Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Own Private Idaho Glacial Rift

The New York metro area is currently experiencing a blizzard characterized by gale force winds and expected snow accumulations of up to two feet. Having been scheduled to work a graveyard shift, I decided to come to work early to avoid the worst road conditions (and to get my car off the street and into a deserted parking lot). I have had to shovel the area immediately outside the doors to the building a couple of times so I'll be able to exit the building.

The howling storm outside reminds me of the first time I played through Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, while a middle schooler- a blizzard had dumped about a foot of snow in the area, and classes were canceled for the day. A family friend trekked across town so he could play a marathon D&D session with my siblings and I (broken only by an epic assault on the snow in the driveway so mom could drive to work). The session went on until well after nightfall, and our friend stayed over so he wouldn't need a ride home on icy streets. Never have I experienced a gaming session that was so appropriate to the prevailing conditions outside.

G2 is perhaps my favorite in the "Giants" series, due to its unusual setting. The glacial rift, bordered by translucent ice caverns conjures up some unforgettable imagery, and provides a good showcase for those woefully under-utilized arctic monsters. It's also the only module in the series that wasn't directly inspired by DeCamp and Pratt's The Roaring Trumpet. The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is pretty much "nicked" whole cloth from DeCamp and Pratt's novella (a retelling of the tale of Thor's journey to the garth of Utgard-Loki), even down to the feast being held in the giant chief's steading:

After a good hour of climbing, Shea began to get glimpses of a shape looming from the bare crest, intermittently blotted out by the eddies of mist. When they were close enough to see it plainly, it became clearly a house, not unlike that of the bonder Sverre. But it was cruder, made of logs with the bark on, and vastly bigger — as big as a metropolitan railroad terminal.

Thjalfi said into his ear: "That will be Utgard Castle. Ye’ll need whatever mite of courage ye have here, friend Harald." The young man’s teeth were chattering from something other than cold.

Skrymir lurched up to the door and pounded on it with his fist. He stood there for a long minute, the wind flapping his furs. A rectangular hole opened in the door. The door swung open. The chariot riders climbed down, stretching their stiff muscles as they followed their guide. The door banged shut behind them. They were in a dark vestibule like that in Sverre’s house but larger and foul with the odor of unwashed giant. A huge arm pushed the leather curtain aside, revealing through the triangular opening a view of roaring yellow flame and thronging, shouting giants.

Thjalfi murmured: "Keep your eyes open, Harald. As Thjodolf of Hvin says:

All the gateways Ere one goes out

Thoughtfully should a man scan;

Uncertain it is Where sits the unfriendly

Upon the bench before thee."

Within, the place was a disorderly parody of Sverre’s. Of the same general form, with the same benches, its tables were all uneven, filthy, and littered with fragments of food. The fire in the center hung a pall of smoke under the rafters. The dirty straw on the floor was thick about the ankles.

The benches and the passageway behind them were filled with giants, drinking, eating, shouting at the tops of their voices. Before him a group of six, with iron-grey topknots and patchy beards like Skrymir’s, were wrangling. One drew back his arm in anger. His elbow struck a mug of mead borne by a harassed-looking man who was evidently a thrall. The mead splashed onto another giant, who instantly snatched up a bowl of stew from the table and slammed it on the man’s head.

Hall of the Fire Giant King is heavily inspired by a journey to Muspelheim in The Roaring Trumpet, even down to the troll servants of the fire giant monarch (Surt in the case of the novella), and the cameo appearance of some familiar evil genii:

They turned from the ledge into another tunnel. This sloped up then leveled again where side tunnels branched in from several directions. Snögg picked his way unerringly through the maze. A tremendous banging grew on them, and they were passing the entrance of some kind of armory. The limits of the place were invisible in the flickering red glare, through which scuttled naked black things, like licorice dolls. Heimdall whispered: "These would be dark dwarfs from Svartalfheim, where no man nor As has ever been."

While it borrows liberally from the novella, I'd have to say that I prefer Against the Giants, because it ditches the cutesy-poo elements of DeCamp and Pratt's work. The substitution of a party of mortals for the largely divine cast of characters in the novella is also an improvement- the dramatic tension is much greater in Against the Giants than it is in The Roaring Trumpet because the outcome is unclear- the divine protagonists of The Roaring Trumpet will survive until Ragnarok, while the fates of the all-too-mortal Frush, Fonkin, Gleep Wurp and the gang are anything but certain.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!

One of the most unusual traditional Christmas decorations is the Catalonian caganer, a small figurine of a person in traditional peasant dress answering the call of nature. The figurines are typically hidden in the elaborate Spanish nativity scenes, discreetly going about their business. It's a funny reminder that the sacred and the profane mingle in everyday life, and that the swaddling clothes of the babe in the manger eventually needed laundering. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the caganer is that one should never lose one's sense of humor, because, as St Ita noted, a scowling countenance is detestable to God.

Merry Christmas to all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Rogue Taxidermy and Obscure Chimerae

Last week, a friend persuaded me to attend the fifth annual "Carnivorous Nights" rogue taxidermy contest in Brooklyn. It was a night of two-headed squirrels, and other taxonomic oddities, including a wolpertinger. This tiny teratological terror was the subject of a comic riff on Albrecht Dürer's Young Hare watercolor:

One can clearly see that the jackalope is a descendent of this wee little chimera.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Appendix Nu

Reading the ambitious "inspirational reading" list at Huge Ruined Pile led me to believe that an "Appendix Nu" would be a useful addition to the canon. Appendix Nu would include the body of myth, legendry, historical narratives, and early works of fiction that inspired modern fantastists. The assembly of Appendix Nu would have to be a group effort in order to close any lacunae that would inevitably result from our cultural biases (I am not using this term pejoratively- my own biases are toward Greek and Roman legends, Norse Sagas, Irish and Welsh legends, and the picaresque tales of the Iberian peninsula- with a passing familiarity of the epics of India and some of the Mesoamerican material).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Peryton Put-on

Being a rabid fan of Jorge Luis Borges, I ordered a copy of the latest edition of the previously scarce Book of Imaginary Beings, and found that the entry for the Perytion (sic- the original Spanish name for the beast was peritio reveals some...uh... problems:

The Sibyl of Erythraea, it is said, foretold that the city of Rome would finally be destroyed by the Perytons. In the year A.D. 642 the record of the Sibyl's prophecies was consumed in the great conflagration of Alexandria; the grammarians who undertook the task of restoring certain charred fragments of the nine volumes apparently never came upon the special prophecy concerning the fate of Rome. In time it was deemed necessary to find a source that would throw greater light upon this dimly remembered tradition. After many vicissitudes it was learned that in the sixteenth century a rabbi from Fez (in all likelihood Jakob Ben Chaim) had left behind a historical treatise in which he quoted the now lost work of a Greek scholiast, which included certain historical facts about the Perytons obviously taken from the oracles before the Library of Alexandria was burned by Omar. The name of the learned Greek has not come down to us, but his fragments run:
"The Perytons had their original dwelling in Atlantis and are half deer, half bird. They have the deer's head and legs. As for its body, it is perfectly avian, with corresponding wings and plumage. . . . Its strangest trait is that, when the sun strikes it, instead of casting a shadow of its own body, it casts the shadow of a man. From this, some conclude that the Perytons are the spirits of wayfarers who have died far from their homes and from the care of their gods. . . . . and have been surprised eating dry earth . . . flying in flocks and have been seen at a dizzying height above the Columns of Hercules. . . . they [PerytonsJ are mortal foes of the human race; when they succeed in killing a man, their shadow is that of their own body and they win back the favor of their gods. . . . and those who crossed the seas with Scipio to conquer Carthage came close to failure, for during the passage a formation of Perytons swooped down on the ships, killing and mangling many. . . . Although our weapons have no effect against it, the animal-if such it be-can kill no more than a single man. . . . wallowing in the gore of its victims and then fleeing upward on its powerful wings. . . . in Ravenna, where they were last seen, telling of their plumage which they described as light blue in color, which greatly suprised me for all that is known of their dark green feathers. Though these excerpts are sufficiently explicit, it is to be lamented that down to our own time no further intelligence about the Perytons has reached us. The rabbi's treatise, which preserved this description for us, had been on deposit until before the last World War in the library of the University of Dresden. It is painful to say that this document has also disappeared, and whether as a consequence of bombardment or of the earlier book burning of the Nazis, it is not known. Let us hope that one day another copy of the work may be discovered and again come to adorn the shelves of some library."

So, the only sources which mention the peritio have been destroyed, and the first mention of it in an extant document is in a work by a known trickster. Yeah, we've been played by a master- the guy who would have us believe that Don Quixote was written by a Frenchman named Pierre Menard.

The Wikipedia entry for the peryton has been corrected to reflect the peryton put-on but other wikis haven't been updated to reflect the circumstantial evidence that Borges punked us. This particular juxtaposition from Monstropedia is unintentionally hilarious:

The Peryton (or winged dear) is a legendary creature combining physical features of a stag and a bird.

The earliest verifiable account of the peryton occurs in Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings, in which he refers to a now-lost medieval manuscript as a source. The word is completely unknown in sources from Classical antiquity and from morphological and thematic characteristics one could conclude that if is not a completely modern invention, neither could it be of any origin earlier than the medieval period. The concept of the peryton seems to have become widely known due to its inclusion in the first edition Monster Manual from the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

Borges dedicated the story There Are More Things to H.P. Lovecraft- it's tempting to picture the perytion as a fictional relative of the Shantak, or perhaps a winged horror, the multi-branching tentacles of which (used for sanguivorous purposes no doubt) were mistaken for antlers.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Shaddow Kingdom*

*The double "D" is intentional- a viewing of the video will reveal the reason for the unorthodox spelling.

After the usual job-related October ass-kicking, I finally have some leisure time to surf the 'net, and I came across this gem (I'm a sucker for cognitive junk food like the Shaver mystery, von Dänikenism, and the like) of a video:

A more cynical person would say that Ms. Thomas' ample display of cleavage is a crass attempt to garner views, but I am sure that she is just making us aware of her mammalian bona fides, as she warns us of the Reptilian Menace. It's amazing that the basic premise of the Reptilian Invasion conspiracy "theory" has been lifted whole-cloth from Robert E. Howard's The Shadow Kingdom. It boggles my mind to think that now, over eighty years later, the story still has legs.

I think REH had one detail slightly wrong... the one phrase that our hidden Reptilian overlords cannot say is actually "Que tatas aah mammamamma!"

My favorite line in the scrolling text of the video has got to be, "I am fully versed in physics, politics, earth history, and alien affairs." This particular line is the funniest bombast I've read since the infamous ""I am aware of all internet traditions." The title is also a winner- media blits? "Blits" must be a portmanteau word, combining "Blitz" and, oh, why even bother to spell it out?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Destroying Muse

It's been many years since I've been involved with a tempestuous beauty with a virulent temper and a wicked throwing arm, but I have always been fascinated with the archetype of the destroying muse, best known in the figure of the Leanan Sidhe of Celtic legend. Seabury Quinn's Dark Rosaleen, sharing the title of James Clarence Mangan's poem, is a good introduction to this shadowy figure, as is this song by Australian garage rock band The Screaming Tribesmen:

Monday, October 18, 2010

That Time of the Year

This is the time of the year that, to put it bluntly, kicks my ass. When the movie Thirty Days of Night came out, I joked about how it described a typical October for me, which is the busy season on the job. On a typical Saturday, I leave the house at 8AM for a volunteer gig, then hotfoot it to work, typically coming home after 1AM on Sunday. I'm not complaining, though- overwork beats no work at all.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pure Pulpy Goodness

I picked this up at the local library's fifty-cent per pound used book sale:

It's a 1994 Barnes & Nobel anthology of stories from Weird Tales, containing more pulpy goodness than a fifty-five gallon drum of orange juice. I was able to buy it just in time for the Halloween season, when eldritch escapism is the flavor of the month.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stolen Apples Taste the Best

Last summer, I made a resolution to forage for at least one wild foodstuff a week during the growing season. This time of year, ripe wild grapes are abundant, and apples are available to those who know of untended orchards (which are not uncommon in localities which were once farmland). This week, I was able to pick some "feral" apples:

I do not, and would not, pick apples on private land without permission from the owner, but apple-theft, or scrumping, traditionally has been common enough to earn its own verb. This crime, usually indulged in by youthful gadabouts, was referred to in the Who's 5:15:

On a raft in the quarry
Slowly sinking.
On the back of a lorry
Holy hitching.
Dreadfully sorry
Apple scrumping.
Born in the war
Birthday punching.

While I have never played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I purchased the Hogshead publishing version of the first edition rulebook and have read it enough to write up a brief summary of "Scrumper" as an introductory profession within the thief class:

M __
BS +10
Dex +10

Indentify Plant
Scale Sheer Surface
Silent Move-Rural

Shoulder bag
15' Rope

Career exits:
Thief (general)

Not an overly powerful career, but an appropriate skill set for a 16th Century apple-thief in a magic-haunted, decadent world.

To clarify that I am not, indeed, a thief, my activity, picking otherwise unused fruits, is more properly known as usufruct (gleaning is a particular type of usufruct- gleaners would follower harvesters and take the agricultural products that had been missed (the French documentary The Gleaners and I is a poignant and entertaining look at this phenomenon). For additional reading on usufruct, this thread about "guerrilla harvests" has an anecdote, from commenter "Keith Talent", which amused and impressed me to no end:

When we were kids, my mother was a devoted canner, her favourite game, (still is actually) was "lets pretend we're poor," which dovetailed nicely with her other favourite passtime (sic) "Lets save pennies." Explaining the cost of driving across town to save on tinned tuna wasn't really a savings due to gas and time did not compute for her.

Anyway, the local high security prision (sic) had a number of apple trees on the grounds, outside of the formal prison proper but within a barbed wired yard. Mom marched up to the gate, informed the gaurds (sic) on duty she was a taxpayer and intended to not see the apples fall uneaten to the ground agian (sic), she was here to pick them with her two young sons. She'd make applesauce.

Unbeleiveably (sic) they allowed it, we picked apples on the prison yard. I liked my mom for throwing nice apples over the fence to the prisoners on excercise break in the actual yard. My brother and I were completely terrified the whole time. We never went back a second time, I suspect my father probably forbid it, or maybe my brother and I whining made the apples cost more than they were worth.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Brief Thoughts on Elfses

I recently got my hands on a copy of Margaret St. Clair's The Shadow People, and it is pretty clear that it played a role in inspiring Gary Gygax' drow. Actually, the drow are closer to the traditional depiction of elves than the noble, post-Tolkien elves that have taken over fantasy literature and gaming. The aos sí of legend are a perilous group, liable to kidnap surface dwellers, or bewilder them. They are a capricious group, an ominous background presence which should be placated by wary crofters, not the wise, benevolent elder-kindred of J.R.R.T.'s Middle Earth. I would posit that the greatest lasting legacy of Tolkien's writing is this elfin make-over.

Poul Anderson (writing contemporaneously with Tolkien) portrays his elves (in
The Broken Sword and
Three Hearts and Three Lions) as amoral, soulless creatures who have no qualms about using humans as pawns, and have developed an intricate culture simply to alleviate the ennui of immortality. In >Three Hearts and Three Lions, Holger Carlsen is told that the elfish duke may help him not for altruistic reasons, but out of a desire for novelty. Anderson's elves are sophisticated, while St. Clair's are primitive cannibals with some supernatural characteristics. I'll post a more detailed review of The Shadow People when I get a better handle on the book (it's a pretty odd read, and seems "dated"). I did, however, want to post briefly about how the "dark elves" of the modern fantasy industrial complex are actually more in line with traditional elfses or faeries than the modern "high elf" or "light elf" of Tolkien-pastiche modern fantasy.

Actually, I wanted to post briefly because I have been woefully remiss about writing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Never Gave It Much Thought Until Now

I decided to reread Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, and was struck by something that I'd never pondered before... the action of the novel begins with protagonist Holger Carlsen, a member of the Danish resistance, involved in a covert operation to allow an important figure to escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark. I'd never given this portion of the book much thought, but came to the realization (after seeing the excellent BBC documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, about indie-rock musician Mark Everett of The Eels trying to find out more about his father, quantum mechanics researcher and "many worlds interpretation" promulgator
Hugh Everett III) that the operation described in the book involved the escape of physicist Niels Bohr to Sweden, and ultimately to the West. While it's never spelled out in the book, I can't imagine any other possibility, especially since Anderson explicitly mentions quantum mechanics in the introduction to the novel.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Down in the Hollow, Playing a New Game

A scary new game, if my sources are correct. This ad in Craigslist was pointed out to me by an anonymous informant. Seeing that Sleepy Hollow is the only village in the Continental United States to boast of a Headless Horseman, the residents have to do right by the Hessian horror.

The Village of Sleepy Hollow was named North Tarrytown until 1996 when a plebescite was held regarding the name change and the populace, spurred by the loss of the village's economic base when the local GM plant closed, decided to take on a name that would allow them to develop a tourist industry. The release of Tim Burton's movie three years later should have inspired the town elders to capitalize on the newly-name village's newfound cult status. Sadly, nothing was really done to do this, and the sensation-seekers who made the pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow were greeted with indifference, if not contempt. Of course, there's a 17th-18th century plantation which boasts a working farm, staffed by farmer/historians in period garb, and an ancient church associated with a celebrated burial ground, but those attractions typically close in the late afternoon, and the sidewalks are rolled up by 5 PM. Even with the name change (which some residents, sporting "North Tarrytown Forever" bumperstickers, still refuse to acknowledge), the village has had problems figuring out what to do with their suddenly hot cultural property.

Here's hoping that this upcoming event will be a major success, and an inspiration for further creative endeavors.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ruh-Roh, Seems the Stars Are Right

Hmm... checkin' the t00bz, checkin' the t00bz...

Say, now, what's this? Seems some Spanish beachgoers have been attacked by a plague of "jellyfish" by committee. Sting-y tentacles... sounds all kinds of hurty.

Well, at least there are nice beaches on the other side of the Atlantic... EEP! Poor menhaden... we usually call them mossbunker, or just 'bunker. When we caught them on lazy summer days on Bronxtucket, we'd cut them into bloody gobbets as bait for juvenile bluefish, which we usually call snappers. We usually call a turkey a walking bird, but I ramble.

So, the beaches are a horrible disaster... how about a nice sail? Yelpin' Johanson, is there no safe haven?

Maybe I can distract myself with a little stargazing, the Perseid meteor shower is at its peak...

Checks calendar, sees date, reiterates, "EEP!"

Wow, cosmic horror seems to be the order of the day.

The stars are right, Old Ones delight, deep in the heart of R'lyeh.
Now is the time, to rise from slime, deep in the heart of R'lyeh.

Here's an amusing little trifle I found on the t00bz, an episode of a cartoon that eluded my nerdy notice when it appeared on the TeeVee machine, presented for your Friday the Thirteenth viewing pleasure.

While the references to "mythos" works and authors in the cartoon are manifold, the ending also hearkens back to the classic "creature feature"
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. My one quibble, a minor one, is the scene in which our intrepid heroes emerge from the subway- the Stillwell Avenue Subway Terminal is a huge elevated train station, not a hole in the ground. Of course, artistic license practically demands the portrayal of the station as an underground one, in order to evoke the image implied by the term "subway".

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Giant Rat Found On Dungeon Level One East Timor

It, may not be from Sumatra but, broadly speaking, it is "Indonesian" (East Timor gained gained its independence in 2002, but is part of the Indonesian archipelago). The preponderance of rats of unusual size in Indonesia can be chalked up to the island effect, which has also resulted in tiny hominids, dwarf elephants, giant monitor lizards, and the like.

Unfortunately, Ursula K. Le Guin didn't incorporate the island effect into her Earthsea series- a Sparrowhawk that preyed on turkey-sized giant sparrows would be quite a beast.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Herb Lore

Alternate title: Suburban Sage, or Druid with a Driveway

Last year, I made a resolution to forage for at least one comestible item per week, during the appropriate seasons, that is.
Last year, I made a resolution to, when possible, forage for a least one comestible item a week. I kicked off the spring foraging season by harvesting some stinging nettles (wearing heavy gloves), common plants which are covered in stinging hairs, which inject a cocktail of pain-inducing chemicals such as formic acid and histamines into the skin when brought into contact. Nettles have traditionally had a medicinal use (arthritis sufferers sometimes use nettles for their condition). Urtica ferox, the tree nettle of New Zealand has apparently killed at least one person. When boiled, though, young specimens of the common North American stinging nettles can be quite tasty (they have a pretty intense herbal flavor), and make a decent substitute for, or an addition to, spinach. I have used them in omelets, added them to spanakopita, and have cooked them with beans (in the same fashion that I'd use escarole). Harvested with care, and boiled well, nettles make a great, free addition to one's springtime culinary repertoire.

I was also able to gather Japanese knotweed, a pernicious invasive weed in the NY Metro Area, is also edible when harvested young. The plant looks like the offspring of an unholy union between bamboo and asparagus, and is distantly related to buckwheat, rhubarb, and sorrel. Peeled, the stalks of young knotweed have a pleasantly sour flavor... once again, Steve Brill is the go-to guy for knotweed facts and recipes. One caveat, though, is that knotweed, being a pest, is often sprayed with herbicide, so caution must be exercised in finding patches that are not periodically sprayed. Of course, the weed being edible, the promotion of knotweed consumption should be a goal of all local Parks, Reacreation, and Conservation Departments.

Nettles and knotweed would be a good name for an RPG in which players take on the roles of herbalists or horticulturists.

In the early summer, I found mulberries in profusion in my neighborhood. In the course of a stroll along the local multi-use path, I scarfed down so many mulberries that my hand appeared as though I'd proxy-voted for a small Iraqi village. I also had the great good fortune to find wild raspberries in abundance, so there was always some free fresh fruit to be had.

Now in midsummer, Lamb's quarters plants grow in profusion in my neighborhood, and they are comparable in taste to Swiss chard (I merely parboiled some cuttings, then sauteed them with garlic and bacon). I have also located an abundance of purslane, which I tend to consume raw, without accompaniment- it has a succulent texture, and a pleasantly sour flavor. Known as verdolagas in Spanish, purslane is prized in Mexican cuisine, often stewed with pork. Cooked, purslane has a texture much like green beans, but I usually can't prevent myself from scarfing down the purslane as soon as I wash it. Here's a link to a site with a vegetarian verdolagas recipe, with the added bonus of a song about la verdolaga.

Surprisingly, the common thistles in my region of the country are edible, with a taste comparable to their domesticated relatives
artichokes and cardoons.

Wild grapes also grow in abundance, while it's too early for their pea-sized fruits (sweet, but each bearing two seeds), their leaves may be
stuffed to wonderful effect.

The fuzzy red fruits of the staghorn sumac are also coming in this time of year, and can be soaked in water to make an excellent substitute for lemonade. The sumac "berries" are also dried, and powdered, and used as a spice in several cuisines.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Impressions, John Bellairs' The Dolphin Cross

Along with the full, illustrated text of The Face in the Frost, the John Bellairs omnibus Magic Mirrors: The High Fantasy and Low Parody of John Bellairs has the extant text of an unfinished sequel The Dolphin Cross. While an entertaining read, this fragment does not reach the Empyrean heights of The Face in the Frost- the horrors presented are more concrete, as opposed to the existential terrors that Prospero faces in TFitF, and our beloved Prospero is more prone to a self-deprecation that only surfaced a couple of times in that book. In the fragment, Prospero (like the one we are thinking of) is sent to exile on a remote island after being kidnaped. The South Kingdom, with its 572 petty rulers, is facing internal strife as a strong leader begins amassing more power after winning the typically nominal kingship. One particularly moving passage describes Prospero's youth, when the former apprentice went "underground" during a previous war. A hilarious passage has Prospero posing incognito as a once-prosperous leech gatherer. The villain of the fragment is portrayed with typical Bellairsian creepiness (the description of his cutlery is wonderfully unsettling. Once again, Bellairs shows his descriptive flair when writing of a building:

The castle was something to stare at. It looked like what Buckingham Palace might look like if it ever went on a two-week drunk. Essentially, it was a big stone strongbox covered with cornices and pediments and balustrades and balls and vases. But instead of being all triangles and rectangles and squares, as such places usually are, it was droopy crescents and parallelograms and lurching unidentifable shapes. Every angle was out of kilter.

Once again, Bellairs demonstrates that he knows his craft, and his Lovecraft. Reading The Dolphin Cross is a bittersweet exercise- while it was nice to revisit Prospero (and, for a brief interlude, Friar Bacon), one wishes that one had a complete novel. Additionally, while a good read, TDC falls short of the giddy heights and eerie lows of its predecessor.

Also included in Magic Mirrors is the breezy, absurd fantasy The Pedant and the Shuffly, and St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies which is an affectionate, though irreverent, satire of Vatican II era Roman Catholicism. As can be expected, the humor of the book is best appreciated by Catholics who can laugh at such conundrums as whether consuming an olive in a martini breaks a Lenten fast. The Lawful Neutral wing of the church would probably be offended by the book, but the youngish, hip-ish roller skating nun who teaches in the inner city Catholic school will love it. The rise and fall of St. Floradora (whose existence was extrapolated from a skeleton discovered during an archaeological dig in Pompeii, so you know where this is going...) is one of the most uproariously funny things I've read in a long time. To give a taste of the deadpan, off-kilter humor of the book, here's an excerpt from the hagiography of St. Adiposa:

St. Adiposa, author of numerous anti-ascetic tracts. She decided that a life intentionally cut short by overweight could be consecrated to God... St. Adiposa died at 93 when the floor of her cell collapsed. Her life principle of caloric immolation caused much debate about her status as a martyr, but the Council of Trent shelved the matter, and there it stands.

Of course, the entertainment value of the book is wholly dependent on one's familiarity with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and one's attitude toward irreverence. It's safe to say that Jorge de Burgos would have hidden this one away in the Finis Africae section of the library.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Initial Impressions: Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard

Besides ordering John Bellair's Magic Mirrors, I ordered Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard (how could I resist purchasing a novel which takes its title from a poem by Clark Ashton Smith?), a supernatural "historical" romance, which details the interactions between the Romantic Poets of the early 19th Century (Keats makes a cameo in the novel, and Byron and Percy Shelley are fairly major characters) with a class of ancient, predatory elemental entities. Powers bases these vampiric beings on the nephilim of the Old Testament and the lamia of Greek legend. Powers portrays his nephilim as predators, but also as sources of inspiration (I'm about halfway through the novel, and Powers so far hasn't mentioned the Leanan Sidhe, the destroying muse of Celtic legend, but his "neffies" are a very similar concept).

The subject matter is also reminiscent of Powers' supernatural espionage novel Declare, which presents the role of similar supernatural beings in the Cold War (a trope employed by Charles Stross in such works as A Colder War). Powers also makes brief mention of fictional poet William Ashbless and Kusiak's tavern, from The Anubis Gates, one of my all-time favorite novels.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

Having misplaced my paperback copy of The Face in the Frost, and curious about it's unfinished sequel, I purchased Magic Mirrors: The High Fantasy and Low Parody of John Bellairs, which includes The Face in the Frost, the sequel The Dolphin Cross, and two earlier Bellairs works- St Fidgeta and Other Parodies and The Pedant and the Shuffly. John Bellairs was perhaps best known for his supernatural thrillers for children, starting with The House with a Clock in its Walls.

Magic Mirrors begins with The Face in the Frost, published in 1969, a fantasy novel, which manages to be comic and unsettling by turns. The book starts out cheerfully enough, with an elaborate description of the bizarre home of Prospero, the book's protagonist, which would do a Jack Vance proud:

Inside the house were such things as trouble antique-dealers' dreams: a brass St. Bernard with a clock in its side, and a red tongue that went in and out with the ticks as the tail wagged; a five-foot iron statue of a tastefully draped lady playing a violin (the statue was labelled "Inspiration"); mahogany chests covered with leering cherub faces and tiger mouths that bit you if you put your finger in the wrong place; a cherrywood bedstead with a bassoon carved into one of the fat headposts, so that it could be played as you lay in bed and meditated; and much more junk; and deep closets crammed with things that peered out of the darkness off the edges of shelves, frightening the wits out of the wizard as he poked around looking for jars of mandrake root or dwarf hair in aspic. In the long, high living room--heated by a wide-mouthed green-stone fireplace--were the usual paraphernalia of a practicing wizard: alembics, spiraling copper coils, alcohol lamps--all burping, sputtering, and glurping as red, purple, and green liquids boiled, dripped, or just slurched uncertainly in their containers. On a shelf over the experiment table was the inevitable skull, which the wizard put there to remind him of death, though it usually reminded him that he needed to go to the dentist. One wall of the room was lined with bookshelves, and on them you could find titles such as Six Centuries of English Spells, Nameless Horrors and What to Do About Them, An Answer for Night-Hags, and, of course, the dreaded Krankenhammer of Stefan Schimpf, the mad cobbler of Mainz.

Prospero's peaceful, contemplative life is interrupted by some mildly off-putting phenomena, and the visit of his friend Roger Bacon, who has come to consult with Prospero about a mysterious book that Prospero had asked him about (there's a funny aside as Roger narrates his misadventure with his brazen head). The two embark on an investigation into the provenance of the book, which takes them to the library of another eccentric wizard (a comic interlude, with another humorous allusion to HPL's works), where they realize that an old colleague of Prospero's is behind the phenomena which have been hounding him. This precipitates a perilous errand to obtain a magical bauble co-created by Prospero and his former acquaintance.

After the whimsical opening, Bellairs plunges the reader into some truly unsettling scenes, as the sorcerous attacks on Prospero increase in intensity, and their focus shifts from unnerving the wizard to a more lethal bent. This particular scene gives a taste of Bellairs' ability to put a subtle chill up the reader's spine:

He had not gone a mile when he saw, off in a clearing beyond some beech trees, the light of a campfire. At least there’ll be someone to talk to, he thought, and he stepped off the road into the swishing wet grass. But as Prospero got near the fire, he saw that there was no one tending it and that it was burning in a very strange way. The flames moved back and forth as if blown by suddenly shifting breezes. As he watched, the movement became rhythmical. Prospero looked about him with growing fear, and he noticed that there was a little stream running nearby. He was drawn by what he first took to be a reflection of the firelight on the water. But as he knelt by the stream, he saw that the faint glow came from beneath the surface of the water. There, on the bottom, in a speckled green trembling light, was a smooth triangular stone, and on it was painted his face. The moving water was slowly flaking away the paint, or whatever it was, and the face appeared to be slowly decomposing. He saw a thin film, like a piece of dead skin, wriggle off the portrait-mask and float away down the stream. And the face underneath… Prospero felt his own hands on his wet cheeks.

Against all his instinct, he plunged his own hands into the greasy-feeling, incredibly cold water and picked up the stone. Without looking at it, and holding it at arm’s length as if it were a rotten dead bird, he took it to the fire, which was dancing faster now- it was moving to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. He knew the words that must have been said. “When the fire dies, let him die too.”

He pulled a burning stick out of the fire and held it to the painted stone as he carefully recited a spell he could just barely remember. When the face on the stone was completely blackened, the thing turned into an awful viscous mush in his hand, like a potato left in a damp dark cellar. With a disgusted shudder and a quick jerk of his left arm, Prospero threw the pulpy thing into the stream, where it hit with a gulping sound. Now the whole stream began to boil, and out of the lurching, hissing water rose a smoke shape with arms. It moved toward Prospero and settled around him in swaying layers of mist. He felt as if his eyes were made of blank white chalk. And the thing was throbbing, to pump the life out of him. Prospero stared with open eyes into that stony nothingness, and he shouted a word that sorcerers can only speak a few times in their lives. The whiteness began to break, and he could see night through the cracking clouds. Now he began to speak like someone reciting a lesson: “Michael Scott is buried in Melrose Abbey. A light burns in his tomb day and night. And it is stronger than your freezing white. Go! In his name,

As the narrative moves along, the protagonists realize that their enemy has stumbled upon sorceries that have the power to warp the fabric of reality- night terrors abound, causing a frightened populace to dismantle the social order. In one particularly horrible scene, Bellairs shows that evil need not take a sorcerous form:

“We’re going over to the north to burn that town… Bow…what’s its name?”

“Bishop’s Bowes,” said the innkeeper. “Why are you doing this?”

“We’ve finally figured out what’s going on. Town’s full of evil people. Witches. I have an order here from Duke Harald to burn it to the ground. Here, look at it. Not that you have anything to say in this.”

He unrolled a long parchment that trailed lead and yellow wax seals on twisted strings of skin. The signature, a cross with a letter on each point, was so large that it covered a quarter of the page.

“They deserve it, too,” the leader went on. “You’ve seen the things. Half the people in Wellfont are afraid to go down into their own cellars. Shadows moving, screams from kettles when there isn’t any fire. Well, a little fire’ll teach ‘em. A couple of my men are out getting wood for torches. Do you have any pitch?”

“In the basement. I use it on the roof.”

“That’s fine. We’re going to use it on the roof, too.” He laughed, spitting flecks of brown beer on the muddy floor.

It's tempting to make the point that this was written while the Vietnam War raged, (it was published in the year that the investigations into the My Lai massacre took place so news of My Lai could not have been a direct influence), but, sadly, John Bellairs is not around to verify if this was meant allegorically.

After that particular bit of dialogue, the supernatural horrors seem a little less horrific, although Bellairs still describes them with his characteristic flair:

In the roadside towns, the wizards picked up stories and rumors. One man told how frost formed on the windows at night, though it was only the middle of September. There were no scrolls or intricate fern leaves, no branching overlaid star clusters; instead, people saw seasick wavy lines, disturbing maps that melted into each other and always seemed on the verge of some recognizable but fearful shape. At dawn, the frost melted, always in the same way. At first, two black eyeholes formed, and then a long steam-lipped mouth that spread and ate up the wandering white picture.

If there's one flaw with The Face in the Frost, it is that the climactic confrontation takes place off-stage. At one point, in a twist that will have some readers cringing (but which I loved), a fleeing Prospero stumbles into a most unusual place, and (less felicitously, though Madonna would approve of this part) enlists additional aid in his efforts. The end is rather abrupt, which is also the major flaw of The House with a Clock in its Walls.

While Magic Mirrors, at $25, is pretty steep in price (I prefer paperbacks anyway), I'd recommend it for any fans of Bellairs' young-adult fiction, fans of the "Harry Potter" books (which I still haven't read), or fans of "weird fiction" who don't mind comic relief (Bellairs' protagonists are the sort of scholarly types that HPL wrote about, though they know what to do about Nameless Horrors).

Perhaps, I'll tackle the other portions of the book in a later post. I've been going on about this book for quite some time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Skald's Score

The local library branch had a major book sale last weekend, and paperbacks were priced at twenty-five cents apiece. There I was, cheerfully browsing, when my heart started to race, my hands started trembling in barely concealed excitement:

OMGOMGOMGOMG!! You will notice that Fantasms and Magics and Eight Fantasms and Magics appear to be different editions of the same book, and you'd be correct. If, however, you had read The Miracle Workers, you'd have bought both editions as well:

The war party from Faide Keep moved eastward across the downs: a column of a hundred armored knights, five hundred foot soldiers, a train of wagons. In the lead rode Lord Faide, a tall man in his early maturity, spare and catlike, with a sallow dyspeptic face. He sat in the ancestral car of the Faides, a boat-shaped vehicle floating two feet above the moss, and carried, in addition to his sword and dagger, his ancestral side weapons.

An hour before sunset, a pair of scouts came racing back to the column, their club-headed horses loping like dogs. Lord Faide braked the motion of his car. Behind him, the Faide kinsmen, the lesser knights, and the leather-capped foot soldiers halted; to the rear the baggage train and the high-wheeled wagons of the jinxmen creaked to a stop.

The Miracle Workers is first-order Jack Vance, it is certainly one of his most accessible works. Although I love Vance's characteristic purple prose, he maintains a more subdued tone in this novella, a more spare and catlike prose, so to speak. The protagonist is also one of Vance's most felicitous characters, rather than a handsome, hypercompetent superman, we are presented with a "thick-set youth with a round florid face, overhung with a rather untidy mass of straw-colored hair" who is characterized by another character as "innocent and a trifle addled". No Mary Sue here, but a comical, sympathetic lead. As in many of Vance's works, The Miracle Workers is set in a stagnant, overly-conservative society faced with the need to change dramatically or face collapse. It's a theme that Vance explores in many of his works, and Vance does so rather succinctly, and extremely engagingly in The Miracle Workers.

The story provides a good blueprint for a "magic & masers" type setting, but I would not characterize it as a "sword & planet" tale, because the characters are all either native-born humans (the autocthones are all anonymous), and there are no fair damsels to be rescued by a mighty-thewed hero.

The third book is a copy of Galactic Effectuator, which contains two stories about a space-faring private investigator. The first story concerns industrial espionage, the second (SPOILER ALERT) concerns, I kid not, a client whose testicles have been removed, and replaced with another set. While fun, the book is certainly not Vance at his best.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Look Into The Mound, by HPL and Zealia Bishop

Impelled by a completist's desire, I tracked down The Mound, a collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop, one of the few HPL stories I hadn't read (posted on the fun Spacewesterns website). Set in western Oklahoma, The Mound reads like a pastiche of an A. Merritt novel, sandwiched in the middle of a typical Lovecraft story- it starts as an account of an ethnologist seeking out native legends in the vicinity of a mound (which recalls the sídhe, which open onto the underworld in Irish legend). In his investigations, the ethnologist finds a metal tube, which contains an account by a member of Coronado's expedition, who persuades a native guide to bring him to the entrance to an underground realm. The focus of the tale then shifts to the conquistador, Pamphilo Zamacona, and his adventures in this underworld. This portion of the tale, featuring a "man of action" rather than an academic, reads like a typical Merritt tale, with its theme of a lost race possessing the vestiges of a now poorly-understood "super-science". As is characteristic of most pulp-fiction lost races, the inhabitants of this underworld are bloodthirsty- in this case, their depravity is the result of ennui resulting from immortality, combined with a horror of the inhabitants of the outside world, who are characterized as "evilly connected" slaves of the "space devils" which drove them underground. In true "Merritt-fashion", the protagonist enlists the aid of a smitten noblewoman of the lost race, an element foreign to the bulk of Lovecraft's works (although Ms. Bishop was apparently better known for romantic tales than for weird fiction). After the account of Zamacona's adventures underground, the tale shifts back to the ethnologist, who is compelled to enter the mound, in which he finds corroboration of the conquistador's tale, and barely escapes a horrid end.

The bulk of The Mound is somewhat flat, it is not so much a narrative as a metanarrative- we are reading a story about a man reading a synopsis of an adventure story. Rather than a stirring narrative, The Mound is a travelogue of an imaginary place, inserted into a lesser Lovecraft tale. The tale would have been better served if the framing device had been left out, and the conquistador had been the protagonist (or, perhaps, left out altogether, with the ethnologist playing an exploratory role, rather than reading about another's expedition). It's Lovecraft phoning in a Merritt pastiche for a client who apparently stiffed him- that doesn't sound very promising. That being said, for the true Lovecraft fan, it is worth reading, as it concerns not only the sinister Vaults of Zin, but also locales mentioned in The Whisperer in Darkness:

They’ve been inside the earth, too — there are openings which human beings know nothing of — some of them are in these very Vermont hills — and great worlds of unknown life down there; blue-litten K’n-yan, red-litten Yoth, and black, lightless N'kai.

The story also features a somewhat jarring, totally unexpected characterization of an old friend:

Temples to Great Tulu, a spirit of universal harmony anciently symbolised as the octopus-headed god who had brought all men down from the stars, were the most richly constructed objects in all K’n-yan

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Popul Vuh, the Animated Series

Oh, my poor, neglected blog... it's been a busy month, juggling two jobs with other social obligations. So, with little time for posting, I'll use that old "post a video" gambit. Inspired by James Maliszewski's Tamoachan retrospective, here's a beautiful animated video of the Quiché Maya epic Popol Vuh, which details the creation cycles leading up to the present day, and the exploits of twin god-heroes Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. One of the highlights of the narrative is the slaying of Vucub-Caquix (Seven Macaw), the "sun" of the previous creation cycle, and his monstrous sons Zipacná and Cabracán, personifications of earthquakes. Another high point in the narrative involves the descent of the twin heroes into Xibalba, the underworld, in which they engage the deities of the dead in the ritual ballgame. Anyway, enough of my yapping, here's part one of Patricia Amlin's beautiful animation, with visuals based on Mayan ceramics:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Latrine Lurker

One of my favorite destinations on the Web is Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology, a cornucopia of information concerning- you got it- tetrapods.

A recent post related a tale, alternately hilarious and alarming, of two-toed sloths, lurking in latrines and snacking on the... uh... poopy goodness... to be found within.

Look at the claws on the sucker in the first picture- I think I'd rather deal with an otyugh!

Friday, May 7, 2010

High-Octane Nightmare Fuel

The faint of heart should not click this link to an article which details the discovery of a new species of leech which attaches itself to the mucous membranes of the nasal sinuses, and uses eight "teeth" in a single jaw to gain access to sweet, sweet blood.

Once again, nature presents us with something which makes the fevered imaginings of a Poe or Lovecraft seem tame by comparison.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ragnarock Redux

Yesterday, I had a brief conversation with two tourists who have been stranded in New York due to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. What could be more evocative of Ragnarok than the eruption of a volcano which had been buried beneath a glacier? Ice and fire, hrímþursar and Múspellsmegir, the two elemental forces between which Iceland is sandwiched, both impinging on the lives of the children of the Twenty-First Century.

Given the relatively scant mention of the Sons of Muspell in extant Old Norse literary works, I am inclined to agree with Bertha Phillpotts' thesis that Surtur gained prominence in Norse mythology after the colonization of Iceland. At any rate, Surtur appears to be a completely different sort of supernatural being than Logi, the personification of fire (note the gorgeous illustrations at the linked site!) with which Loki engaged in an eating contest in Utgard-Loki's hall.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Never Did Work on the Blogroll...

I was too busy having- if you must know- adventures.

Living in a part of the country which still has evidence of centuries of human occupation is a wonderful thing because we have (duh duh dununuh) ruins to explore.

The Old Croton Aqueduct, which used to supply water to New York City (the aqueduct terminated in the reservoir which served as the setting of ***SPOILER ALERT*** Caleb Carr's The Alienist), now underlies a trail, which leads from Croton-on-Hudson to Manhattan. The weather being fantastic, a hike was in order- I started at the Lenoir Preserve, a nature sanctuary on the site of two old estates, and hiked down to the aqueduct trail.

A view from a terraced garden to an archway, through which one must walk to access a wooded, precipitous path to the trailway, doesn't this just scream "Here be adventure?":

A closer view reveals crossed branches, seeming to ward off the curious:

A scramble downhill to the Aqueduct Trail, which abuts the site of ruined estates:

Here can be found evidence of a bygone era, a time before the oceans drank Depression pauperized Atlantis now-forgotten tycoons:

Actually, I believe that the "ruins" are part of the original Untermyer Estate, part of which was transformed into Untermyer Park, which gained infamy through a connection with the notorious Son of Sam case. The park itself, rumored to be the site of unhallowed rituals, is definitely worthy of a future post.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Little Housekeeping is in Order

I started this blog mainly in order to post comments at OSR blogs, but I have been very remiss in linking to other blog. At this stage, I would consider myself OSR adjacent- my paucity of posts has mainly dealt with inspirational reading culled from folklore.

My gaming background is fairly deep, but narrow- I was introduced to the hobby through Moldvay Basic, then dabbled with a bit of Moldvay/Cook Expert, then went on the AD&D1E and never looked back to Basic (pity, but the siren song of d10 for fighter hit points was too hard to ignore). In high school, I played a fair amount of TFT, and Gamma World was a continuous one-shot diversion. To my shame, although I love HPL, I have never played a game of Call of Cthulhu. I actually find a lot of Lovecraft to be pretty funny- distressed gentlefolk who find themselves under siege by indescribable horrors which they then proceed to describe, love it but don't find it scary. I never did get to AD&D2E (why change a system that works for a lesser imitator), played a one-off Vampire game but decided that any "modern" simulation tends to draw out the Jane's enthusiast.

It has been a while since I've rolled a bunch of polyhedrons, but it's good to start reading about the hobby again, with the provision that it'll lead to playing once more.

I'll take this week to get a decent blogroll going, and finally throw the old skull into the ring for reals.

Monday, March 22, 2010

From Hibernia to the Astral Plane, via the Pliocene Five Planes

Reading over my last post's links to The Book of Invasions, I could not help but be reminded of Julian May's "Pliocene Exiles' Saga", which began with 1981's The Many-Colored Land. In the book, two related extraterrestrial races, the Tanu (based on the Tuatha de Danann) and the Firvulag (a mash-up of the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians) have emigrated to Pliocene-era Earth, forced out by the society which had given rise to them due to their adherance to an ancient religion rooted in race-based ritualistic warfare. The two races exhibit formidable psychic powers- the Firvulag have operant abilities (illusion-spinning being a particular talent), the Tanu having latent abilities which are stimulated to even more potent operancy through the agency of torcs. The status quo between the two races is disturbed by time-traveling 21st Century dissidents who choose to pass through a one-way time portal in Southern France. The arrival of humans, who are genetically compatible with the extraterrestrials (yeah, it's not hard science fiction at all), upsets the equilibrium of the two races, leading to an eschatological conclusion to extraterrestrial rule.

When I conceived the original title of this post, I had been under the false impression that The Many-Colored Land had been published in the late 70's, and that the githyanki/githzerai conflict had been inspired by the Tanu/Firvulag split in May's series. The book was, however, published in 1981, the same year in which the Fiend Folio was published. Charles Stross' githyanki (a name cribbed from George R. R. Martin's The Dying of the Light) originally appeared in White Dwarf #12, published in 1979, though I can find no mention of the githzerai making an appearance in the magazine. The original thesis of my post being shot down by the intrusion of fact, I would now propose that the inspiration of the conflict could be the Vadhagh/Nhadragh enmity in Michael Moorcock's Corum novels, which were also inspired by Celtic legendry. The Vadhagh and Nhadragh, like the Tanu and Firvulag, are also paranormally-gifted humanoid elder races shaken up by the advent of humanity.

At any rate, Julian May's novels are a goldmine for ideas concerning psionics, and a nice alternative take on Charles Stross' creations (potentially invaluable to those wanted to avoid entanglement with I.P. lawyers). Technological enhancement of psychic powers, "elves" who employ energy weapons and suborbital flyers, illusion-spinning mutant freaks- all can be found in May's gloriously sprawling books. In my research, I discovered that White Dwarf #51 contained writeups of May's creations- I wonder how many readers noticed a certain similarity to previous Fiend Folio creations.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Firbolg Ruminations

This being the eve of St. Patrick's day, it would be most appropriate to write about the Fir Bolg, a people described in the Book of Invasions as having been descended from an earlier people, the Nemedians, who were subjugated by the Fomorians. There are various theories regarding the derivation of the name, a possible translation of Fir Bolg would be "men with bags", according to legend, the name refers to a period of slavery, during which the Fir Bolg hauled dirt from fertile lowlands to less productive lands in leather bags. In some versions of the legend, these bags were sewn into leather boats, which were used by the Fir Bolg to sail to freedom in their ancestral homeland. Another possibly etymology would link the Fir Bolg to a Celtic thunder god, and attempts have been made to conflate them with the Belgae who Caesar mentioned in his Gallic War Commentaries.

According to legend, the Fir Bolg were defeated by the Tuatha Dé Danann in the First Battle of Mag Tuiredh, but were granted the province of Connacht due to their valor. In TheTain, Cuchulainn's foster-brother Ferdia was a noted Fir Bolg.

Despite there being no indication of superhuman stature in the Irish legends, the Firbolg (sic) managed to make it into the "Giants" section of the Monster Manual 2, along with the Fomorians of legend (another legendary foe of the Tuatha dé Danann). The Firbolg was presented as a sort of giant magical trickster, a leprechaun with a pituary condition. It was also the beginning of a wonky trend (continued into second edition AD&D) in which the damage inflicted by giants took the form (weapon type x N + strength bonus), rather than the classic Xd6 of the original Monster Manual giants. For game purposes, I like to conflate Fir Bolg and Gáe Bolg, so any Firbolgs encountered tend to be armed with double-sized spears and like weapons (tridents, partisans, spetums, and particularly harpoons- which seem to be a good substitute for the original barbed spear o' doom).

The computer real-time tactical game Myth: The Fallen Lords featured a really nice alternate portrayal of the Fir Bolg as forest-dwelling archers who, judging from the manual illustrations, came across as neo-Neanderthals.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Little Musical Interlude, in Keeping with the Season

Not having the luxury of that much free time, it's hard to keep up with a decent posting schedule, but not posting would inevitably lead to dropping this endeavor entirely. In the interests of staying in this game, here's a musical prelude to St. Patrick's Day:

The song Dearg Doom (an unholy mix of Gaelic and English loosely translated as "Red Destroyer") comes from the band's 1973 The Táin album, inspired by the Táin Bo Cuailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley"). The annotated Horslips lyrics page has a funny item about the genesis of the song (which is an unholy mash-up of folk epic and Marvel Comics- conflating Cúchulainn with Dr. Doom).

The blazing guitar riff that anchors the song is the traditional O'Neill's Cavalry. The look of the video, the band's outfits, and the subject matter all remind me of Spinal Tap's Stonehenge, I'd love to know if there was a connection. Of special interest is the chainmail "glove" and silver paint on the lead singer's hand, a nod to Nuada of the Silver Hand, king of the Tuatha de Danann, and a cognate of Nodens.

Oddly enough, this song became a number one dance hit in Germany. Who'd a thunk it? The "Jethro Tull-esque" song Trouble with a Capital 'T', from the Book of Invasions album was frequently found on pub jukeboxes in my neck of the woods. King of the Fairies (NO LAUGHING!) is a great instrumental from the Dancehall Sweethearts album.

In 2004, the Decemberists released a pseudo-metal (Art Metal?) album also based (loosely in their case) The Táin.

Monday, March 8, 2010

About the Nym

The nym I am blogging under is a tribute to tenth century Icelandic viking and poet Egil Skallagrimsson, who was immortalized in the saga which bears his name. Much of the content of the Icelandic sagas is very matter-of-fact (genealogies and minutely-detailed recollections of political and social events in the the Norse world), there are occasional glimpses of outré subject matter, recounted in the same generally dispassionate tone as the mundane events. The presence of half-trolls and shape-changers in the community, uniped attacks, and struggles with undead are told with a tone suitable to a newspaper's "Community Events" column.

In Egil's Saga, there is an account of the exhumation of Egil's bones, and the following description of his skull:

The skull was wondrous large, but still more out of the common way was its heaviness. It was all wave-marked on the surface like a shell. Skapti then wished to try the thickness of the skull. He took a good-sized hand-axe, and brandishing it aloft in one hand, brought down the back of it with force on the skull to break it. But where the blow fell the bone whitened, but neither was dinted nor cracked.

This seemingly outlandish description was cited by some scholars who wished to dispute the veracity of the saga, but UCLA professor Jesse L. Byock proposed that Egil suffered from Paget's Syndrome, a condition which causes abnormal bone growth. The picture on the blog is that of the skull of an individual with Paget's Syndrome.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gifts Gary Gave Us

Now, on the second anniversary of Gary Gygax' death, I feel compelled to write concerning the man's contributions to his fans' lives. Gary's love for the English language suffused all of his work- his prose used a glorious palette of purples, or, as he would put it mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac and deep blue. What other individual has ever inspired fourteen-year olds to casually throw around words such as milieu, or phrases such as in durance vile? Imagine the consternation of hundreds of high school teachers, scratching their heads in puzzlement as they reached for their dictionaries, wondering where a precocious freshman had encountered such highfalutin' words. Though he wrote for an initial audience of wargaming enthusiasts, history buffs, and college students, his narrative voice never changed, even though his target audience came to include many children and adolescents- his writing never took on a condescending tone. While there have never been any studies of the phenomenon, I would have to guess that exposure to Gary's writing was a guaranteed boost for SAT verbal scores.

Gary broadened our scope, he inspired us to seek out obscure reference works and largely unsung legends, as well as the fiction that inspired him. Without Gary, how many of us would have read The Kalevala, The Tain, the Icelandic sagas, La Chanson de Roland?

While Gary's fans were an imaginative lot to begin with, Gary gave us a means to pool our imaginations, to share our particular interests as we created shared narratives. Some brought a love of classical myth, some an interest in film, some a knowledge of Medieval history, of organismal biology, of martial arts, all had something to throw into the communal stewpot of our games and campaigns. Gary took the typically private life of the imagination, and gave us tools to make exercise of imagination a public endeavor.

Although I never had the honor of meeting the man, his works still resonate with me, and his avuncular kindness and good humor shine through in posts that I have read subsequent to his passing. While the best way to honor his legacy would be to throw some 20-siders, it's a workday and a weeknight, so this long-overdue tribute will have to suffice.