Posts Tagged fantasy

Arkham Horror – Reviews

‘Litany of Dreams’ by Ari Marmell

The Devourer Below’ by Josh Reynolds; Evan Dicken; Davide Mana; Georgina Kamsika; Thomas Parrott; David Annandale; Cath Lauria

‘Cult of the Spider Queen‘ by SA Sidor

‘The Deadly Grimoire‘ by Rosemary Jones

I’ve spoken of my enjoyment with Aconyte Books’ Lovecraftian offerings previously, but as they’re now coming in thick and fast, I thought a joint review was in order!

First, ‘Litany of Dreams’. While the early Arkham books stayed firmly in that sinister town, Ari Marmell heads further afield, to explore how the insidious darkness of the Great Old Ones spreads far deeper into the lands around Massachusetts.

We follow Elliot Raslo with what might otherwise be a simple missing persons case: his roommate has vanished. After reading some mysterious writings. And becoming obsessed with a particular chant in an uncomfortably weird language.Yes, this is Arkham after all!

The story unfurls like a true yarn, leading from libraries and museums to the swamps of Hockomock outside the town, with a nod to the ancient lore of the Inuit peoples far to the North.

The tone shifts and changes – fortunately far more comfortably for the reader than for the characters! – so that we see Elliot’s confusion, his new friend Billy’s increasing worry, and the curiosity of librarian Daisy Walker, all combining beautifully as the quest unfolds.

I was reminded of many Lovecraftian movies (notably ‘Reanimator’, with the emphasis on Miskatonic University), but also ‘Evil Dead’ and even ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ The escalating fear of the protagonists is tangible, and there were several points where it genuinely seemed like there was no way out for them. I don’t want to say any more for fear of spoilers, but this evil is its own kind of spreading disease, with no way of knowing if there’s any cure. Sound relevant?

‘The Devourer Below’ is the first Arkham anthology from Aconyte, with each story held together by the shared tales of one particular Great Old One, who hasn’t previously experienced a lot of attention in books or movies. As the stories unfolded, I learned more about this particular unpleasant fellow, and how his fearsome reach draws many into his own unique and hungry darkness.

We have sneaky occultists, of course, but also bootleggers, historians, regular people caught up in something far beyond their experience, and so much more. For anyone wishing to play the Arkham Horror roleplaying games, there’s heaps of inspiration for characters here!

Particular standouts for me were Josh Reynolds’ ‘The Hounds Below’, which combined the very real horrors of The Great War with deeper human fears of madness, starvation… and what those may mean when combined together. Also ‘The Darkling Woods’ by Cath Lauria was its own kind of fairytale. I’ve never seen a Lovecraftian story with children as the protagonists, but does this mean they’re able to deal with dark fairytale dangers more effectively than the adults around them?

‘Cult of the Spider Queen’ was always going to be difficult for me, and it took quite a lot to open this one. I’m not a huge fan of spiders, let’s say, and from the start, the creepiness of the story felt like those little (and not so little) legs starting to work their way insidiously down my spine.

This book is absolutely the stuff of Saturday afternoon matinee movies. Leaving civilization behind, the characters travel far into the jungle, looking for a lost group of film-makers who apparently found the fabled Spider Queen. Did they survive? Is the Queen real? What about rival groups of treasure-seekers hot on our heroes’ trail? Will they make it back alive?

Imagine a cub reporter, a beautiful (and apparently wealthy) heroine, a brave tracker and her crew… and then the flickering lights of a black and white silent movie, with not-quite-visible shapes moving in the shadows around an ancient shrines and jungle leaves. This was uncomfortable because of the spiders and the legends, but absolutely gripping in its action-and-excitement atmosphere!

We stay in action movies with ‘The Deadly Grimoire’, a follow-up to ‘Mask of Silver’ (which I’ve previously enjoyed and reviewed). This stands alone if you’ve not read that, though, being its own tale as well as a continuation of those events.

Betsy Baxter is the Flapper Detective, daring stunt-performer and actress, who’s found great success after surviving the previous events in Arkham. However, there’s still loose ends to be tied – so with the help of a female pilot known as ‘The Woman without Fear’ and an antiquarian bookseller seeking the titular Grimoire, Betsy charges straight into an adventure that far surpasses any movie!

Again, this has the vibe of a matinee movie, but also a strong detective story. Where (and what) is the mysterious Grimoire? What do bootleggers and a local crime syndicate have to do with anything, and what are the innovative seaweed-based treatments at the local sanatorium?

Every aspect of Lovecraft is here, bound up with a fun heroine whose thinking is definitely ahead of her time.

I’m glad to say that every single one of these books branches further into the Real World than Lovecraft would ever have been comfortable with – in terms of strong women, native Americans and Inuit, homosexuality and much more. The Ancient Old Ones don’t care about such things, and their tentacles affect everyone, so there’s (happily) no discrimination to be found in any of these pages.

As always, at the end of these books those who survive are forever changed by their encounters with the Great Unknown – as are we, the reader. Part of me wonders what happens next for them, but I know it won’t be necessarily good. It’s just that feeling of wanting to see more of a traditional adventure serial, feeling the jumps and gasps as skilled hands lead us further into the dark.

Hugely enjoyable and absolutely recommended.

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Fantasy in Reality

I love fantasy. You might have guessed from previous posts, but I’ve always been an avid reader – stories fuel my life. Fantasy is a big part of this, be it the warped dystopian worlds of current ‘trendy’ fiction, the lost 1920s worlds of Agatha Christie, or (of course) Papa Tolkien. There are bandwagons and there are original writers who explore and subvert. All have something to say.

I’ve been seeing a lot of social media lately, however, in which people are looking at fantasy more and more as escapism. The world is a difficult place, and we need somewhere ‘safe’ to retreat to, somewhere better, just for a while.

This is completely fine. It’s an agreed function of those same stories, after all, from the fairytales of childhood to the myths of legend: to lose ourselves in the lives of others, to forget our problems, to imagine alternatives (potentially involving dragons). We need heroes when life seems just mundane, or when our own lives seem less than magical.

But it worries me a little when escapism becomes the sole function of fantasy, or fiction generally. It’s ‘just’ escapism, if you will. The story is denigrated, the humans experiences and lessons passed on as nothing more than fairytale… while missing the obvious truth that ‘fairytales’ are some of the most powerful stories of all.

Or we actively seek to live in such realms as an alternative to this one, like a reenactor who’s forgotten that he’s returned to work on a Monday and reaches for his sword… only to find a mobile phone.

Pagan folk speak of having ‘a foot in both worlds’ – meaning the world of spirit and this everyday realm – but that still requires a solid understanding and awareness of both. It’s advisable to not choose one over another, because that way lies madness. Perspective is crucial, but it can, of course, be easily forgotten with the wonder of spirit seems clearly preferable to the deluge of utility bills, or when the office seems more important than the home.

While recognising the (occasionally satirical) aspects of this world in those of fantasy, it’s certainly a good idea to notice the magical, fantastic parts of our everyday homelands. After all, these are what inspired the fantasy in the first place: London for Ankh-Morpork, perhaps, or Middle England for Middle Earth. We walk the streets of fantasy every day, in our own lives.

I’ve encouraged others to explore the heroic in themselves – and always receive the response ‘Oh, there’s nothing special about me’… followed by the most amazing story of something they’ve accomplished or felt.

We’re not encouraged to see the everyday as fantastic, because we take it for granted. Yet when telling our stories to another person, we’re surprised by their reactions, as they listen wide-eyed and ask questions in enthusiasm. Perspective again – everything seems normal from inside our heads, but may be absolutely marvellous to others. And certainly worth remembering and retelling.

We walk with a foot in both worlds every day. It’s just up to us to open our senses to see.

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Words

Dyslexic friends have spoken to me in the past of their frustration with words. How their shapes change on the page, moving in a muddle that’s impossible to decipher. I don’t know how true that is, but I’ve heard variations on this theme, so presume there’s something there.

This has made me wonder if I’m some sort of reverse-dyslexic. Ever since I could read, words have had their own particular patterns to me, each one a tiny shape with specific form, made up of the right combination of letters, forming sentences and thus phrases captured on pages. As a child, when I stared too long at a page in a book, the edges of paragraphs would become clear, dark ink against white paper, the movement of the word-groups moving up and down almost like musical notation, telling their stories from sigils to be deciphered.

And then, there’s the feeling of having lost your grip on language – typing or writing the same word over and over again until it loses all meaning, becoming just a jumble of letters. Water-torture in text, a metronome of repetition seeking a tune?

I’m reading a fantasy/futuristic science-fiction novel at the moment, with a character who can ‘feel’ the contents of books. She walks between the shelves in a library, fingers gently outstretched, touching the sense of story, the tales told, the experiences of the authors. I’ve seen a lot of this recently, the book-love. Trying to make a little sense out of the joy we find in words – sometimes verbal, but mostly literary, captured in print.

The great Jasper Fforde satirises book-love in his ‘Thursday Next’ novels, with the ‘software’ of reading pinned down into programming language. BOOK 4.0 is to be released – that mysterious machinery which translates words from bits of print into images in our heads. Partly scientific, partly magical, nobody really understands how it works – and why, occasionally, it doesn’t (presumably as in text-speak, with its evolution of LOLs and ROFLs). Is this any stranger an understanding than our communication through the medium of Windows or Linux?

Stories are tangible. Whether it’s breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of a book, with a reader being acknowledged as an active participant in the story (the 80s ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ and ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books leap to mind), or the post-modernist idea of a literary character themselves reaching into a book to converse with the characters. The aforementioned Thursday Next book-jumps into ‘Jane Eyre’ to ensure that the ending is correct (Jane ends up with Rochester, not Rivers). Those of us who love that tale are certainly glad that this mistake was fixed! – and thus, we are part of the story too.

We cheer the heroes and boo the baddies in movies… but in books, the lines become a little more blurred. We have more time to get to know the characters and situations as the stories unfold. We ‘lose’ ourselves in a good book, eventually putting it down at the last page with a sigh and a racing heart. I frequently close a book and look around in confusion, wondering which reality is more ‘real’.

Stories make us who we are. Each of us has a story to tell – and very few are not worth hearing. We are the protagonist, which doesn’t mean it’s all about us. It’s about our journey, our understanding, our evolution.

I have always known that I wanted to be a writer. I never dreamed that my first book would be non-fiction (or semi-autobiographical) – the Internet wasn’t invented when I started scribbling in exercise books, let alone blogs. But my first love has always been fiction. When the words start to flow on a story, when characters step up into your mind wanting to tell their tale in their own voice… there is no feeling like it, to me.

This is the creative spark. This is the Awen. We all feel it, in our own way, with our own creative skills. The wonderful musician and Bard, Damh, wrote of it this week. I couldn’t stop smiling at the story of his journey – and cheering, in anticipation of what magical, musical words he’ll bring forth.

The inspiring Nimue has combined a literary idea with Druid practice on her blog, as a result of pondering the meaning of ‘Druid’ itself – slightly tongue-in-cheek, but reminding us of the importance of play, interaction, connectivity and creation. Her idea has already inspired me to write a first chapter in a ‘steampunk Druid’ story. Already, those who’ve seen it want to know what happens next.

And that, dear reader, is the deeper magic for me. When people want to hear more of your tales. When folk are inspired to go and explore themselves, to acknowledge their depths and what they have to bring forth. I love to hear it, and to see it. Such sharing is never a bad thing.

Stephen King spoke of books as a long love-affair between author and reader, requiring commitment on both sides, with varying degrees of enjoyment. Short stories were a kiss, a more focused expression of affection (but no less intense).

Most of my blog posts take an hour or two to write. This one has burst from me in about 15 minutes, at high speed, typing frantically and making my partner laugh at my enthusiasm. A friend told me last week that he loved reading my words, that they always flowed so well. That, I informed him, is because he doesn’t see all the deletions and changes. But here, today, there’s relatively few. A slice of writing life, as it comes. A flow of words, from my mind to yours.

So it’s my brief kiss to you, lovely readers. I always hope to inspire, even if just a smile.

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