Petty Gods 2015

Petty Gods is finally available! A free pdf is here and you can buy a print copy at cost from LuLu here.

Petty Gods is a book of made-up religions, deities and stuff for fantasy RPGs. Need details on a a god of wine vats, the patron of haberdashers or the priesthood of left handed blue-eyed ox cart drivers? Petty Gods has you covered! I contributed a few bits of artwork inluding these naked cultists up to no good:evil snake cult 72dpi

Harryhausen R.I.P.

Ray Harryhausen, animator and special-effects artist, died the other day at the ripe old age of 92. I’m sad to see him go, but 92 is a pretty good run, so maybe he was ready to go. “Jason & The Argonauts” was the best damn thing I ever saw in the movies (skeleton fight!) and I’d rather watch it or King Kong than Star Wars or Avatar.

I don’t have anything profound to say about Harryhausen. This New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik is much better than anything I could write, anyway.

A few years ago I got this book on The Art of Ray Harryhausen by Tony Dalton – lots of great illustrations… and you get to see Harryhausen’s drawings where he figured out how the different critters should look. Reccomended.

World War Z (part 2)

Do zombies have ‘swarm consciousness’ like ants or bees?

The other day I posted a bit about the World War Z movie and how much I was looking forward to it.  Since posting, I’ve seen a lot of negative comments about the movie from people who think its going to suck, which made me wonder if a) do I have really crappy taste or b) did we all see the same preview?

A lot of the negative comments about the movie focus on the fact that it doesn’t resemble the book that much.  People really liked the book and thought that the movie should be more like it… but I just can’t see a series of vignettes of different people talking about the zombie-pocalypse like a Ken Burns documentary really working as a Hollywood movie.  I think that using the ‘World War Z’ book title is misleading, but I didn’t like the book that much (I liked Brook’s tongue-in-cheek “Zombie Survival Guide” much more). If I had been a bigger fan of the book, I would be more upset about the World War Z movie bearing only a superficial resemblance to the World War Z book.

One of the things I didn’t like about the book was that many of the characters from different parts of the world who were all relating how they spent the ‘Zombie Wars’ didn’t seem ‘different’ enough in voice in the book. It just kept me from buying the premise. Maybe writing a book from 100 different points of view is an impossible task — I don’t know if another writer could have carried it off, either, and I certainly like the concept, but Brooks’ prose just didn’t work for me.  I also found some of the characters were too close to stereotype for me to buy them.. the Japanese otaku who, faced with the end of the world, becomes a master of the samurai sword, for example. It just didn’t ring true for me. I don’t know if that is a failure of imagination by me as a reader or a result of failure by Brooks as a writer. I loved “Zombie Survival Guide.” I just found portions of “World War Z” a bit flat and melodramatic.  I seem to be in the minority in that opinion (my friend Jon C., whose opinion on all things writing I respect, loved Brooks’ WWZ book, so there you go).

I’ve mentioned it before, but if I had to recommend only one book of zombie genre fiction, it would have to be ‘Zone One’ by Colson Whitehead. I haven’t read anything else by Whitehead (although, based on how much I enjoyed Zone One, I plan to), but Whitehead’s novel was more effective because he kept the scope pretty narrow. Everything is told from a single protagonist’s point of view, even though he is just one man with PTSD in the army of ‘zombie clean-up crews’ that have been formed since the zombie apocalypse. As opposed to World War Z, Whitehead shows the emotions in his characters rather than tells — an important distinction that made it a lot more enjoyable for me to read.

It’s been a couple years since I read World War Z, so I probably don’t remember the book well enough to write an in-depth review, but I do remember parts where some of the different narrators described the zombies just moving forward relentlessly, in a swarm.  There was one battle described in (I think) India where the military retreated across a deep ravine and blew up the bridge behind them, and then just watched in horror as the zombies just started to pour over the cliff like a waterfall, slowly filling up the ravine, which was one image from the book I really found effective… and that’s what the exploding swarms of bodies in the preview made me recall. A similar ‘zombie surge’ figures prominently in the end of Whitehead’s “Zone One.”  Zombie surges are perhaps becoming all the rage in the genre. Maybe that’s what helps make zombies scary again… by this point, everyone knows you can defeat them by shooting them in the head and evade them by closing the gate of a chain link fence, but what if there are so many of the living dead, swarming like ants, that you know you can’t kill them fast enough to keep yourself safe and they will press and pile up against any barrier until they knock it down through sheer numbers? Maybe it’s the idea of all of these humans having lost their humanity that fascinates us — people are starting to say that the zombie genre is played out; I think it still has some mileage left in it yet.

Death by Thesaurus

This Finlay I nabbed from ‘The Land of Nod’ blog kicks all kinds of asses.

I have a confession. I begin to tire of Lovecraft.  There were times, in my dissolute youth, where, after smoking too much pot, I would suddenly get too stoned to be able to stand being around people, so I would retreat to my room to read Lovecraft and I would find myself chuckling at jokes that were not there and write notes to myself that would make no sense in the morning. I hope my saying that I am less than enchanted with his work than I once was does not make you think I am a bad person… I just don’t think that Lovecraft is a very good writer — great ideas, but his prose is more funny to me than impressive.  I think the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is brilliant and fan-fucking-tastic, but when he piles adjective upon adjective and the verb at the end of the phrase frequently he puts… well, his prose is really kind of a mess. That said, he’s a far better writer than I would ever hope to be… and he has certainly inspired a lot of good writers (like Ligotti), but, sheesh, sometimes he just goes on and on about how something is ‘soul-blasting’ or so horrific that it cannot be described, yet HPL plows on, stitching those run away phrases and dangling verbs together while trying, doggedly, to describe things that are too “horrific” to put words to. I know I’m going to be pilloried for this, but I actually think that both Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith write better ‘Lovecraft’ than HPL himself, simply because the two of them are capable of producing romantic prose in the tradition of Dunsany or Poe without such ridiculously ponderous sentences.

There are people who say that his prose is ‘terrifying’ and the ‘essence of horror.’ Maybe it failed to terrify me because I don’t believe in the elder gods — or maybe it fails to terrify me because the people in it seem so flat.  Even when I was really stoned and paranoid and ready to swear on a stack of bibles that the dude at the pizza take-out place was a narc who could tell I was stoned and was sending the cops to my apartment (in my defense, I was stoned)— even then I didn’t find Cthulhu terrifying.

None of this is to claim that I don’t find Lovecraft entertaining… I find him extraordinarily entertaining.  But he just doesn’t scare me the way Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ or Mcarthy’s ‘The Road’ scared me when I read them.  Maybe it was the excessively baroque language that I think old HPL couldn’t quite carry off. Maybe it was because his characters didn’t seem to have lives beyond the page. Maybe it was just that there were too many stock characters sprinkled about his prose with regular predictability like raisins in oatmeal; everyone was either a ‘disgusting specimen of a mongrel’ or a ‘great, wholesome Irishman’ or a ‘Yankee of respectable stock’ that his stories start to feel like episodes of “Law and Order” where the same character actors return again and again in different seasons to play different victims, perpetrators or witnessses and you, as a watcher, begin to think, “Wait a minute… we’ve seen this dude before! He played the reluctant witness who didn’t come forward in last week’s episode, now he’s a dirty cop who was involved in a cover up and next week he’ll be playing the arrogant assistant DA…” Their faces and mannerisms remain the same, but their names and wardrobes change making it harder for me to enter into the TV world imaginatively much like having the rubber nose fall off in mid sentence would make the spook-house witch less scary.  I suspect that HPL wasn’t interested enough in people (or, being a recluse, didn’t know enough about them) to be able to write effective characters.

One of the things that throws my Lovecraft dilemna into sharper focus is that Annie and I finally got around to watching Joss Whedon’s “The Cabin in the Woods” this weekend (Good flick! I rate it 4 1/2 out of 5 severed heads!). Annie hates horror movies because when someone leaps out of the closet with a machete, it frightens her and she screams… whereas I find horror movies funny and chuckle to myself when the inevitable blonde goes, like clockwork into the woods/basement/dark house to look for her missing (and probably already dead) boyfriend and tells him to “Quit screwing around!” when the monster is creeping up on her. Annie hates that stuff, but she likes Whedon so she was willing to sit through “Cabin in the Woods.”  We had to watch it at home, however, so she could pause the video to calm down periodically. And Whedon’s movie was full of Cthulhu references (OK, no spoilers), but the references were also funny (to me) because they were nestled cheek-and-jowl with references to just about every modern horror movie ever made.  Which, I guess, is how I like my Lovecraft. I’m not afraid of elder gods or sea creatures or the unknown or witch craft — I’m more afraid of my fellow human beings. I don’t find the fungi from Yuggoth or the fish-people of Innsmouth or Azathoth scary; I find them entertaining. To be honest, I’m more afraid of people with road rage or the hillbillies from Deliverance. So when people try to tell me how scary Lovecraft is, I just don’t get why they are so scared.

Barrowmaze Two now on sale

Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) probably already know that I have been working on illustrations for Barrowmaze Two, the followup to Barrowmaze One by Greg Gillespie (aka Kilted Yaksman). After a successful Indieagogo campaign to fund production and printing, Greg has published the book; PDF copies are available through RPG Now, and I think the word is that books should ship to backers in early late October (just in time for Halloween spelunking!).

I just downloaded my PDF; skimming through, it looks like a lot of fun with cool magic items unique to the Barrowmaze and lots of kick ass illustrations by Zhu Bajie, Alexander Cook, Ndege Diamond, Cory Hamel, Trevor Hammond, Jim Holloway, John Larrey, Scott LeMien, Jason Sholtis, Stephen Thompson and me!  Plus there is a really cool character sheet for Labyrinth Lord in the back created by Zhu Bajie.

I haven’t read it yet… just flipped through the pdf… but what I have seen looks really cool. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are a lot of random tables and suggestions for how to handle repeated forays into Barrowmaze by player characters that many fans of the ‘Megadungeon’ will enjoy, plus maps, unique creatures, etc.

Here are some of my contributions:

Cover Art: Acid breath from undead dragon! The cleric is done for!

A witch cooking what looks like “Player Character Stew!”

For some reason the mope on the left cracks me up every time I look at him.

“Which way do we go next?” The fighter-guy in the middle is kind of a self portrait.

Dungeon Alphabet Re-Released by Goodman Games

Pole and Rope’s Michael Curtis recently announced that a new edition of his popular ‘Dungeon Alphabet’ book is being released (soon) by Goodman Games (product description and pre-order info on Goodman site is here). The new edition increases the page count to 64 from the original 48 pages and I did a couple of new interior pieces as well. 

If you are not familiar with the original, “Dungeon Alphabet” started out as a series of blog posts by Michael Curtis at “The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope.” For every letter of the alphabet, he came up with a post dealing with that letter and then generated tables of cool, creepy, interesting stuff — good not only for fantasy role playing game fans, but also just a fun read.  Someone observed, “This ought to be a book!” and Goodman eventually published it, which is really cool since it is like a book that just grew organically out of blog posts that Curtis made just for the hell of it.  If I remember right, I illustrated “C is for Caves” and “X is for Xenophobia” as well as “M is for Maps.”  The new edition has a few more entries and some new artwork (I haven’t seen the whole thing, just the pages I worked on).

Other well known artists/illustrators whom you may know from their work in Goodman products illustrated the book; the list includes Russ Nicholson, Jeff Easley, Jim Holloway, Peter Mullen, Doug Kovacs, Michael Wilson, and Brad McDevitt.

I think you can get it with either the original Otus cover or a new gold foil cover by me (that features an ‘A’ on the front and a ‘Z’ on the back).  The gold foil cover will look something like this, but more shiny:

This may be the worst book I have ever (tried to) read

I might read this Kilgore Trout book.

I got a free download for my Kindle of William Bebb’s novel, “Valley of Death, Zombie Trailer Park.” I don’t know who William Bebb is, but a quick search of wikipedia tells me that “William Bebb” was a whig who served as the 19th Govenor of Ohio and died in 1873.  Something tells me that ‘Zombie Trailerpark’ was not written by the same William Bebb.

A few posts ago, I opined that if one wanted to write a shitty book, one way to stack the odds in your favor on this quest of ‘shitty bookness’ is to write a zombie novel. And I think ‘Zombie Trailerpark’ could serve as exhibit A if one wanted to prove that proposition. Despite its 5 star rating on Amazon, Bebb’s book is pretty damn bad. 

I haven’t managed to read the whole thing. I have pretty low standards — it’s not all Gogol and Shakespeare on my bookshelf — but I enjoy my pulp and genre fiction (and even manage to read them without having to assume an ‘ironic post modern manner’ — I sometimes read shitty, lowbrow genre novels because I sometimes LIKE shitty, lowbrow genre novels). But “Valley of Death” failed to amuse.  After a few pages, I kept reading because I didn’t believe that a book could be so bad.  I wasn’t laughing WITH it or AT it — it was like watching a literary car crash — I was reading with disbelief. I think I got about 1/2 way through when I threw in the towel.

I previously thought that “The Cannibal Within” by Mark Mirabello had to be the worst book I ever failed to finish reading… and I might have read more of ‘The Cannibal Within’ if the Kindle edition I had of it had not had so many formatting problems that it was close to impossible to read simply because it was entertaining in a ‘John Waters Pink Flamingos meets Richard Shaver’ kind of way. And, despite the worship heaped at the altar of Lovecraft, his prose is pretty awful… which doesn’t stop me from enjoying it (on the contrary, the ridiculous piling on of adjectives can be delightful — and, no, I don’t make any claims for my own skill as a writer).

How to write a book that sucks 90% of the time…

How do you write a book that sucks 90% of the time?  Write books about zombie survival scenarios.  I shit you not. Those books suck 90% of the time (or maybe more — I’m being conservative here).  And there are A LOT of them.  A fucking shitload.  And they multiply faster than the walking dead.  It seems that anyone who ever took a creative writing class is cranking out an ‘apocalypse scenario’ book involving zombies or ‘infected’ and the like. Most of them include cute lingo that survivors employ or more detail about firearms than NRA gun porn.

Let me back up a bit.  I have a Y chromosome, therefore it can be safely assummed that I am 90% likely to enjoy movies where people are running around shooting the undead in the head while trying not to get bitten or eaten or swarmed or whatever. Annie hates those kinds of movies; she finds them that awful combination of “gross and boring and scary,” which is kind of how I feel about TV shows like “Sex in the City.” Shoe obcessed narcissists prattling on about their man problems make me want to become a knuckle-dragging pig purely as a defensive mechanism.  But it’s OK.  I don’t make her watch “a really good headshot!” and she doesn’t make me watch shows about relationships. You don’t have to share everything.  In fact, it’s probably good if you don’t. But I’m off topic here — back to zombies.

Keyless entry becomes a selling point.

For decades now there have been zombie apocalypse* movies and some of them are good and some of them are bad and most of them are somewhere inbetween… but they all shared one thing in common: they feed my deep rooted desire to see the whole world of corporate culture and work and school and parking tickets and putting up with douchebags all go to hell in an afternoon by introducing a scenario in which you can murder your fellow humans and it’s OK because they are not humans anymore — they are zombies.  So, not only are you free from guilt about shooting your zombified co-worker in the head, you are also freed from having to go to jail because of it — as everyone knows, in zombie scenarios, the cops are the first to go because they get calls telling them to go to infection central before anyone else knows it’s infection central.  Imaginary mayhem without moral or social consequences.  Who can resist?

Unfortunately, no one.  Which is why all things ‘zombie’ are being rushed to the production stage whether they are ready or not and whether they are worthy or not.

A notable exception is Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One.” Whitehead is apparently a ‘real author’ who has made waves by dipping his toe into ‘zombie genre fiction.’  I don’t know what other fans of all things undead think of it, but I think “Zone One” is great. I enjoyed Max Brook’s “Zombie Survival Guide” but thought his other Zombie book, “World War Z,” was weak.  But, almost without exception, every other book I’ve tried to read about zombies has been shit.

A funny things happens when you finish reading a book on an Amazon Kindle.  After you hit the last page, your Kindle tells you, “People who enjoyed ‘Zone One’ also read…” and then it gives you a list.  And you can just click on them and it will let you read the first chapter or two for free.  I know they say that ‘you can’t judge a book by it’s cover,’ but I would suggest that one could make an educated guess by the first chapter… and I read a lot of these first chapters the other night while I waiting for some software to download (another sad story)… and, without exception, they SUCKED (except for “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh, which is great but doesn’t really count because even though it was in Amazon’s auto-generated list, I read it before I read Zone One… and McHugh’s is a collection of short stories, only one of which deals with zombie matters anyway).

*For purposes of this rant, “Zombie Apocalypse” movies can include movies where people are getting infected with some sort of virus and becoming ravenous cannibals or whatever that are not ‘undead.’  Let’s just say that ‘infected’ movies are a sub-category within the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ genre and leave it at that.

Currently Reading: The Hunger Games

“The Hunger Games” is a 2008 young adult novel by Suzanne Collins (it is the first of three books in a series by the same author). My S.O. is currently writing a young adult novel, and, as a result, she ends up reading other things that have been published for young adult readers (most of which, according to Annie, is wretched stuff). She recommended I read ‘The Hunger Games,’ and, since she knows my taste fairly well, I finally got around to starting it a day ago.

I didn’t like the highly regarded “Ender’s Game” enough to finish it, and, in most cases, I’ll pass on literature written specifically for young adults. Although I am only about half way through “The Hunger Games” and am glad I picked it up. Collins is an excellent writer; her prose is spare without being bland and her characters are interesting. Since the book is for young adults, the main character is a fifteen year old girl named Katniss.

‘The Hunger Games’ takes place in a dystopian future where the inhabitants of the outlying towns (known as “districts”) work in near wage-slavery in order to support the lavish life of the privileged in the Capitol. Every year the Capitol hosts an event called “The Hunger Games.” A boy and a girl are selected at random from each district and fight to the death in a setting known as ‘The Arena.’ The last survivor’s district is given extra food and privileges for the coming year, so there is great pressure for the children selected to succeed.

The entire contest is televised. Participants are released into the ‘arena’ and expected to compete and win by any means necessary. Supplies like food, tools, medieval era weapons like spears, swords, bows and arrows, etc., are available if the participants are lucky enough to reach them first. Players are allowed to form alliances if they wish in order to ‘gang up’ on other players, but, eventually, they will need to turn on each other since the games end when only one survives. In addition, according to their popularity with the television viewers and the bribes provided by ‘sponsors,’ different participants may be occasionally given helpful items like a loaf of bread or some medicine, so smart players attempt to appear interesting or appealing to the viewers.

Katniss ends up being one of the ‘tributes’ to participate in “The Hunger Games.” Before his death, her father taught her how to hunt in the woods, fish, forage for nuts and berries, set snares for rabbits, etc. While the other players compete against one another for food supplied by the game masters, Katniss feeds herself with her hunting and foraging skills.

I’m only about 1/2 way through, but have enjoyed the book immensely so far despite the fact that it is written for a younger reader. Although the book is not as emotionally brutal as 1984, I think the book is not written ‘down’ for a younger audience. Her prose is solid; we learn a lot about Katniss‘ world and her opinions in passing and in context rather than having it laboriously explained. The book explores themes of Independence and personal responsibility but (as I am about 1/2 way through) is not too heavy handed in trying to get young readers to think about these topics.

I have been avoiding reading the Wikipedia entry on the book before I finish it. Suzanne Collins claims she was inspired to write “The Hunger Games” while channel surfing between news from the Iraq war and reality television shows. The idea of ‘fight to the death’ gladitorial games in a distant future isn’t original, but I think the book is good enough that I don’t care that I have seen these themes before.

Definite recommendation.

Stonehell: First Impressions

OK, I know it’s already been out forever but I finally got around to ordering Stonehell Dungeon by Michael Curtis after having read about his campaigns on his blogs (one blog is Torch, Pole and Rope; the other is Rotted Moon). 134 pages for $13.00 seems like a bargain to me.

I’ve only read the first couple of pages and skimmed through the rest, but so far am very happy about my purchase and feel inspired to hopefully get off my butt and do something with Khunmar once I get some of my other backlog of projects squared away.

Likes: Brief entries for room descriptions, lots of options, map on one page and key on the facing page to prevent lots of flipping of pages during play. Lots of charts for random stuff and suggestions on how to make Stonehell your own.

Dislikes: Almost no art (sad face) but I suppose that makes the compact layout possible. Not all of the info for a given location is in one place (i.e.: the description of an area on the surface near the entrance is partially in the introduction to that ‘level’ in one place and partially in the key. I guess that’s needed to keep the key compact enough to fit on one page but I’d be worried that I would forget something important if I was referencing only the key.

This is apparently just the first volume; more levels are to come!