Robble Robble

How can I be so terrified by a game in which one of the enemies looks like she fell face-first into a platter of cocktail shrimp? In which all of the horrific mangling comes at the hands of the English (and I mean proper tea-and-crumpets English) dub? In which another enemy is the spitting image of the Hamburglar? In which, I must admit, I had absolutely no fun at all?

And there it is. Being scared isn’t fun, just like having fun isn’t scary. Some people seem to think I’ll receive prurient pleasure from seeing entrails exposed or topless women’s heads explode, but those kinds of things tend to be neither frightening nor pleasurable. But I’m starting to repeat myself.

The other day, I was helping to babysit an 8-year-old girl who wanted to be scared. So I showed her Siren. Specifically, I played the part where Harumi and Mrs. Takato are trying to escape the elementary school. I died maybe twenty times, sometimes within a few seconds, sometimes after fifteen minutes of cautious stealth. Most kids watching most games would have gotten bored by the first restart, but this one was utterly engrossed, shouting out instructions, gasping, and squealing (though she claimed not to have been scared). So was I, for that matter.

I wrote a review of Siren–one of my last columns for Innsmouth Free Press–but I think that anecdote says everything you need to know about the game. If you want more, here’s a sample of the review:

In XX prefecture, there are tales of a village lost in time. A village buried by a landslide 27 years ago, yet somehow still present on the outskirts of our reality. A village that still observes forgotten rituals, warped horrifically by intrusions from outside cultures. A village surrounded on all sides by life-giving red water, where a ghostly figure wanders the fog, endlessly reliving a senseless massacre of the past.

What madness possesses people in a life-or-death horror scenario to put themselves further at risk just to muck about with a face towel?

Read the full review here.

Reality: Check!

When’s the last time you certified your Reality ?

The Reality Institute, your one-stop shop for all things actual, has hosted a dramatic reading of my self-censoring book project, Destroy This Book. DTB, the first publication of the Universal Beliefs Project, was conceived and distributed as part of Jen Hofer’s Literary Citizenship: Tiny Press Practices course at CalArts. Check out the video below.

If that wasn’t “real” enough for you, The Reality Institute is hosting two additional projects born of the Tiny Press course: Ivanhoe’s Greatest Hits (as read by Christopher Lee) and Mikey Valis’s phantogram music video “POP.”

In more Universal Beliefs Project news, the UBP has begun weekly belief postings, starting with those featured in Destroy This Book. If this ultra-limited edition  literary masterpiece passed you by, you now have a second chance to witness other people’s honest beliefs first-hand!

Feeling Generous?

It’s true what they say about the universe’s knack for balancing things out, even in realms as minute and cosmically massive as an author’s creation. Returning from a trip during which every attempt to write was ingeniously thwarted by odd hours, shared hotel rooms, and other demons generally seen nipping and humping at St. Christopher’s heels, I found that, in my absence, I had been published–twice. The publications (one new and one pending) are with Word Busker, a new literary e-zine with a twist I’ll touch on later, and an art book/DVD project called Strange Attractors: Investigations in Non-Humanoid Sexualities. The titles of the stories in question: “Initiation” and “An Unflinching Review of Ginning’s Indecent Practices (by Krrrtchk Neusbaum ((Pseudonymic)).” See if you can match the story with the venue.

As excited as I was to share news of my publication (and semi-boastfully pass on the first line of the best acceptance letter I’ve ever received, beginning with the only four words any author need see: “Your story is awesome”), I was even more excited by nature of the projects themselves. Hence, the small delay in posting this news: I got so embroiled in what quickly became a treatise on patronage and the 21st-century book scene (to appear later on the Black Clock blog) that I nearly forgot the bit about youbeing able to read my stories. To avoid a repeat of that little oversight, here’s “Initiation,” weighing in just shy of 250 words.

Now for the promised twist: Word Busker, who published “Initiation,” added a small but crucial postscript: a little orange button enclosing the only six letters any reader needs to see: “Donate.” The button, via one of the elaborately threaded tubes that compose the internet, funnels any reader’s enthusiasm directly into the author’s PayPal account, so that he or she can live to write another day. It couldn’t be any simpler, nor more tearfully beautiful. The “About” section of the site tells you everything you need know: “Read the story and if you like it, make a contribution to the writer. The amount is left to your discretion.” If you comment on or donate to any story during the month of July, you’re automatically entered in a contest to win a year’s subscription to Poetry is Dead magazine. Since Word Busker’s still a virtual baby (the first story was published this May), and a fairly anonymous baby at that, I’d say your chances of winning are pretty high.

If you’ve got any change left over after your generous donation to yr. obt. svt., don’t forget Strange Attractors. They’re also in need of your assistance–about  $7000 dollars of it. This ambitious project, which attempts–through the compound lens of 69 artists, writers, and filmmakers filling 300 full-color pages and spilling over onto a DVD–to go “beyond male and female, beyond queer, beyond any notion of gender, beyond the anthropomorphic to erotic possibilities as vastly varied as the universe itself,” won’t be published unless they can raise $10,000 before August 27 of this year. Luckily, they’ve started a Kickstarter page (linked above) to raise the funds. Kickstarter is about the safest way to invest in a creative venture you can find: if the project falls through or fails to raise the necessary funds, you aren’t charged a cent, and you get access to many tiers of gifts and goodies depending on the size of your donation. I’ve dealt with Kickstarter previously, in support of Andrew Plotkin’s interactive fiction venture, and it worked exactly as advertised.

Plus, I can assure you that at least one piece of writing in the book will be worth your money. No, I’m not talking about mine; last fall, I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at CalArts compatriot Denise Li’s contribution, which is how I became aware of the project in the first place. It’s probably evolved since then, but I can say without hesitation that it was, like sex itself, one of the most hyper-charged, profound, confusing, and hilarious things I have ever encountered. Even if you don’t feel like contributing, do yourself a favor and check out the websites of the book’s two organizers, the Institute of Extraterrestrial Sexuality and Encyclopedia Destructica. You’ll find many strange and sensuous worlds within–as well as way, way out there.

If you have even a Big Mac’s worth of bucks to spare this month, do consider donating. As Word Busker’s editor puts it, “sentimentality can only survive on ramen noodles for so long.”

It’s Confessional Time

I’m afraid of bookmarks. As a youth, I learned to find my place by touch, flipping through the pages until I hit that tell-tale looseness in the binding. If a book required I skip around, e.g. for endnotes or color plates, I’d mark my place with my second or third digits; since I liked to read in the bath, I got pretty good at holding the book, turning pages, and marking my place all with the same hand. Choose Your Own Adventure titles were an exception, requiring creative applications of all ten fingers and the occasional chin.

I’m getting better. At present, I have somewhere around 15 bookmarks, a motley assortment of pewter and paper, holograms and candy wrappers, bookstore inserts and scribbled notepaper. It’s more than I know what to do with. Anybody who came across the stiff-tongued pile on my bedroom floor might assume I’m some kind of savant with a long memory or a short attention span. In truth, I’ve taken to using these surplus tags to flag future reads–rather than marking pages read, I’m using them to mark the pages I hope one day to find time to read.

My phobia extends to web-browser bookmarks as well, which is why I can no longer remember the title of the fascinating blog (written by an individual who could easily have been my apocryphal twin sister, so eerily similar were her interests to my own) in which I once read the speculation that a horror game doesn’t necessarily have to be fun in order to scare the pants off you. In fact, fun-ness often decreases a video game’s capacity to scare, since horror was never intended to be comfortable. I’ve since extended the same assertion to the measure of a game’s artistic value, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The point I’m trying to reach is that Alone In The Dark: Inferno is seldom fun or scary. The game is filled with combustible items of all sorts, but quite often all I wanted to burn was the game disc itself. Yet, at the end of the ordeal, I couldn’t help feeling I was glad I’d given it a chance, and wishing more people had done the same. I tried to capture this odd ambivalence in my review for Innsmouth Free Press, which also begins in the confessional mode:

It’s a funny thing about Lucifer. For most of my childhood, I thought it was simply another pen name of the Prince of Darkness, interchangeable with “Satan”, “Beelzebub”, and that all-time favourite, “Devil” with a capital D. To be completely honest, I had somehow gotten it into my head that Satan was the Devil’s wife, but that’s another story. It was only much later, after I was introduced to the fascinating and diverse history of those manifold appellations, that I hit upon the true reason that the Angel of the Bottomless Pit bothers to fill in all those name tags: if they do indeed refer to the same entity, each name serves to highlight a different aspect of that entity. Lucifer, literally “Light-Bearer” or “Light-Bringer”, refers to the morning star, the angel before the fall. Thus, Lucifer’s a bit of a two-faced figure: a force of good, a source of light and hope, a beacon for those lost on Earth’s unpleasant waters, but one whose destiny is to become the Dissembler, Angel of Darkness, mankind’s greatest Adversary.

Read the full review here.

Review: Innsmouth Free Press Issue 7 (June 2011)

Hot (and boy, is it hot) on the heels of my last informal book review, I’ve decided to take my typing fingers to town on another project in which my work has appeared: this time, it’s the latest issue of Canadian, Lovecraftian (or should that be Canadian-Lovecraftian?) webzine Innsmouth Free Press. IFP, as those who’ve been playing along might recall, have also published several of my reviews, including a twice-monthly column on horror games titled “A Pistol and a Flashlight.”

But we’re not here to talk about games or reviews or pistols or flashlights. We’re here to talk about good old squishy fiction. And that’s what Issue 7 is: squishy, slimy, goosebump-inducing horror, just in time for the stifling choke-hold of summer heat.

The word of the day here appears to be “pests.” From the mangiest dockside rats to the most insidious earworms, a pestilential epidemic afflicts these pages. Insects abound, in all shapes and sizes–and I do mean all. But it’s not just insects you’ll find inhabiting cocoons, undergoing painful metamorphoses, and leaving behind dull, bitter husks in perfect mockery of creatures that once gamboled and played.

I refer, in my insinuations, to the issues last, best work: “Every Little Sparrow” by Melissa Sorensen. Her bio declares this as her first published work, to which I can only reply that I hope it is the first of many. Set on the grounds of an Orphan Asylum during an insect epidemic (the peasefly, a parasite that causes putrefaction and necrotization in the flesh of its hosts), the tale is told through the eyes of 11-year-old Phebe Alexander.

I won’t spoil the rest–you’ll have to read the story yourself–but I will say that the child-as-protagonist was a smart move on Sorensen’s part; it works, as in Guillermo Del Toro’s best films, to intensify the alienating, awful effect of the horrors witnessed, human as well as supernatural. In this case, it’s less about the dehumanizing effect of civil war than that of illness, particularly on a pandemic scale. There is one stumble in the form of an unnecessarily aphoristic epilogue, but on the whole the story is creepy and tense, marvelously paced, and, thanks to Phebe’s convincing characterization–she is, as they say, every ounce an orphan–surprisingly endearing.

Working backwards through the table of contents, we run aground on Regina Glei’s “Black Sand,” another of the issue’s stand-outs. Taking place in a nameless village bordering the legendary “Cone Islands” in the “Lake of Stone,” “Black Sand” is more folkloric than its neighbors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; retuning our suspension of disbelief allows us to more readily accept the horrific sights to follow–black sand swirling up to form the shape of some tremendous winged thing. It also casts an air of mystery over the story’s more science-fictional aspects–would a more “advanced” culture be able to identify the silvery, shimmering lake-water, unfreezing despite the deadly cold it exudes? This intersection of fantasy and sci-fi was a crossroads well-tread by Lovecraft, but “Black Sand” manages to feel like more than mere mimicry, thanks particularly to a sympathetic twist in the depiction of the monster.

Stephen Woodworth’s “A Tour of the Catacombs” is one of the three shorter offerings that round out the issue–each of them a mere two pages in length. This is good, as it’s not really a concept that could have been drawn out much longer. It’s narrated as though by an unseen tour-guide, and becomes leagues more entertaining when you imagine it read in the voice of Lurch, the Addams Family’s gaunt manservant. I was not overly taken by the story, although the mention of “ovoid chrysalises” the size of sarcophagi did grab my imagination.

The two remaining pieces are by Don Webb and W.H. Pugmire, both among the leading names in Lovecraftian fiction. If anything, it just goes to show that you can never rely on fame or publication history to judge the quality of a piece of writing. Pugmire’s “Cool Mist” is a revised version of a previously published piece, but with phrases like “stabs of icy terror,” “those weird words of his cacophony,” and “his junky doom,” I’m not sure why he bothered. The story begins well enough, in a Poe-ish sort of way, with memories of a recently deceased lover, but the premise and the conclusion never seem to connect despite the brevity of the tale. Curiously enough, Webb’s contribution, “Nyarlathotep,” also concerns a dead lover. The dream-like atmosphere is nice, but in the end it didn’t transport me anywhere that Lovecraft hadn’t already.

And then there’s my contribution, “On The Generation of Insects.” I won’t say too much about it, except that it continues the insectile theme, with maggots the size of your head and weird metamorphoses right alongside opium nightmares and mountains of rotting flesh. It doesn’t fit neatly into the Lovecraft’s classic Mythos, but I hoped to evoke a sense that it could be at least contiguous with his universe, as well as with our own; it’s written as a sort of historical scientific apocryphon.

It’s an obvious recommendation for any diehard fans of Lovecraft, or weird fiction in general, but even if that’s not your thing you might be surprised by what you read. Just know that it’s a bit of a night moth, improved with time; if the early stories don’t impress you, press onward for the later, more accomplished works. On the whole, IFP #7 is a little bit creepy, a little bit crawly, and a great diversion for those torrid summer nights when the moon is full, the window is wide, and the cicadas are calling.

More Than Meets The Eye

I recently published a literary experiment, titled “In Search of an Autobot Poetics,” to the Black Clock blog. You can check it out here.

In celebration, I’ve added a new page to this site: Autobot Poetics. Here you can peruse several works penned (or, more accurately, computed) by Tobo, the emergent intelligence who lives inside my laptop. For reasons of national security (see: verse 4 of “The Impersonal I”), I’ve granted Tobo and indefinite vacation, but the page may be updated in the catastrophic event of any further versifying.