Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 1

Sure, Clark Ashton Smith’s stories are readily available online, it’s still nice to have hard copies of his works. When I originally read them it was in the Panther reprints of his Arkham House collections, which retain some tampering and revisions and censoring by various hands. When William Burns tipped me off on my previous article that Night Shade Books’ Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith series had presented the definitive versions of his short stories, restored as closely as possible to his intended texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, I decided to retire my Panther paperbacks – which by now are a bit tatty – and pick up the new line to reintroduce myself to Smith in a whole new way.

Connors and Hilger arrange the anthologies in as close to chronological order of composition of the stories as they can attain. This is a bit of a break from previous attempts to anthologise Smith, which have tended to collect the stories from his various fictional settings like Hyperborea and Zothique into little clumps, but it does mean that we get to see Smith’s writing evolve over the span of time presented.

It’s not exactly amateurish to begin with, mind. Connors and Hilger don’t include Smith’s juvenilia in the main run of the series – what was available at the time was collected in Miscellaneous Writings, a companion volume, and other early prose fiction from Smith has been rediscovered and reprinted by Hippocampus Press. Instead, volume one – The End of the Story, picks things up in 1925, when Smith – encouraged by his pen pal H.P. “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft – decided to try his hand at it.

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Bricking It On the Go

There’s some types of videogames which struggle to make a transition to a handheld format and some where, once they make the leap, feel like it’s almost their natural home. I’d include traditional, old-school platform games like the 2D Mario games in the latter category. Their clear, cartoonish graphics translate to smaller screens nicely, the gameplay is simple enough to not require particularly complex controls whilst having enough wrinkles to stay challenging, whilst at the same time the level structure means you can pick up or put down the game at a moment’s notice.

All this makes it rather weird why it took so long to get the handheld versions of the Super Mario Maker games right. The full-fat console versions (released on the Wii U for the first game and the Switch for the second game) provided a nice system for designing homebrew Mario levels based on the gameplay and physics of several different Mario games (Super Mario Bros.Super Mario Bros. 3Super Mario WorldNew Super Mario Bros. U), publish them to the Internet, and download and play other people’s levels. Should be simple, right?

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Unearthed Texts From the Old World and Far Future

Black Library’s extensive bibliography of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fiction, for the most part, consists of conventional novels and short stories, but from time to time they’ve produced texts of a different nature – books which are written entirely in-character, presented as artifacts from the settings in question. In recent years, Black Library’s produced some welcome reprints of some such books which they’d allowed to fall out of print a while back – one from the far future of Warhammer 40,000, and one bridging its setting and that of the Old World of Warhammer.

The Imperial Infantryman’s Handbook

This is a reprint of two books previously printed separately – the Imperial Munitorum Manual (by Graham McNeill) and the Imperial Infantryman’s Uplifting Primer (by Matt Ralphs). Both of these are internal documents from the Imperial Guard of Warhammer 40,000; the Munitorum Manual is a guide to its internal bureaucracy, logistical processes, equipment, medals, procedures and so on, whilst the Primer represents the sort of propaganda that its frontline troopers are bombarded with as a matter of course.

Presented as a convenient little pocketbook – and including a delightful section at the end providing a selection of prayers to the God-Emperor, modelled on the sort of condensed hymnals produced for the front line in the British Army, the Handbook – much like the constituent books that make it up – is an amusing read by itself, given that it highlights the dysfunction of the Imperium and the utter lies offered to its fighting forces via the disparity between the statements offered in there and the facts which the reader knows from other sources to be true.

In addition to this, it’s a nice prop for anyone into the 40K tabletop RPGs, or who plays LARPs inspired by the setting. One of my fondest experiences of the Death Unto Darkness LARP was playing an Ecclesiarchy priest leading the PCs in a stirring morning prayer, using the prayer section in the Uplifting Primer for fodder.

Liber Chaotica

First published as four separate books – Liber KhorneLiber SlaaneshLiber Nurgle and Liber Tzeentch – before being reprinted with a new Liber Undivided section of additional material at the end under the Liber Chaotica title, this is presented as a compilation of research on the nature of Chaos by Richter Kless, a scholar given special dispensation by the Grand Theogonist of the Church of Sigmar to plumb the Empire’s archives in search of forbidden knowledge. (The actual authors were Marijan von Staufer, for the Khorne and Slaanesh books, and Richard Williams for the remainder.)

What this actually amounts to is a gorgeous coffee table book of artwork, sketches, and little essays on Chaos, with flavourful scribblings in the margin and the like. In principle, this is a reprint of a reprint – the original combined Liber Chaotica having fallen out of print years ago – and part of me wonders whether some of the edges of the pages have been missed off here, given that some of the text spills off there. In addition, some of the random scribblings are incredibly hard to read, and being unable to check against the original I am not sure whether this was a deliberate aspect of the original books or an error that has worked its way in through the reprint process.

Still, nonetheless the book is here more for eye candy and the occasional little story than for any other purpose, and in that light it’s pretty neat. Whilst focused on the Old World of Warhammer (the setting which was blown up to make way for Age of Sigmar), there’s occasional insights into the Warhammer 40,000 universe via the medium of Kless utterly tripping balls. For Warhammer Fantasy Role Play purposes, this is a nice source of ideas for adventures, or a book you can just dump on the player characters and let them damn themselves with the information therein; there’s a few references to the End Times metaplot which brought an end to the setting, but not overwhelmingly so, and it doesn’t feel too out of place in the WFRP interpretation of the setting (which has a somewhat different focus from the wargame).

Surprisingly Far From Greenwich

Content warning: this movie drops some rape at you from more or less out of nowhere.

Catherine Bomarzini (Sherilyn Fenn) has inherited a magnificent Italian castle with enormous statues in its gardens and interiors that seem to be constructed from second-hand sets from Labyrinth. Having lived there in early childhood before moving to America, she’s thrilled to return and catch up with Martha (Hilary Mason), the castle caretaker and her childhood nurse, as well as her old friend from art school Gina (Charlie Spalding) who moved to Italy a while back to work in painting restoration. As Gina visits, the two of them catch a travelling circus act, led by smouldering magician Lawrence (Malcolm Jamieson), and Gina is so taken with the act she gets Catherine to invite the performers over to the castle for dinner.

At this point the circus performers drug Catherine and Gina and rape them; specifically, Lawrence assaults Catherine but then switches places with his twin brother Oliver (also Malcolm Jamieson) to complete the act, and whilst Oliver is busy with Catherine, Lawrence rapes Gina for good measure. (It is also strongly implied that whilst Lawrence is busy preparing Catherine for Oliver’s attention, Gina is being gang-raped by most of the rest of the cast.)

Gina and Catherine aren’t thrilled by what happened but decide to not call the police and just deal with it themselves, and go their separate ways. However, Catherine soon finds herself adrift in waves of ghostly visions, as she tries to discern the difference between Lawrence, who looks like a gentleman but behaves like a beast, and Oliver, who behaves like a gentleman but sometimes turns into a terrifying monster. Meanwhile, when Gina gets back to work she sets to restoring an ancient painting donated to the local church that seems to depict an ancient scene that might shed some light on the tragedy of Lawrence and Oliver.

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Mini-Review: A Bit of a Fixer-Upper…

Gene Wolfe didn’t spend much time in the here and now in his novels. A clear majority of them are set in other worlds or other time periods, and if you asked a Wolfe cultist to recommend you some of his work they’d probably cite Latro In the Mist, The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of Cerberus (and maybe The Wizard Knight) over any of his rare modern-day books, with the possible exception of his early career highlight Peace. The present didn’t really seem to be one of his interests; until The Sorcerer’s House, he hadn’t set a novel in the current era since 1990’s Pandora By Holly Hollander, and most of his modern-day novels were published in short breaks between major projects.

Just such a break presented itself in 2010, a point when Wolfe had completed The Wizard Knight and tacked another volume onto the Latro series, and sure enough he’s paid a brief visit to the present day in the form of The Sorcerer’s House, which has the worst cover I’ve ever seen on a Wolfe novel but might be the best novel he’s ever done in a contemporary setting since Peace.

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Kickstopper: The Gamer Who Would Be King

Among the gaming subgenres which have enjoyed a little renaissance thanks to Kickstarter are CRPGs of a certain vintage. Whilst producing something as lavish as, say, one of the more recent Witcher or Mass Effect games can involve a massive AAA budget and be a decidedly difficult product to handle on a Kickstarter budget, a top-down isometric-style RPG of the sort made popular by the first two Fallout games, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment is a much more modest affair; Shadowrun Returns and its Hong Kong-based sequel are good examples of CRPGs in this style which came about via Kickstarter.

What happens, though, when this sort of game tries to offer more than a mere RPG experience? We’re going to find out with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an attempt to add a kingdom management layer on top of a CRPG foundation.

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Valley of Destin(y/a)

Dorothea Tanning is not primarily known as a novelist; her main claim to fame is as an artist, one of the original generation of surrealists who managed to keep her work fresher, develop her ideas further, and continue working for much longer than many of her peers. After initially making a splash in the 1930s, she kept producing artwork into the 1990s; if you hurry, you can still catch the excellent exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern.

In parallel with her artistic career, she had a less widely-appreciated literary career, and once her paintings and sculptures stopped flowing she spent the last decade or two of her life concentrating on poetry and prose, with an emphasis on the former. Chasm, her sole novel, came out in 2004, but it had a long germination, being as it is an expansion and extensive revision of the earlier short story Abyss, which originally appeared in 1949 before appearing in a revised version in 1977.

The Arizona desert which had such a great aesthetic impact on Tanning herself when she and Max Ernst went to live there provides the setting of the novel. Deep in the desert lies the mansion called Windcote, a bizarre architectural excess built by Raoul Meridian, a powerful, patriarchal manipulator with a fetish for women’s hair and a “laboratory” in which he constructs his personal homegrown brand of fetish equipment. Meridian has, over his lifetime, embroiled himself in the life of multiple generations of what you could call the “Destina dynasty” – a line of women all called Destina, ever since in the 1680s a forefather declared that all daughters of the line would be called “Destina”. There are currently two Destinas at Windcote; the elderly Baroness and a small child, looked after by her governess Nelly.

The tedium of life at Windcote is about to be disrupted; over the course of a weekend Meridian expects to greet various guests, among which are Albert Exodus and his fiancée, Nadine Coussay. In a decidedly Rocky Horror Show move, Nadine is 100% fine with coming up to the lab to see what’s on the slab (implication: her, with various sex toys of Meridian’s design interfacing with various parts of her anatomy), which leaves Albert at a bit of a loose end. Rattling about the house, he has a little tea party with Destina, with whom he gains a creepy fixation even as he falls out of love with Nadine, and who shows him various gruesome trophies brought to her by a “friend” out there in the desert.

Albert becomes fixated on the idea that Destina’s friend is, in fact, a mountain lion, and persuades Nadine to give Meridian’s hand-crafted dildos a miss, just this evening, so that they can go creeping into the desert chasm where Destina meets with the lion and see the lion. The two of them should watch out – bad things happen in the desert at night, particularly to a pair of individuals who aren’t communicating well with each other. Meanwhile, back in the house, Nelly finally gets Meridian alone…

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