Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Classic Horror

I've been watching a lot of horror movies the past few weeks, especially the old classic monster movies by Universal Studios and the later Hammer Films remakes.

I have a great fondness for both, and I've been trying to decide which I like better. Hammer films featured Christopher Lee and the incomparable Peter Cushing, but Universal had some pretty great talent, too, especially Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff. While I'm not a great fan of Bela Lugosi, his was the first portrayal of Dracula I ever saw and I'll always love that Lugosi stare. And who doesn't immediately picture Boris Karloff when you imagine Frankenstein's monster? The Universal actors became the icons for all the monsters of classic horror that still resonate with us nearly eighty years later.

Ultimately, though, I'm going to have to go with Hammer Films as my favourites for their greater depth of story. Universal too often opted for the typical 'Hollywood treatment' of classic fiction, usually missing the point of the story entirely, Frankenstein being a prime example. I was watching the Hammer movie, Revenge of Frankenstein the other night and was struck by the poignant tragedy of the brain transplant patient fleeing to avoid becoming a medical sideshow while slowly degenerating and becoming progressively more violent. There were no clear bad guys here and everyone lost out in the end; especially Dr. Frankenstein who was beaten near to death by a mob of his patients and needed to have his brain transplanted, leaving his fate open to speculation.

So, what's your favourite studio?  Cast your vote on the poll at the left.

Now here's a video with some great classic monster movie scenes accompanied by the greatest Halloween song ever written.  Happy Halloween everyone!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Changing Face of the Orc

There has been quite a bit of discussion of pig-faced orcs lately, due to Otherworld's orc miniatures and the recent announcement that Minifigs will be re-releasing their classic pig-faced ork miniatures.

I always harboured an intense dislike for the pig-faced orcs when I was young.  I refused to buy any of the Minifigs orcs on the grounds that they weren't proper orcs, by which I meant that they didn't conform to how Tolkien had described them, which is to say another word for goblin.  This was, admittedly, a pedantic viewpoint, but not entirely unjustified; the term orc as coined by Tolkien was a Westron derivation of the elvish words for goblin: uruk in the Quenyan tongue, and yrch in Sindaran.  I always considered orcs and goblins to be synoymous, just as Tolkien intended, and it somewhat offended my sensibilities to see them depicted, not as goblins, but as pig-men.

A 'proper' Tolkienesque orc: Durbuz, Goblin King of Moria
by Games Workshop

As far as I know, it was in volume 2 of D&D, Monsters and Treasure, that orcs were split from goblins for the first time.  Even here, the descriptions are vague and it could be that in OD&D orcs were intended to be a different breed of goblin, but they were listed as a separate monster and thus began the orc's transition to the generic evil cannon fodder of pop-culture fantasy.  Certainly by the time the Monster Manual was released orcs were definitely a separate race from goblins:

"As orcs will breed with anything, there are any number of unsavory mongrels with orcish blood, particularly orc-goblins, orc-hobgoblins, and orc-humans."

Where once orcs were universally known as a filthy and degenerate race, malicious, cruel and hateful, who were bred by Melkor in mockery of the elves, we now see many differing concepts of orcs in a variety of media, such as the noble warriors of World of Warcraft, the zany nihilists in Warhammer, and the nature-loving tree-huggers of Eberron.  There are even novels about orcs, such as First Blood by Stan Nicholls, which depicts orcs as the heroes; metaphors for the noble savage myth of the North American Indians, they are beset by the ravaging humans who rape the land of resources and sow destruction in their wake.  A pretty mediocre book, but an interesting example of how orcs have proliferated in the fantasy genre.

Of course, in D&D orcs are still the same foul, evil-wizard-serving  malcontents we've known and loved for years.  But it is interesting to see how greatly D&D has influenced mainstream fantasy that orcs have become the generic bad guy race throughout the genre.  I doubt that orcs would be so ubiquitous in popular media had they not been included as a monster in D&D.

Given my early dislike of pig-faced orcs it took me a while to find orcs that I thought looked sufficienty orcish.  The first of these were the miniatures from Grenadier's Orc's Lair boxed set for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

I bought this set in the spring of 1981 to use with module A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, which I was about to run my friends through.  I was absolutely overjoyed that I'd finally found orc miniatures that resembled what I thought orcs should look like:

My views on orcs have softened over the years, and I've even been tempted by Otherworld Miniature's pig-faced orcs, at least as an aesthetically pleasing sculpt.  I still can't reconcile them as orcs, but I do rather like James Maliszewski' solution to use them as a race of boars that were magically given humanoid form.  In that context I can easily warm up to them.

Just to show how catholic my tolerance for non-Tolkien depictions of orcs has become, I've embraced the zaniness and recently begun collecting an Ork army for Warhammer 40K:

The only thing scarier than orks is orks with chainsaws
and rokkit launcha's
My 40K ork army is a band of pirates belonging to no clan; instead they roam the spaceways in their kill kruza's, led by the fearsome Kaptin Badruk, raiding, plundering, and hiring themselves out to larger warbands.

Da Boss

When it comes to D&D, though, my preference is not to use orcs at all.  I still can't shake the feeling that orcs are synonymous with goblins and since goblins already exist there should be no need for orcs.  Unfortunately my current campaign is set in a world that I first created about twenty five years ago and though it was intended to be a world of dark fairy tale and mythology, I included orcs without thinking it through.  I now feel obliged to retain them out of a sense of continuity, but I have defined their presence in the world in a way that reconciles them with the goblins that are the indigenous bad guys of Faeridor.  Orcs, like humans, are aliens from another dimension who entered this world through breaches in the dimensional boundaries.  Thus orcs are present only in small numbers and do not not exert significant influence upon the milieu.  They exist in small warbands who hire out as mercenaries to anyone who will pay them and allow them fight and plunder.

The Spoils of Victory

"I won a Games Workshop painting contest and all they gave me was this lousy pen."

So, my Prince Althran miniature won the painting contest.  My prize, a cheap ballpoint pen bearing the Games Workshop logo is illustrated above.  If they had put this on a t-shirt it would at least have been funny.  Instead it's just kind of pathetic.

They also gave me a really ugly old Halfling Thief miniature from 1999.

I don't mean to be ungracious, but I think a corporation the size of GW could have done a little better than this for prize support.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Prince Althran

I've been slacking off quite a bit on my posting this week, but this time I have a good excuse.  I've been busy painting the Warhammer Fantasy High Elf lord, Prince Althran, which was just released last weekend, for a painting competition this Saturday.

I've used this miniature to practice my non-metallic metal (NMM) technique, which, as the name implies attempts to create the illusion of metal without using any metalic paint the same way that artists do in paintings.  What's tricky about this is it requires fairly seamless blending of paint shades, which is quite difficult and I am still trying to get right.  The other trick is that you have to decide where the light is reflecting off the metal from an imaginary light source and paint the reflections on.  I have an especially difficult time doing this with curved surfaces and ever since I first attempted the NMM technique, it has changed the way I look at things.  I now find myself consciously assessing at how light reflects off everything I see.  It definitely makes you look at the world in a different way.

Anyway, I still have a long way to go towards mastering this technique, but I'm pretty happy with how Prince Althran turned out; he's my best NMM effort to date.  Hopefully he'll do well in the competition this weekend.

Now that this is off my plate, I hope to be back to posting on a more regular basis.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Planet Stories in SFBC

Fans of Paizo Publishing's Planet Stories line may be interested to know that the Science Fiction Book Club is starting to carry their books.  This morning's mail brought the latest SFBC catalogue, which features Otis Adelbert Kline's The Swordsman of Mars.

This is encouraging, since SFBC will expose Planet Stories to a much wider audience of mainstream science fiction and fantasy fans and may help to ensure the health of the line.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Session 11: Home at Last

This session saw the end, at last, of a story arc that had become a long-running odyssey of misadventure.  What had seemed like a simple task to repay a sinister looking necromancer for having raised Jin from the dead, escalated into an ever more complicated sequence of events that always seemed to draw the party away from competing their goal.  I suspect that some of the characters, at least, may find wisdom in the quote from Pet Semetary, "Sometimes dead is better."

Last session ended on a dramatic note: the characters being pursued through the streets of Dragotha by the troll crime lord, Septimus Squalor and his gang of orc mercenaries.  Valkrys and Tavranik quickly outdistanced the slower-moving Bvar and Theon, and when it became apparent that the latter two could not escape, they positioned themselves in an alleyway to defend themselves, while Valkrys escaped to the upper tier with the rescued oracle.  Tavranik lurked behind Squalor's gang firing arrows, and when things looked grim, he scaled a cliff wall to try and enlist the aid of the second tier's crime lord, known only as The Crone.  Her headquarters were in a brothel called The Guilded Whore, which also served as a temple to Malcanthet, queen of the succubi.  Tavranik noticed that while The Crone's face was concealed within a deep hood, her cloak parted to reveal a young and shapely figure beneath.  He told her that his companions were presently battling Squalor on the first tier and wondered if she might not like to use the situation to her advantage and eliminate a dangerous rival to her position.  She agreed and followed Tavranik back to the battle, accompanied by a pair of prostitute body-guards.  The situation by this time was growing grim, as Squalor himself had entered the fray, and his gang was encircling the alley to make sure no one escaped.  Bvar and Theon were running low on hit points when The Crone tossed a fireball into the melee in hopes of ending the troll's life in a burst of flame.  The fireball killed all of Squalor's minions, but just missed him and the PC's.  Seeing that the tide had turned against him, Squalor chose to fight another day and fled the scene.

The battle over, The Crone, a priestess of Malcanthet, asked Tavranik if he would worship at her altar in appreciation for the aid she had rendered.  Uncertain what this meant, but reluctant to offend the powerful Lady of the Second Tier, he agreed.  He returned with her to The Guilded Whore and was led to an altar bearing an effigy of the succubus queen, where The Crone then consummated the rites.  When her hood slipped off, Tavranik was horrified to see that instead of hair, her head was covered in a writhing mass of blood-red worms, but found himself unaccountably aroused despite the horror mounted atop him.  Once the services were complete, Tavranik found himself utterly drained of energy, barely able to move, and was almost certainly at death's door.

He collected his clothes, staggered out of the brothel and dragged himself up to the fourth tier of the city, where the rest of the party had congregated at the headquarters of The Painted Man, lord of the uppermost tier.  The Painted Man sat, clad only in a loincloth, his entire body a tapestry of tattoos depicting arcane runes and symbols.  He thanked the party for returning The Oracle to him and agreed to provide them with a guide back to the surface, as he had promised.  As the party was still carrying around an arcane-locked iron-bound chest they liberated from Sothiss's lair, they asked The Painted Man if he could open the chest for him.  Such a task was beyond his talents but he suggested that his ally, The Leech Lord, ruler of the third tier might be able to accomplish the task.  Since Tavranik was affiliated with The Leech Lord's gang, this seemed like a good idea as he was able to make introductions and gain them access.

The Leech Lord was a thin, anaemic man, with dark purple bags under his eyes, and limp, greasy black hair that hung in front of his face.  His body was covered with bloated leeches.  In one corner of the room, several zombies were running on a treadmill trying vainly to reach a baby that was dangling in front of them.  When asked about the Chest, the Leech Lord called for brighter light to see it by and tugged twice on a pull-cord.  In response, two more babies were lowered from the ceiling in front of the zombies, who ran faster still, increasing the light generated by the glow bulbs that lit the Leech Lord's chambers.  The Leech Lord agreed to break the arcane seals on the chest on the condition that Tavranik accompany them to the surface and serve as his agent topside.  He gave Tavranik an amulet that would allow the Leech Lord to contact him telepathically at any time to give instructions.  They all agreed to this, and the chest was found to contain a large number of verdigrised coins of unknown minting, along with Sothiss's spell book.  The Leech Lord revealed that the coins were minted in the ancient city of Murias, one of the cities of the Tuatha de Danann, the gods of men.

After a long and perilous journey, the party finally ascended to the surface, but many leagues from where they descended, and had to travel several days cross country to get to the village of Glen Morag.  Arriving home, they found the village in flames, and bands of soldiers bearing the livery of the High King of Llanvirnesse were torching the village and rounding people up.  On a gibbet swung the dead warchief of Morag, to whom the characters had sworn allegiance.  The party was quickly spotted and questioned by a band of mounted warriors.  Careful to conceal any allegiance to the King of Morag, the party was told that he had attempted to mount rebellion against the High King, Rathad MacMorne, and had been using the Scepter of Gwyddno, which had magical powers of command to rally an army of followers to his cause.  Since it was the characters who had traded this scepter to the traitorous war chief in exchange for patents of nobility and a land grant in Morag, they were quick to extricate themselves from the situation before they could be incriminated in the plot and they hastily made their way back to the Flaming Faggot, where they delivered up to Brother Frosck the orb they had recovered from the necromancer, Sothiss.  Over the past several days, Jin had been irritated by pain and itching in his eyes, which now glowed, alarmingly red, and was blinded whenever he looked at flame. Frosck told him that this was likely the result of alien energies emanating from the orb, which Jin had been carrying for weeks, and the change was almost certainly permanent.  While Jin is now able to see in the infrared spectrum, the glowing red eyes will make it difficult for him to be inconspicuous.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tricky Treats

With just a week left until Halloween, I bought treats for the kids yesterday, instead of my usual habit of buying them in September, then twice again in October as they kept 'running out.'

I've been noticing over the years how Halloween chocolate bars seem to keep getting smaller and smaller - and no, it isn't because I've been getting bigger and bigger.  For example, when I was a kid Halloween Kit Kat bars were two full-sized fingers; now you get two half-sized fingers.  All Halloween chocolates have diminished from nearly full sized bars to bite-sized treats.  The one exception to this over the years has been Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, which have consistently been packaged as single full-sized cups.  Until now.  I opened my bag of Peanut Butter Cups yesterday (for quality control, you understand - can't give the kids substandard candy), and much to my dismay, the cups are now tiny little mini-cups.

Those treats are tricksy, I tells ya'; they keep getting smaller, but the price keeps getting bigger.  It's almost like magic.

Now here's some mood music by Concrete Blonde

'Bloodletting' by Concrete Blonde from the Album, Bloodletting

Monday, October 18, 2010

Halloween Book of the Week: World War Z

This week's Halloween pick is another zombie book, but in World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war, author Max Brooks takes a different approach to the traditional zombie story, recounting a world-wide zombie plague after the fact.

World War Z, by Max Brooks, 2006,
published by Three Rivers Press
 World War Z is written as an after-action report prepared for the United Nations to piece together how the zombie plague began and proliferated across the globe.  The narrator travels the world collecting accounts of the survivors to tell the whole story from the plague's genesis in a small Chinese village, which spread and caught the nations of the world unprepared when the dead arose.  His report is, in equal measures, academic  and poignant as he interviews the men and women who witnessed and battled the horror, allowing them to tell their stories firsthand.

This is an incredibly fun story.  It is not a tense or scary book; the war is over, after all, and mankind won.  But it is a very interesting and entertaining thought experiment, in which Brooks makes some pointed criticisms of contemporary society and our disposable consumer lifestyle.  As the zombie plague spread across America, a secure zone was eventually established in California, where an interim government was established, tasked with rebuilding American civilization and organizing an offensive to retake the country.  One interview with the government's Director of Strategic Resources explains the difficulty he had with human resources: 65% of the civilian workforce had no useful vocation or skills.  Lawyers, executives, analysts, and consultants were of little use in  world that needed carpenters, masons, machinists and gunsmiths.  Brooks makes an interesting point that so many people in contemporary society have no practical skills; many, in fact  cannot even grow their own food or undertake simple  home repairs - skills that would have been taken for granted just a generation ago.

World War Z is a 'must read' for anyone interested in zombie fiction, and highly recommended for its speculative approach to survival in a post-apocalyptic environment.

I rate it 3 out of 5 pumpkins for a scary Halloween read, and 5 out of 5 pumpkins as an original and highly thought-provoking zombie story.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Tyranny of Magic Missile

When I was young, my favourite class to play was, hands down, the magic user.  Nothing exemplified fantasy adventure so well as a mysterious robed wizard with miraculous powers, and I delighted in finding cool new ways to use my spells.

In one of my very first games, my friend, Peter, played a magic user named Orpheus, and he always picked magic missile as his sole spell at first level.  This selection puzzled me, since it was of such limited use and as we were using the Holmes rules, he even had to roll to hit with it.  I asked him why he chose magic missile for his spell, and he replied that it was the only offensive spell he had, the implication being that it was, therefore, the only rational choice.  This is a mentality that I like to call "the tyranny of magic missile," wherein we become so focused on damage dealing spells that we forget about the many offensive uses of non-damage dealing spells.

I used to make a point of selecting spells that were generally considered useless by my friends and tried to find ways to use them creatively as offensive spells.  Dancing lights was one of my first dalliances with creative spell casting and quickly became one of my favourite spells.  I can't recall just how many times I lured pursuers over the edges of cliffs, into traps, and so forth, with a simple dancing lights spell.  I've killed more orcs with a single dancing lights spell than I ever have with a fireball.

Enlargement is another spell with great potential that I always had fun with.  There are just so many different ways one can use it because it can be used on both animate and inanimate objects - it is such a versatile spell. Of course there are far too many uses for enlargement to describe them all, but here are a few of my favourites:  When being chased by a group, duck into a crawl space, tunnel, or other tight squeeze.  Wait for the first pursuer to follow then enlarge him so he becomes stuck and blocks the way for the other pursuers.  When someone lifts something heavy, perhaps to throw at you, enlarge it, doubling its size and mass.  If you've ever seen the "Biggy-Wiggy/Teensy-Weensy sequence from Loony Tunes, you'll get the picture.  I also like to use it on myself to intimidate people.  One time, when we were being rushed by a group of bandits, I enlarged myself while threatening to summon a demon to drag them all to the abyss.  They ran away screaming.  I was very pleased, many years later, to see Ian McKellen use the exact same tactic in the movie, Fellowship of the Ring, although he only used it to bully an elderly hobbit - pffttt...amateur.

Even the lowly light spell can be used for more than just to light your way.  A popular tactic with my friends was to cast it on face of an attacker, effectively blinding him.  As your opponent is stumbling around clutching his head and bellowing in rage, you can further taunt him by serenading him with a Manfred Mann song.

Given the many fun, challenging and effective spells available to a 1st level magic user, why would anyone ever choose magic missile?  Sure, it's handy at higher levels when more first level spell slots are available and you can fire multiple missiles with a single casting; and it is awfully comforting to be able to be able to rely on dishing out guaranteed magical damage when you really need it, but pound for pound, it is one of the least useful spells in a magic user's arsenal.  You certainly can't use it to see off an entire band of orcs and single-handedly save the party from imminent doom.

Yet, magic missile has a certain traction in the hobby.  It has come to be seen as one of the signature spells of D&D.  During the early days of 4E's development, I followed the designers' podcasts with some interest to see what they intended to do with the new edition.  One of their stated goals was to give the magic user something to do every round, even at low levels, instead of forcing him to shoot a crossbow every round (magic users were allowed crossbows in 3E) after casting his few spells for the day.  So how did they achieve this goal?  By making magic missile an 'at will power,' and they balanced this by requiring a roll to hit.  So now instead of the poor magic user having to shoot his crossbow every round he gets to shoot his magic missile every round.  I fail to see how the slightly different aesthetic is any more exciting or fun.

Worse, though, the 4E designers did away with all vestiges of creative spell casting - sorry, power use; spells no longer exist.  The first time I played 4E I chose my favourite class of youth.  Gone were my favourite spells.  Almost every single power is a straight forward offensive power, there are no versatile powers that can be used creatively to overcome a foe.  Nowadays you just blast them until they fall down.  The wizard is now just a 'blaster' or 'controller' to use the MMOG terms.  No imagination required.  And thus, in 4E, the tyranny of magic missile has become entrenched not only as a mindset, but in the rule set as well.

I know lots of people that have always played this way, and I always thought that they were missing out on the real fun of playing a magic user.  It's true that the class isn't much fun to play when you only select damage spells - you cast off your magic missiles, deal a few points of damage and then you're effectively out of the fight.  I'm sure this must have been the way that 4E's designers played too.  They, like so many others, never 'got it.'  A low level magic user might not have had many spells at his disposal, but he had some real doozies, and used creatively they were awesome.  But these old magic users were the by-product of a game that emphasized problem solving - they were "not as clumsy and random as a blaster, but elegant weapons from a more civilized age."

If you know people who are still enslaved by the tyranny of magical missile try this as an experiment: disallow any direct damage spells for starting characters (including sleep - it's way too easy), and force them to find new ways to use the so-called utility spells.  They might just have more fun than ever before and become better spell casters in the process.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Creature Feature: Hand Maidens of Dagon

Like twisted parodies of Valkyries, Dagon's Hand Maidens usher sailors into the watery abyss.  Riding bizarre sea horses, they serve as agents of Father Dagon's inscrutable desires and often aid land-borne cultists in their sinister machinations.

Games Workshop's Seekers of Slaanesh

The Hand Maidens appear to be humanoid females, with either sea green hair that undulates like seaweed in the tide, or spines that resemble the dorsal fins of fish.  Instead of hands they have crustacean-like forelimbs that can impale or eviscerate a foe with deadly efficiency.

Their steeds are bipedal creatures with both reptilian and ichthyan features.  When on land they stalk their prey by 'tasting' its scent with their long, fleshy tongues, then transfix it with their soporific gaze; anyone looking into the limpid pools of their eyes become lost in their depth, unable to act.

Hand Maidens of Dagon              No. Encountered: 1-6

Armour Class: 4                             Special: spell-like abilities
Hit Dice: 5                                         Move: 12" (9" swimming)
Attacks: by appendage type     HDE/XP: 6/400
Morale: 11

The Hand Maiden's appendages resemble either lobster claws or long chitinous blades.  Those with claw appendages deal 1d6 damage, and if they have two such claws they may attack with both, making a single attack at +1 bonus to hit.  Those with a long chitinous blade appendage may make a single attack that deals 2d6 for damage,  choosing the highest single die roll.

Hand Maidens  are the beloved of Dagon and are sheltered by his aegis.  They are permanently under the influence of Protection from Law, and once per day they may Summon the Drowned, which functions exactly as an Animate Dead spell, calling forth 1d6 zombies - the remains of sailors that the Maidens dragged to the depths and who now serve them in unlife.

Dagonic Steeds             No. Encountered 1-6

Armour Class: 7                  Special: Tracking, Soporific Gaze
Hit Dice: 3                             Move: 18" (18" swimming)
Attacks: Claw                      HDE/XP: 4/120
Morale: 10

The Dagonic Steeds are equally swift on land and in the sea.  They can taste the scent of their prey, and so track it.  Anyone caught in the gaze of a sea horse must make a Charisma save or lose their action for the turn.  They may make a save every turn to attempt to break out of their stupor.  Anyone making a successful save can no longer be affected by Soporific Gaze for the rest of the encounter.

New Spell: Summon Hand Maiden
Spell Level: C3
Range: Referee's discretion
Duration: Until service is completed

This spell is granted to favoured priests of Dagon, allowing them to summon the aid of his Hand Maidens.  The Hand Maiden will appear the round after the summoning is complete and will serve the caster in any way that furthers the interests of Father Dagon.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Halloween Book of the Week: The Rising

The Rising, copyright 2003 by Brian Keene
published by Dorchester Publishing Co.
I've always enjoyed horror fiction and I've read a lot of it by masters of the genre both past and present.  But while I enjoy the genre and admire many of its writers, particularly Lovecraft's evocative imagery and King's characterization, I've never really been frightened or disturbed by any horror novel.  Indeed, it is so difficult to evoke feelings of fear in a reader that it is becoming increasingly less common for authors and publishers to refer to the genre as 'horror,' preferring instead to use less loaded terms, such as dark fiction, or supernatural thriller.

That said, The Rising is the scariest damned book I've ever read.

The dead scrabbled for an entrance to his grave.  His wife was among them, as ravenous for Jim in death as she'd been in life.  Their faint, soulless cries drifted down through ten feet of soil and rock.

The kerosene lamp cast flickering shadows on the cinder block walls, and the air in the shelter was stale and earthy.  His grip on the Ruger tightened.  Above him, Carrie shrieked and clawed at the earth.

She'd been dead for a week.

With these opening lines, Keene sets the scene in media res, of a world gone wrong.  The protagonist, Jim Thurmond, is hiding in an underground shelter he'd built in his back yard during the height of the Y2K scare.  Scared and alone, and slowly going mad, Jim is startled when his cell phone starts to ring.  Half afraid of what might be on the other end, he doesn't answer, but is surprised to find that the caller left a message.  It was from his little boy, Danny, who lives halfway across the country with Jim's ex-wife, and is hiding in his mother's attic afraid of what is moving around the house below and crying out for his Daddy to save him.  Jim tries to call back, but having forgotten to bring a cell charger into the shelter, his phone dies.  Galvanized into action, thus begins Jim's cross country odyssey through zombie-infested territory to try and save his son, joining up with an elderly preacher, and ex-prostitute, and a guilt-ridden scientist along the way.

The premise of the story is nothing new, but it's in the execution and his visceral use of language and imagery that Keene shows his brilliance in telling a truly scary and disturbing story.  Playing upon topical fears associated with Large Hadron Collider experiments, which can hypothetically go wrong by a) creating a miniature black hole that could expand and devour the Earth, b) produce strangelets that absorb all particles they come into contact with, converting them into strange matter, and inevitably transforming the Earth and all living things into an inert blob, and c) creating a vacuum instability in the space around the Earth that could trigger a high energy phase transition that could destroy the entire universe.

In The Rising, Keene imagines a Large Hadron Collider experiment tearing the bounds of reality and freeing demonic alien spirits that seek corporeal existence by inhabiting the bodies of the dead.  There are limitless spirits waiting in the void, and the newly risen dead seek to create more vessels for their brethren to occupy.  Unlike a Romero-esque brainless shambling corpse, these zombies not only possess malign alien intelligence, but also possess the memories of their host.  Furthermore, since the spirits can inhabit any corpse, anything can be a zombie - dogs, deer, birds, even insects, and they all act with a singularity of purpose that is truly frightening.

To me, though, the truly scary thing about this book is not the zombies, it's Keene's commentary on human nature that, sadly, I find all too believable.  Once society collapses, Keene paints humanity in the unkindest light, wallowing in cruelty and selfishness, culminating with a National Guard army led by a psychotic officer, Colonel Schow.  Schow and his men use any means to obtain their ends, and demonstrate little regard for civilian life.  They forcibly conscript all citizens they find, forcing women to serve as sex slaves and men as manual labourers and expendable zombie bait to lure the undead into ambushes.  The army consists of two types of men, those who relish the chance to embrace their basest desires, and those too afraid to speak out.  Any soldier who objects to the Colonel's methods is subjected to a unique brand of discipline: bungee jumping out of a helicopter hovering over a zombie horde.  As the offender bounces up and down into the zombies he is very slowly torn apart.

Make no mistake, this is an intensely disturbing book, but well worth the read.  Keene's pacing keeps the tension level high throughout the entire story and his no-holds-barred story telling, much like that of George R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, promises no fairy-tale happy endings.

The Rising gets four out of five pumpkins as an entertaining seasonal read, and five out of five as a gut-wrenching thriller that might just give you nightmares.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

After Dark

I went out for a walk through my neighborhood last night, strolling along Scotia Street on the banks of the Red River, enjoying a perfect October evening.  It was a warm night and the air smelled of burning leaves, though this may only have been my imagination.  I haven't seen anyone actually do that since I was a kid, and I'm not sure if it's even legal anymore.  Regardless, it felt and smelled like October; it was a perfect evening to let my mind run free as I walked and my feet carried me, almost of their own volition, to the old graveyard near St. John's Park, before turning around and heading for home.

Throughout the walk, my favourite Tito & Tarantula song, After Dark, ran through my head, which you might remember as the song that vampire/stripper Salma Hayek danced to in the movie Dusk to Dawn, and I had to resist the urge to look over my shoulder to check for any pallid women haunting my footsteps in the dark.  Yep, it's beginning to feel a lot like Halloween.

After Dark - Tito & Tarantula

Monday, October 4, 2010

Weird Wonder: Andrewsarchus

One of the largest predatory mammals ever to have walked the earth, Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, named for explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, lived during the Eocene Epoch of the early Tertiary Period 34-56 million years ago.

The species is known only from a single fossil skull discovered in the Gobi in 1923 by a member of the American Museum of Natural History's famous Central Asiatic Expedition.

Although its exact size is uncertain, it is estimated that the animal probably massed about 1,000 kg (~2,200 lbs) and probably would have made a pack of dire wolves look like a litter of puppies.  Obviously, because of the lack of fossil specimens, little is known about the palaeoecology of Andrewsarchus, and it is unknown whether it hunted singly or in packs or whether it subsisted entirely by predation or was a scavenger as well.  In my experience, however, like graduate students, few predators will pass up a free meal, and it is likely that Andrewsarchus scavenged when it could and hunted when it needed to.  Its large jaws supported powerful muscles and it could easily have crushed bone, and it has been suggested that it preyed mainly upon brontotheres - enormous mammals related to horses and rhinoceroses.

Fighting over a baby brontothere
Andrewsarchus will remain largely a mystery until new fossil specimens are found to fill in the missing gaps in our knowledge, but until then reconstructions such as this will give us our best picture of what this enormous beast must have looked like - certainly not something I'd want to run into on a dark night.

Naturally, anything that I wouldn't want to run into on a dark night is something that I definitely want to add to my campaign, because what adventurer worth his salt doesn't love running into dangerous things on dark nights?

Sark        No. Encountered: 1-2

Armour Class: 8               Special: See below
Hit Dice: 6+4                     Move: 15"
Attacks: Bite                      HDE/XP: 6/400
Morale: 9

Sarks roam the plains of Lemuria, hunting singly or in mated pairs.  They are vicious and difficult to manage, but they are sometimes captured and trained as mounts by savages of the Lemurian steppes.  The sark's bone crushing bite is so powerful that 3d6 are rolled for damage, and the lowest two scores discarded.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Halloween Book of the Week: Dragonfly

Somehow, almost without my noticing it, summer has passed into autumn, my favourite time of year.  October is probably my very favourite month: I love the crispness in the morning air, the lingering warmth of sunny afternoons, the colour of the leaves as they wither and fall from the trees, and the sense of melancholy presaging the end of another year - all of which culminates in Halloween a magical night pregnant with half-dreaded possibilities that I have loved since childhood and that I've never really outgrown.

This time of year I always find myself yearning to read books that suit my mood and psych me up for Halloween, and I thought it might be fun to share some of my current favourite seasonal stories.

The first of these, Dragonfly, by Frederic S. Durbin has been one of my Halloween favourites for nearly a decade, and I still haven't found anything to knock it from the top spot.

"Dragonfly" copyright Frederic Durbin, 1999
published by Arkham House
Dragonfly is the story of a ten-year-old girl nicknamed "Dragonfly" who follows an enigmatic, priestly plumber named Mothkin through a secret door in her Uncle Henry's basement into the underground world of Harvest Moon.  Harvest Moon is ruled by the tyrannical despot Samuel Hain and his vile henchmen, Mr. Snicker and Eagerly Meagerly who have enslaved its inhabitants and who, over the course of centuries, have inflicted horror and suffering upon our world, including the Black Plague in the 13th century.

Dragonfly becomes separated from Mothkin and embarks upon a series of terrifying adventures as she struggles to elude Hain and his minions and find a way back to Uncle Henry's basement.  Upon her escape Dragonfly must face the greatest threat of all, Hain's invasion of the surface world.

I find that I can usually judge a book by its first paragraph.  A good writer should be able to capture my attention in that time and Durbin writes one of the most compelling introductory paragraphs I've ever read.  It overflows with rich, evocative imagery, and I would give my left hand to be able to write like this:

Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry's basement.  These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarecrow's cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.  But when the trouble started before, I was too young to remember.

Reading Dragonfly always makes me feel like a kid again; it evokes memories of being nine years old and reading books like Scott Corbett's Red Room Riddle, and Here Lies the Body.  But though Dragonfly has a childlike feel to it, it is no children's book.  It is a dark fantasy, quite frightening in places, and likely too intense for most children.  Frederic Durbin cites H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien as his earliest literary influences and elements of both can be seen in his work, but his writing is also reminiscent of Ray Bradbury particularly, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

As a fun, spooky Halloween read, Dragonfly gets five out of five pumpkins.