“The Lesson of the Hunter and his Stepchildren” – a new folktale for The Blackwood

My good friend Eli Kurtz has spent this month of May running a Kickstarter for his brand new setting for Savage Worlds, a wuxia/folktale inspired world called The Blackwood. He has spent the last several years building this world and preparing to bring it to the public, and his Kickstarter is fully funded at this time, but with PLENTIFUL stretch goals yet to be reached in the last home stretch here (including more fiction from yours truly). Eli asked me to write a folktale for the game book, and so I chose a few interesting threads from various world folklore traditions to weave together into a new glimpse into the dangerous world of The Blackwood.

If you’re so inclined, please CLICK HERE to check out their Kickstarter and contribute if you can!

I give you “The Lesson of the Hunter and his Stepchildren.” (Extra points if you can name some of the influences on this story!)


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8 Spoopy Books 4 Hammaweens: A Non-Comprehensive List

I love autumn. If asked what my favorite season is, I’ll more than likely say spring because of my birthday. Or summer because of the Ren Faire. But honestly I adore fall. I love layering up, I love comfy stuff, I love dumb Instagram-perfect leaves and pumpkins and hot chocolate. I love cozy socks and sick boots and leather jackets and a feeling of anticipation in the air – for parties, for the weekends, for Halloween, for whatever.

It being the season and all I thought I’d present a thoughtful yet utterly non-comprehensive list of my personal favorite thematic books for your Halloween and/or autumnal enjoyment. Don’t let the fact that Halloween is this weekend prevent you from enjoying these gems year round!

Make some tea or hot chocolate in a big, stupid mug, swathe yourself in your fluffiest blanket, and enjoy one of these books at Maximum Autumnal Introvert levels today!

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digital faux-crayon art provided by: me, in MS Paint

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Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn (1986)

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Published in 1986, this book won the 1989 Reader’s Choice Award and has been on and off school reading lists ever since. It is a middle grade novel which deals with heavy topics: lying, family issues, adolescence, death, and even suicide. Young Heather moves to a new house in the country with her father, stepmother, and stepsiblings. Heather is super against her stepfamily and lies at every chance she gets about what the kids are up to to try to divide her father from her stepmother. At their new home, which used to be a church, Heather meets a ghost named Helen, who is just as lonely and miserable as she is. The two become friends, and plot against Heather’s stepfamily together. The stepsister, Molly, begins to realize that something is not quite right about Heather’s imaginary friend, and the mystery unfolds…

My Thoughts: I read this book when I was in elementary school and it scared the crap out of me. It’s definitely scary to a younger reader.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (1981)

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This is the first in a series of books which collect urban legends, myths, folk tales, and generally spooky stuff into one compact place. Some of the tales and poems are funny, and some of them are horrifying. The first book came out in 1981, followed by More Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark in 1984 and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones in 1991. They were mind-scarringly illustrated by Stephen Gammell and were scrutinized in the 1990s as to their appropriateness for children by the American Library Association. The violence in some of the stories, and the chilling illustrations were both considered to be too intense for most younger age groups.

My Thoughts: These books are the proto-Creepypasta of the 1990’s. These books were ALWAYS checked out at the library and if you had one in your possession, everyone wanted to be your friend that week. Actual nightmare fuel to a young mind.

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)

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This middle grade novella (short novel!) by Neil Gaiman is a sweet and unsettling tale of a lonely girl whose parents are just too busy to spend time with her after moving into their new home. Coraline, the girl, meets a talking cat, some friendly but ominous neighbors, and her button-eyed Other Mother, who wants nothing more than to spend all her time with Coraline and make her happy so that she will stay with her forever. Seems like a good deal, until the Other Mother reveals what Coraline has to do in order to stay there forever…  Coraline was made into a stop-motion film by Laika studios in 2009, and the book won the 2003 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Young Readers.

My Thoughts: A delightfully eerie, sweetly creepy young adult story. Have you noticed how intense things happen after children move to a new home? I moved a few times as a kid. Let me tell you, this trope is not wrong.

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)

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Okay, I know, another Neil Gaiman book but for real. This is a good one. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, this story follows the tale of Bod, a young boy abandoned in a cemetery while he is only a baby, and who ends up being raised by the ghosts in the cemetery. Bod (short for Nobody) love his ghost parents and neighbors, but there are greater mysteries at hand: what lies beyond the cemetery in the world of the living, and what happened to Bod’s parents?

My Thoughts: Like several of Neil Gaiman’s books, Graveyard Book appears to be aimed at middle grade readers but has deeper things lying in wait for those readers who have surpassed the middle grade level. I found it lovely and confidently spookywithout being terribly scary to me personally. There are some lovely adventures and twists along the way and I enjoyed it thoroughly. “Come and dance the macabray!”

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The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (1972)

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A group of boys gather on Halloween to go trick-or-treating, but one of their friends is missing. Pipkin is nowhere to be found, and together the boys along with a strange man called Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud must seek him across time and space, experiencing different versions and origins of the autumnal celebration, kind of like A Christmas Carol for Halloween. Author Ray Bradbury also did the screenplay for the 1992 animated feature film adaptation of the same story, for which he won an Emmy Award. Also in 1997, Disneyland added a Halloween Tree to their annual decorations.

My Thoughts: I freaking LOVE Ray Bradbury. This book reminds me of my brother. Actually, most of these books remind me of my brother. Except for the first one. But THIS one for sure. This book is more fun and spoopy than scary.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)

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Written before The Halloween Tree, this novel chronicles two thirteen year old boys and their peculiar and frightening experiences with a traveling sideshow which visits their small Midwestern town. Mr. Dark, the proprietor of the carnival, seems to have the ability to grant the townspeople’s deepest desires… but at a terrible price. There was a film adaptation of the book produced in 1983 which stars Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark  and Pam Grier as the Dust Witch. As if the creepy circus vibe wasn’t enough, the title of this book is taken from one of the Witches’ lines in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Ominous as heck, yo.

My Thoughts: I saw the movie as a kid because my dad loves Ray Bradbury (and subsequently I came to love him as well even though this sh!t is for real terrifying at some points). The book is probably even scarier. This is a legitimately scary one.

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

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 This debut novel from Erin  Morgenstern swept the bestseller lists in 2011 when it was released. An alternate history filled with powerful magic and unsettlingly lovely characters, The Night Circus is many tales woven into one larger story. “The circus arrives without warning…” and brings with it powerful magicians, mysterious contortionists, sentimental clockmakers and more. The circus itself seems to take on a life of its own, its attractions shifting and changing with every performance. Something so miraculous, so beautiful and captivating can’t last forever, though…

My Thoughts: This is one of my top ten favorite books of all time. It reads like a fine French dessert: exquisite, surprising, familiar, transformative, romantic, and so delicious that I wanted to read it again immediately after I finished. It captures the mystery and imagination of autumn perfectly for me, and I recommend it to everyone ever. It is not a spooky story but there is the delightfully unsettling quality of a dream about it, and even though you may have questions about it that go unanswered, it is a very good dream.

 

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

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 This book is a mystery wrapped in puzzles and enigmas, some of which reach so far into your own personal subconscious that its pages leave you dizzy and breathless with confusion and fear. It has multiple narrators, multiple plots, and multiple angles from which it must be read. Words tumble and scatter across the pages, sometimes like escaping rats, sometimes like leaves gently falling from trees. The shapes and colors and fonts change, as do the narratives, and you cannot help but experience the ride Mark Z. Danielewski has created. Or has he? In one of the main narratives, a character is studying notes and material academically examining a documentary about a family who moves into a house with peculiar qualities. But as the character notes, no such documentary exists. Some readers have gone so far as to say that Danielewski did not write House of Leaves, he discovered it, arranged it, and published it. The events contained in its pages are no doubt extraordinary, but you must read it  yourself to decide what is true and what is fiction.

My Thoughts: First book to give me nightmares since Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Insistently given to me by my brother (surprise, surprise) who refused to elaborate on What It Was About, I read it with a healthy dose of skepticism. This book is mind bending both in execution and in emotional response. I had to stop reading it before bed because, duh, but once I got into the swing of it I read like the wind to find out what happens. This book requires full attention and deep contemplation – once you start reading, it will conquer your thoughts and free time. It is a dazzling read that is unlike anything else out there. And, if you aren’t into horror (neither am I) then remember that the author never bills it as horror fiction. It is not a tale of terror, according to him, but really at its core it is actually a love story.

Mind = blown.

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Bonus Round: AUDIO FICTION!

Six Stories, Told At Night by K.T. Bryski

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Up and coming Canadian author K.T. Bryski received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council which allowed her to write and produce a six-episode audio story based on Canadian folk tales. Before you roll your eyes, take a second to think. Most of these Canadian tales have French origin, which means some of this stuff is gonna be dark. Six stories are set into an original tale of Bryski’s own design, about a girl  named Sam searching for her friend who recently disappeared, and things become even stranger when Sam figures out that Joëlle may have disappeared right into the faerie realm.

You can tune in for free on iTunes or click here to stream it on Podhoster.

My Thoughts: This short form podcast fiction is outrageously good. Excellently performed by Blythe Haynes and edited/produced by Bryski, it is equal parts chilling, imaginative, heartfelt, and captivating. I only wish there were more stories!

 

 

 

 

 

Game Time: Playdead’s “Inside” Gets All Up In Your Mind

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A boy scrambles down a short but steep rocky incline in the middle of the woods, in the dead of night. He hits the ground, unhurt but a little breathless, and looks around. Although we may not have any idea where he is or where he is going, he seems to always know exactly what he’s doing. He moves forward without hesitation, without panic, and with astonishing strength, even though one false move will cause a sudden, abrupt, and brutal death.

This is how “Inside” begins.

There are questions that arise immediately. Why is the boy sneaking and hiding? Why does a terrible fate befall him if he steps into the light, or gets spotted by the strange figures in masks, or the dogs catch up to him? Where is he going, and why is everything so grim, so dark, so unexplained?

What is this world, and what happened here?

Perhaps, in some scenes, it is more important to ask – what is happening here right now?

 

Playing the Game:

Disguised as a lush, shadowy 3D world, “Inside” is actually a 2D side-scrolling puzzle adventure. You play as the Boy, a kid in a red shirt and black pants, and you have only two directions to move in: left or right. You travel ‘forward’ in search of…what? It isn’t clear. But something lies at the end of this journey, and the Boy presses on through challenging obstacles, strange rooms, terrifying surprises, and curious puzzles.

A lot of this gameplay is about timing. There are people (and things) in this game that want the Boy dead, and the second you miss a step or a cue – he’ll be dead before you can blink.

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I kind of wish we had filmed some of the gameplay reactions when the Fella was playing “Inside” the other night. There was a lot of horrified face-making, jumpscare gasping, and slow-burn squinting at the screen while saying “What….the hell….is that?”

I don’t want to say too much about the actual content of the gameplay, because the surprises and mysteries that unfold are fascinating and deeply unsettling.

If dying repeatedly in gruesome ways because of tiny errors in judgement and timing bothers you, don’t play this game. This is a tactic used by the game designers and engineers to ‘steer’ the player toward the ‘correct’ solution to a problem – and it certainly does the trick. This style of gameplay is something that stresses me out to no end – but the Fella managed to mostly keep his cool as he worked piece by piece to figure out how the Boy could make it through to the next section.

“How the hell are you supposed to beat this part?” I kept asking as panic rose in my throat. Bear in mind, I wasn’t even the one playing. I was just an observer.

The Fella was dauntless, however, and pressed onward, and I found myself completely unable to look away.

 

 

Reactions:

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This game, while skin-pricklingly eerie, is beautifully designed and elegantly presented. Although I wouldn’t quite categorize this game’s genre as horror, it definitely has a deep underlying sense of dread and anticipation throughout. Not to mention the Very Abrupt Sudden Deaths the Boy can experience if you step into the wrong light, or lose control of the submarine vehicle, or wait a little too long to move forward. It’s a game designed to keep you on the edge, to keep you racing the invisible clock towards — or away from — something big. Like I said, not my style of gameplay, but I loved watching it happen.

The Fella and I both had intense dreams about this game after he finished playing. I don’t want to go into detail because this game is absolutely worth playing if you get the chance. I also don’t want to put my own thoughts and names on things that have no thoughts and names of their own – this game, having no text and no verbal dialogue, is a delightfully refreshing mystery.

As for the finale? The ending will leave your skin prickling and your mind in a whirl.

This game is awesome. Play it if you can, and if not, watch someone else play it. This is wordless storytelling of a high caliber, and we highly recommend it.

Game Time: Campo Santo’s “Firewatch” is a Lingering Tale, a Wonder to Behold

So… I am not super good at playing video games, but I am really solid at watching other people play video games and enjoying the art, the technical achievements, and the storytelling for all it’s worth. Especially when the game is beautiful, richly animated, excellently voice-acted, and jaw-droppingly well written.

The other night, the Fella got sucked into playing a new release on Steam called Firewatch. Released on February 9th, 2016 from Campo Santo, this is a first-person ‘adventure’ game, in the spirit of ye old point-and-click (which is my jam) with a small but phenomenal voice cast and unfathomably gorgeous landscapes. We immediately fell for the lush use of wilderness, the breathtaking quality of light, and the game’s simple, straightforward functionality. We ended up playing for about three and a half hours straight through because the story completely derailed every plan we had for getting other things done that night…

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The Game: Firewatch

The Developer: Campo Santo (@camposanto)

Available On: Steam (Mac, PC, Linux), PS4

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Review: Professor Elemental’s APEQUEST is a timeywimey triumph!

It’s a funny old world. One minute, you’re at Teslacon screaming because Lord Bobbins just announced that the world-famous Professor Elemental will be joining us next year for Teslacon 7 – and then the next minute you’re at home screaming because the Prof himself has agreed to let you review his newest album for your blog – and he’s said some awful kind things about your blog and accomplishments to boot.

See? Funny.

I was thrilled to find that Professor Elemental had released a new album – if I owned his previous albums The Indifference Engine and More Tea? on a physical disc, I would undoubtedly have destroyed the discs by now from overplaying them. (Is that still a thing? Do discs get messed up from overuse?) Even more thrilling to me was the title: Apequest. The Prof’s omnipresent but never vocal primate butler has gone missing and it’s up to the Professor to find him… what I didn’t realize is that this quest would also involve one of my favorite things in the entire universe: time travel. 

Ohhhhhhhhhh yes, friends. Buckle up because this album is friggin’ awesome.

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photo courtesy of professorelemental.com

From the get-go I was stoked to settle in and listen to Apequest – but honestly the storytelling and the time travel element made me even more ecstatic. The Professor would naturally need his Time Travel Trousers to find Geoffrey – but he can’t use them, as Geoffrey is the one who absconded with them accidentally! So out come the Prototype Trousers, the first version of the more successful Time Travel Trousers, and off the Professor goes to find his faithful friend.

The album is one outstanding track after another, following the Professor through time as he searches for Geoffrey and discovers that there is more than just a misplaced monkey afoot. He has littered the lyrics with dazzling rhymes and references to other popular space and time icons and legends, and each track has exquisite sound editing and richly textured orchestrations that fill the imagination and the stage of the mind’s eye to follow the Professor through the various chapters of history (and the future). The Professor heads back to the age of dinosaurs, then forward to the medieval times, the Wild West, the future, even outside time itself for an incredibly funky “The Inn At The End Of Time” (which almost feels like a funky timespace edition of “Love Shack”). The unbelievably well chosen guest artists are additional icing on the cake – reaching “Weird Weird West” and suddenly hearing the extraordinary harmonies of Steam Powered Giraffe oozing through my headphones was like biting into a perfect fluffy cake to discover there’s an unrealistically perfect lemon curd filling hidden inside. And furhermore, Steam Powered Giraffe on this track brings to mind the ghostly Greek chorus of the Haunted Mansion at Disney, i.e. utterly delicious.

Professor Elemental is not just an outstanding rhyme-wizard, but he’s also a marvelous storyteller and a clever, clever nerd. The musical easter eggs are plentiful and rewarding when you notice them – I could be wrong but the sound that signifies the Time Travel Trousers’ transportation sounded a bit like a squealing R2-D2 for a hot second. The future’s flying cabs sound like the Jetson’s car. There’s 8-bit chords in “End of Level Boss.” It’s a smirk-inducing ride of brilliant fun that I’d recommend to any fan of the Professor – and any fan of smart lyrics, good beats, and unusual subject matter.

Pick up Apequest on Professor Elemental’s website and enjoy it for yourself – your ears will thank you!

 

photo courtesy of professorelemental.com