulhu campaign I've tried to get away from the "Nyarlathotep is behind everything" and have been making use of much Clark Ashton Smith's Mythos contributions. Right now the gaming group is a bit larger than I've had in some time - if it stays intact I have in the back of my mind a trip to Hyperborea. We'll see. At the very least a trip to modern (1919) day Greenland is in order.

As just mentioned, my Call of Cthulhu campaign is currently a bit earlier in time than I normally begin. With a World War I prequel, it seemed to make sense to start a little earlier, especially as I began researching 1920s Boston, only to find a ton of interesting stuff in the 1910s, as I've mentioned in some of my more recent blog posts. I've also made a trip or two to the Boston Museum of Fine Art, both for "research" and because it's cool. I'm not a huge appreciator of art, but I do love the slices of life from Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Nubia, etc. It's hard not to be moved by art crafted thousands of years ago that is still viewable. That in itself is a form of immortality.

On the comic book front, this is the year I discovered Atomic Robo. Even with our RPG campaign wound down, I'm eagerly awaiting the next volume of Atomic Robo. (And bonus points for HP Lovecraft making an appearance in one volume.)

I first discovered Charles Stross towards the end of 2013 and managed to read a lot more of his work in 2014. Stross has a good sense of how to mix humor and horror - it's very easy to get the balance wrong. I love a work that can provoke a chuckle and a feeling of dread at the same time.
I've long been a Stephen King fan, going back to my sophomore year of high school. King had two releases in 2014. The first, Mr. Mercedes, was a non-horror detective story about a serial killer engaging in a game with a retired, overweight, somewhat suicidal, police detective. Though not my favorite work by King, it still earns praise as a work I was not able to put down. The same can be said of his more recent novel, Revival, which is the most Lovecraftian work he's written that I can think of.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Stephen Puleo's book Dark Tide covers a remarkably forgotten tragedy. On January 15, 1919, a 2.3 million gallon tank of molasses collapsed, spilling its contents in Boston's North End in a wave traveling some 35 miles per hour. Twenty-one people lost their lives and some 150 were injured. It almost sounds comical until you consider the horror such an event would no doubt present. Consider how horrible it would be to literally drown in molasses. Yes this is an event that is not in the popular history of the nation or even Boston. 
Dark Tide is divided into three sections. The first, "A Monster in Our Midst" deals with the construction of the tank. Rather than being an exercise in engineering discussion it instead explains why it was built and what the nation and city were like at the time. Puleo explains how the United States Industrial Alcohol Corporation (USIA) distilled molasses in various plants, with one such plant being in Cambridge. A portion of the molasses would be distilled into grain alcohol for rum but the great bulk of it would be distilled into industrial alcohol to be used in the manufacture of various high explosives. However, USIA lacked a large storage facility near its Cambridge distillery forcing it to purchase its molasses from third parties, cutting into its profits. With the World War going on, even without the United States as a participant, USIA was missing out on potential profits. In 1915 they built a tank but as in many construction projects, they ran into countless delays, resulting in the tank being finished barely in time for its first January 1916 delivery. We learn of the corners cut, the lack of testing performed, all to maximize profit. The result was a tank that leaked molasses constantly, with neighborhood children often gathering molasses with buckets as it dripped out of the enormous tank.
Beyond just dealing with the tank itself Puleo devotes a fair amount of text to the lives of many of the people who worked and lived in the vicinity of the tank, from an employee who constantly warned his management chain about the risk of the tank rupturing to firemen in the area to immigrant families. He also talks about the security concerns around the tank, especially once the United States entered the World War. The world in general had been dealing with violent anarchists for several decades, with President McKinley being felled by an anarchist's bullet back in. Boston's North End, with its large Italian immigrant community, was a hotbed of the anarchist movement with such notable anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and a series of bombing and bombing attempts in 1916 such as a failed bombing of the Massachusetts State House, a Woburn factory bombing, and the bombing of a Boston police station.
1919 saw more anarchist activity, with the year starting with anarchist threats. In this environment Puelo gives us his second section, dealing with the actual disaster. USIA was anxious to make one final big financial score. With the war over and Prohibition on the verge of ratification (with a one-year grace period after ratification), they wanted to churn out grain alcohol for the final year of legal alcohol. It was shortly after a major delivery that the tank ruptured. Puelo covers the ordeals of those people he introduced earlier in the book as well as many others and covers the rescue and recovery efforts.
The final section deals with the legal proceedings against the company. USIA claimed their tank was safe and the disaster was a result of anarchists. This was not difficult to believe, as 1919 and 1920 saw continued anarchist bombings, with a massive wave in late spring of 1919 leading to the "Palmer Raids" - Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's effort to deport anarchists, a process that did not spend much time worrying about the civil rights of the accused. Much of this section is from the perspective of the preliminary judge, a World War veteran as well as the prosecuting and defense attorneys. This "preliminary" hearing lasted several years, with the judge to render his initial recommendation, a recommendation likely to carry strong weight. During this long trial anarchists detonated a bomb in Wall Street, giving some apparent credibility to the defense's theory of events. This took place under the backdrop of the extremely pro-business Harding and Coolidge presidential administrations.
Overall it made for a very interesting read. Puleo does an excellent job showcasing the world this disaster took place in, letting us get to know the people of this world, their wants and their concerns. He does delve into the occasional glimpses of the thoughts of the participants, most likely a necessary convention in this type of work. He also gives a very useful bibliography for a variety of topics such as Boston of the time, the anarchist movement, court records, etc.
One thing which struck me is the similarity of this world to our own, especially the early years of the 21st century. The United States during both periods was in an extremely pro-business mood after a two-term Democratic administration. And both periods dealt with a terrorist threat which prompted some extreme fear-based responses.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Boston in the Cthulhu Mythos

With the Call of Cthulhu RPG most commonly being set in the fictional Miskatonic Valley of Massachusetts (with trips all over the world a possibility), it always surprised me how comparatively little Boston has featured in the Call of Cthulhu RPG. In the United States there are sourcebooks for San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and New Orleans. Cubicle 7 has been doing a fantastic job showcasing the British Isles in their Call of Cthulhu supplements. Miskatonic River Press published a fantastic book of adventures for New York City and Golden Goblin Press followed in their footsteps with a New Orleans adventure book.
That's not to say that Boston has been entirely absent from the RPG. For example, the adventure Shadows of Yog-Sothoth begins in Boston. The Unspeakable Oath magazine did have an article giving an overview of Boston. But those resources seem to be few and far between.
In one sense it's not too surprising. It's tough to find much on Boston of that time period in general. New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans, for example, have a wealth of material about them, both in fiction and in non-fiction. With Boston you've got to dig a little deeper. There's material out there but not to the extent that you'll find for the other cities I've mentioned. I got excited once when I was doing a search on the yog-sothoth forums and discovered an old thread of someone asking about 1920s Boston. Then I discovered it was a thread I had started several years prior...
Without intending to over the past several years I've noticed my knowledge of Boston of that era has been increasing. An historical knowledge here, a documentary there, some non-fiction books, vintage guidebooks - over time I've been getting an informal education on late 1910s and 1920s Boston.
I add late 1910s as one thing I've learned is that there was a lot going on in Boston just before, during, and after the Great War. Boston was a hotbed of anarchy, with an entire police station blown up by anarchists! Over 6,000 Bostonians died from the Influenza Pandemic. People died in floods of molasses or in riots after nearly the entire police force went on strike. Moving to the 20s proper, Boston was home to one Charles Ponzi, originator of the Ponzi Scheme (who didn't see that one coming...) The police at one point blockaded all of Chinatown, not letting anyone in or out.
I just kicked off a Call of Cthulhu game which I hope will be a continuing campaign. Though we are starting off with the Chaosium adventure No Man's Land, set in the closing days of the Great War, shortly after that we will transition back to civilian life in the United States. Assuming the campaign gets some momentum, the plan is for the characters to form the core of an organization of investigators of the supernatural. The exact nature of this organization is still to be determined but the plan is to set the game in the Miskatonic Valley. I'm hoping to get some good action out of the city of Boston as well - by rail Arkham would only be a brief trip away from Boston.
I'll likely do some blogging about the types of things I have learned (and will learn) about Boston of the period and how I made use of it in Cthulhu adventures. I'll also share the resources I make use of and my opinion of them - for example, in the post immediately preceding this I discussed Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, a fantastic inspirational source for late 1910s Boston.