horror

Review: Playing at the World

Playing at the World

Jon Peterson

Remember the first time you crawled a dungeon, slayed the dragon and stuffed as playing_worldmuch treasure as you could into your “bag of holding”? Felt good, right? But the true prize wasn’t the booty. Sure, I enjoyed counting the gold and platinum coins, drooling over the prospects of upgraded armor, a magic-enhanced broad sword and whatever mischief I could scare up with a few copper pieces at the local tavern.

But what intrigued me most were the tattered spell scrolls, mysterious tomes and the secrets of the ancients.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. A rabid imagination is the primary tool that all fans of role-playing games bring to the table, and a trove of yellowed parchment and faded maps makes us froth at the mouth. Just how powerful is that fireball incantation? What wisdom could be discovered in that old paladin’s codex?

That’s what it feels like digging into Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. For any experienced gamer, this is a hoard worthy of any dungeon campaign.

It’s no longer groundbreaking to think of gaming as a topic for academic or cultural studies, but while many books have been written about gaming and gamers, they tend to be focused on a particular aspect of the genre, rather than presenting a comprehensive history. Peterson spent more than five years of archival research and writing creating Playing at the World, the definitive history of gaming and, by far, the most ambitious.

Though originally published in 2012, Peterson’s book has been reissued in honor of D&D’s 40th birthday. Four decades can offer a lot of history, but Peterson goes even further, tracing its lineage back to chess and existing war games.

By Peterson’s own admission, this book isn’t necessarily intended for a mainstream audience. It is a dense, detailed work of history and, if I dare say, sociology. It belongs on the book shelf (or e-reader) of any serious gamer, and though it may not be a front-to-back page-turner, it is an important resource for anyone who geeks out on geeking out.

The book’s most important contribution, though, has yet to be realized. In the decades to come, as gaming and gaming studies grow even bigger, Playing at the World will serve as both source material and historical lockbox upon which the future of gaming is framed and its past is preserved.

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Review: The Winter People

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahon

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the Winter Peopleblood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling.

And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in The Winter People, a heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People has a dual narrative—a modern-day mystery in which a teenager, Ruthie, is forced to take charge of her little sis when their mother goes missing. While searching for her mother, she stumbles upon the diary of Sara Harrison Shea, who lived in the house in 1908.

The diary does not have a happy ending. Both Sara and her daughter died in 1908, but the journal entries suggest that death is not exactly the end of the story.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. In one of the book’s most haunting devices, Ruthie discovers that her mother has nailed shut her closet from the outside. For what purpose? Let your imagination go wild with that one.

The soul of the book, though, is the “sleepers.” Ruthie learns of a spell that will raise the dead for seven days’ duration, after which they are gone forever. It’s a universal temptation. Wouldn’t it be great to say a proper goodbye to a loved one who died suddenly? To hold a lover’s hand just a little longer? To actually say the things we think to say only after it’s too late?

Or would it be a daily torment, watching the minutes and hours crumble to dust?

But there is always a price. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

That’s what makes this novel so endearing. And so heartbreaking.

Final Thoughts, 2013

It’s a new year, and as much as we’re looking forward to the 2014 reading list, we have some 2013 shelf clearing left to do. Here is a round-up of books we enjoyed, but were so busy reading we didn’t have time to review.

The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty: Fully Updated and Revised

Michael B. Katz

It’s been a quarter-century since the first edition of this book was published. Some Undeserving Poorthings have changed drastically: The first edition came out at the height of the Reagan-Bush era, whereas the new edition comes on the heels of major Democratic victories in 2012.

But some things haven’t changed: The cultural obsession of equating financial poverty with moral bankruptcy.

Katz does a wonderful job of exploring the evolution of blame-the-poor politics and the invention (and ongoing reinvention) of the underclass. It’s a slippery and interesting social history, and it brings to mind Foucault’s histories of mental illness and prisons.

One of the interesting takeaways for me is the human need to compartmentalize. There is a line drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Women and children tend to occupy the first category, while men almost universally fall into the latter. Politically and culturally speaking, the line drawn between the two groups is solid and severe, with those on one side garnerng support and sympathy and the others disdain and even punishment.

The trouble is that the line, in reality rather than construct, is blurry.

America’s schizophrenic attitude toward poverty shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a country that went from agriculture to industry to technology, where the Roaring ’20s gave way to the Great Depression, which segued into an unprecedented era of prosperity. Where LBJ waged a failed War on Poverty, and his successors waged a failed War on Drugs, which has ultimately amounted to a war on the impoverished.

This is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in economics, politics or social history. It may not resolve any legislative debates, but it will lend the reader more thoughtful consideration of the topic.

Dark Visions: A Collection of Modern Horror

Edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson

I have a longstanding love affair with the small horror press. They’re like neighborhood Dark Visionsbookstores: Some last, the majority fail (ultimately), but most of them are amazing while they last. And like that corner bookstore, they each have their own personality, though ostensibly they are all dealing in similar content.

Enter the first installment of Dark Visions from Grey Matter Press.

They certainly know how to plunge into the darkness: the anthology series begins with an original story from Jonathan Maberry—yes, that Jonathan Maberry. Best of all, his contribution, “Mister Pockets,” takes us back to a place I know and love so well: Pine Deep.

For those unfamiliar, Pine Deep is the small town in rural Pennsylvania that was the setting for Maberry’s first three novels, including Bad Moon Rising, the bad-ass conclusion to the trilogy that any horror fan should begin reading immediately. This is a place that knows how to celebrate Halloween—and there is plenty to be afraid of here. I loved this world that Maberry created, and I was ecstatic to return.

Like all anthologies, there is a little something for everybody, and not every story will be your cup of tea. The important thing is that the quality level is high and consistent throughout, and Dark Visions is certainly a cut above your average anthology.

There is one story in particular that I would like to single out, “The Weight of Paradise” by Jeff Hemenway. This is easily the best new horror story I read this year, and perhaps of even the past few years. It is thoroughly original, dark and morally complicated, the hallmark of great horror fiction. Unless the voting is rigged, this story should win many awards and be anthologized for years to come.

There are plenty of other dark delights as well, and I’m excited for the second installment, scheduled for a summer release.

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Amitious Dr. Abraham von Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Hospital

Thomas Doherty

Aside from having similar names, nobody will mistake this Civil War doctor for beloved Best Specimen of a Tyranttelevision dermatologist Martin van Nostrand (though his Seinfeld portrayer, Michael Richards, like the original Dr. von Norstrand, later achieved a certain level of infamy loosely related to the war between the states).

This doctor, deftly brought to life by Thomas Doherty, left behind a trail of failed business and medical practices before his appointment to superintendent of the Wisconsin Insane Hospital. What distinguishes this book from the many institutional narratives (both fictional and real) is that we get a rounded view of hospital administration. Typically, the overseers of institutions are lampooned as either sadistic villains, naïve do-gooders or bungling bureaucrats.

The reality of institutions, and their employees and residents, is much more complicated than that.

For starters, you’re working with a unique population with difficult problems—otherwise your clients wouldn’t have been institutionalized in the first place. Also consider the varying talents between workers, as well as experience, burnout, and the daily stressors of the workplace.

Want to describe a day in the life of a health care worker? Spend an overnight shift in an ER or a detox and write down your observations. Then do that almost every night for five years and go back and review your initial impressions and see how they compare with your current view.

That’s why The Best Specimen of a Tyrant shines. Von Norstrand casts a thorny shadow, and he has the complexity of Greek tragedy. This is a book for anyone with an interest in the checkered and infinitely fascinating history of mental health care.

Hell Gate

Elizabeth Massie 

In my MFA program, I was often teased for setting a majority of my stories within an Hell Gate - Elizabeth Massieamusement park or carnival of some kind. What can I say? I’m a fan of works that intersect the routine reality of the everyday with the manufactured reality of the spectacle (see Something Wicked This Way Comes, Rides of the Midway, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, etc.).

Therefore, Hell Gate combines some of my favorite themes. The story’s centerpiece is the friendship between a psychic and an orphan against the backdrop a series of grisly Coney Island murders. This will appeal to fans of historical thrillers and anyone who’s ever snuck backstage at the circus.

Review: The Faceless One

The Faceless One

Mark Onspaugh

The prologue of Mark Onspaugh’s The Faceless One is a primal delight. We begin in Facelessthe forested snow-scape of rural Alaska, 1948, where young Jimmy Kalmaku embarks on a dark journey with his uncle deep into the tundra. Hidden within a remote cave is an evil of which Jimmy has never imagined.

It is also where he learns that he will succeed his uncle as shaman and inherit the task of keeping the Faceless One locked up in that cave.

The uncle says, “Remember our path today… I hope you need never come this way again, but you must remember.”

Clearly, we are not finished with the cave.

And neither is Jimmy.

With this spine-tingling opener, Onspaugh has swirled together the elements of great storytelling: odyssey, myth, duty, loss of innocence. There is a sad inevitability in this scene. Present are the generations of tribesmen, forward and back, guarding this secret place—a never-ending watch against something that exists outside of timespace. Something hallowed. Something in the blood.

Onspaugh has a tender touch that imparts soul into this icy epic which spans generations and locations, jumping ahead to present day when Jimmy, now an elderly man, learns that an archeologist has displaced the mask keeping the Faceless One captive.

With the ancient evil unleashed, Jimmy is called to action. He must remember his uncle’s words… and the way to that dark place.

Releasing this book on Oct. 28 is brilliant marketing—not simply because October is a good time for horror fiction, but because the setting of The Faceless One is a set-piece for a chilly night. What better time than when the veil between the worlds is thinnest to encounter a shapeless evil? To follow its trail from Alaska to New York to Seattle and beyond.

From generation to generation, blood to blood.

Shine On

When civilization was rebuilding following an interking-007national plague, the epicenter of humanity was Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colo. At least that’s how it happened in Stephen King‘s The Stand, an epic tale of apocalypse, atonement and the will to persevere.

So it was fitting that, in the aftermath of the floods that devastated Colorado’s Front Range, particularly Boulder, a crowd of more than 1,200 gathered in Chautauqua on Sept. 26.

But this time it wasn’t to hear from Stu Redman or Mother Abigail. It was to hear from the man himself.

“This is where the first Boulder Free Zone meeting was held, right here in this auditorium,” King said early in his talk before a sell-out crowd.

King, his wife Tabitha and two of their children briefly lived in the city in the mid-’70s, following the publication of King’s second book, ‘Salem’s Lot. He authored two of his most famous novels in the shadow of the Flatirons, The Stand and The Shining.

So it’s only fitting that he returned to Boulder to celebrate the release of Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining.

“I wanted to see if my old King Soopers was still there,” King joked, referring to the grocery store in his former South Boulder neighborhood.

It’s still there, as is the Stanley Hotel an hour up the road in Estes Park.

First published in 1977, The Shining was King’s first hardback bestseller. And while most folks are familiar with the Stanley Kubrick interpretation, the film featured a few exterior shots of Boulder and nothing of the Stanley Hotel on which it was based. (The Stanley is now home to ghost tours, Halloween galas and the Stanley Film Festival—and I highly recommend the pilgrimage.)

King recalled fondly his mountain writing studio and the inspiration he felt there.

“It was the greatest writing time of my life,” he said, though he doesn’t recall the specifics of creating the actual books. “I only remember that I was happy. I was engaged. I think most imaginative writing is like that.”

King’s innate talent and creativity was likely aided by a progressive, anything-goes attitude of a college town in the foothills undergoing the growth spurt that transformed it into one of the country’s top-rated cities—an epicenter of technology, education and craft-brewed beer.

“I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker one day, on Broadway, and I got rear-ended,” King said of one of his more interesting Boulder memories. “The hitchhiker ran off, and I got cited.”

A second vehicular mishap provided the inspiration for another King classic. His car broke down in Boulder Canyon, and he was walking into town for assistance. While crossing a bridge, he noticed the clack of his cowboy boots on the wooden planks. He wondered: What might be underneath this bridge listening to his footfalls?

Perhaps a clown—and thus the seed of Pennywise, the supernatural killer in It, was planted.

But the book he was really here to talk about was Doctor Sleep, which hit shelves on Sept. 25.

“People kept asking me whatever happened to Danny Torrence,” he said. “I decided, finally, that I would try to write a sequel.”

He was fascinated, he said, with the cyclical nature of family dysfunction, how children of abusive or alcoholic parents tend to repeat that behavior as adults. So it’s fitting that Danny’s adult life is, well, complicated.

Now in his 40s, Danny is a hospice worker in New Hampshire, where, along with the help of an intuitive cat, he helps suffering patients come to rest. But though the novel begins in New England, it inevitably takes to the road.

And that road could only lead to one place.

“Eventually, he has to go back to Colorado and to Boulder,” King said.

He read excerpts from Danny’s return to the city, which involved a particularly nasty hangover and an over-the-top gross-out gag that will have his most hardened readers choking up.

It is a sequel decades in the making, and a return to one of King’s greatest triumphs. This is a treat for long-time fans, and new ones. During the Q&A, a question came from a fan who started reading King in their youth, and now their kids are reading the books.

“I think it’s nice when people pass the book down from generation to generation,” King said.

But his literary legacy includes more than his books and films. It also includes his offspring. His youngest son, Owen, is the author of Double Feature, and his oldest son is best-selling author Joe Hill. Joe and his dad have collaborated on two novellas and often share ideas when writing their books. For example, they were simultaneously working on Doctor Sleep and Hill’s NOS4A2, and each included a scene in which their characters cross paths.

“In a strange way, it’s almost like writing with another part of myself,” King said of his collaborations with Joe.

Doctor Sleep will certainly bolster the already absurdly rich King oeuvre. It will take readers back to some cherished places, both physical and psychic: Boulder, the Overlook Hotel and one of the finest and most terrifying works of psychological horror ever penned.

And together, we will once again croak our favorite and most-haunted mirrored phrase: RedRum.

Summer Horror Roundup

Though the days still blister, at night there is a welcome chill and the softest whiff of decay. It’s a beautiful smell, and within a few weeks we’ll hit full-on autumn. Though we’re excited about the fall, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss some of the summertime horror we’ve enjoyed throughout the year.

The Hole

William Meikle

Now this is a book I can relate to: hard drinking, manual labor, mines, sinkholes, battles with subterranean evil.The Hole

Ah, to be 23 again.

From the start, this fast-paced small-town horror shudders with ominosity. (Is ominosity a word? If not, it should be.) Intense headaches and nosebleeds afflict the townsfolk, and then the earth comes out from under their feet.

Literally.

A giant sinkhole opens in a back yard (leading to a hilarious septic tank scene) and begins swallowing up the countryside like the San Andreas Fault. At first, the backwoods residents fear a natural disaster.

But then they notice the creatures rising up from the hole.

And so the horror begins…

Enjoy this quick-hit tale of small-town suspicion, working-class gumption and a long-buried secret that won’t stay dead.

Doors

Daniel Brako

Being a dorky loner, I spent most of my summers watching late-night reruns of The Twilight Zone. That certainly figured intoDoors my attraction to Doors, which concerns a psychologist working with a patient who sees doors everywhere he looks. Then, the doctor begins to see them too.

I’ve always loved the idea of another world overlapping with our own, only visible if we squint in just the right light. It has the appeal of a conspiracy theory. It’s the world, just slightly askew. All around us, invisible, with dire consequences. A world within a world. (Don’t get me started on quark theory.)

Having worked in mental health, I’ve conversed with many schizophrenics, delirious alcoholics and addicts in the throes of a psychotic break. Their storytelling has the effect of quicksand—you don’t realize how engrossed you are in their story until you’re up to your neck. They give you a plausible setting and people, then a string of plausible events occur, followed by a string of less-plausible events, then even less and less plausible, and then suddenly, boom, the narrator reveals that the gunshot was stopped by the metal plate inside his head and the rebounding bullet struck the shooter instead.

It’s a dissociative feeling. Everything seemed so normal, so sane, twisting only in slight degrees before you realize it’s all a delusion. Or is only some of it? That’s what makes it so creepy.

It’s our world, slightly askew.

That’s what I was hoping for in Doors, and it begins promising enough. The manic patient begins his tale, and I got that tingle of dissociation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The psychologist, David Druas, buys into the narrative too quickly. I wanted more push-back from David, mainly to prolong that quicksand effect, but also for verisimilitude: No legitimate psychologist would be convinced so quickly.

At this point I realized that the novel rushed through this part to get to the pulse-pounding events that follow. That’s unfortunate. I was hoping for more of a psychological head-trip.

Meeting the book on its own terms, this is a well-conceived novel with thrilling and engaging sequences. And I can certainly except the supernatural in horror fiction. But I wish the story hewed closer to plausibility so I could longer relish that feeling of slowly being drawn in to a nightmare.

The Last Whisper in the Dark

Tom Piccirilli

Yes, we have reviewed this book already, but it’s worth repeating. This is a tremendous book by a gifted author. Put this on yourWhisper “must-read” list.

And for anyone who missed the earlier review, here you are:

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliant and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.

Review: The Last Whisper in the Dark

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliantWhisper and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.