Mini-Review: World of the Unknown – Ghosts

Usborne’s World of the Unknown: Ghosts was the first book the nascent children’s publisher put out, back in 1977. Penned by Christopher Maynard, it was a lavishly illustrated introduction to the subject that took up a slim 32 pages. Despite the brevity that format forces on him, Maynard is able to go into surprising depth – offering a range of ghost stories ranging from the well-known to the surprisingly obscure, along with an overview of ghost-hunting practices and sceptical explanations of significant hauntings.

As the first release from a new publishing house, it’s not a bad choice – you’ve got exciting subject matter, you’ve got a vivid presentation of said subject matter, and you have a larger form factor which makes it stand out. Compared to, say, the twee and tame subject matter of the Ladybird series, and you’ve got the Usborne difference as it was at the time perfectly expressed: whilst some children’s publishers took the view that kid’s books should be soothing and charming (at the risk of being boring), Usborne’s material was often a bit more exciting.

Arguably, in fact, Ghosts was basically a pre-teen’s equivalent to the sort of occult coffee table books that I’ve covered here before from time to time – and when you pitch it that way, I can’t imagine other publishers from the era putting out something similar. The World of the Unknown books were some of my favourites in the library at school, and it’s delightful that Usborne have reprinted this first volume for new generations to shiver over, with an introduction by Reece Shearsmith being the only new addition over the basically can’t-be-improved-on original.

Same Title, Different Spirit

What’s in a name? Sure, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – but if you called roses “roses” and called turds “roses” you’d have an enormous amount of confusion on your hands. A little while back on a folk-horror themed Facebook discussion I was in, there was a bit of confusion about the existence of two books bearing the utterly badass title of The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology – one a credible academic text, one a silly coffee table book from the 1970s which I and others had fond memories of seeing in our local libraries as late as the early 1990s. As it turns out, both books have merits – one is good, one is so bad it’s good – so I thought as a public service I’d offer a bit of disambiguation here as well as reviewing them.

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (Robbins Version)

Originally published in 1959, Rossell Hope Robbins’ Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology is a rigorously researched and sourced text, offering a massive resource for anyone researching the specific flavour of witchcraft under the microscope here.

See, when Robbins refers to “witchcraft” here, he’s really talking to a very specific cultural phenomenon. He doesn’t mean the practice of magic or occult arts, or the concepts in cultures beyond Europe and the European colonies in North America which could be translated as “witchcraft” if you wanted to. He refers, instead, to the very specific belief, prevalent in Europe and North America from the late 1400s to the 1700s, that there was a type of person out there called a “witch” who would make a pact with the Devil to deliberate cause hardship and misery within the community, and who, precisely because they derived their powers from a pact with the Devil, should be treated as a heretic rather than their crimes being handled by the secular courts.

Continue reading “Same Title, Different Spirit”

Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

Continue reading “Digging Up Spooky Roots”

Save vs. Libel, Pt. 2: The Rumour Dies, the Scars Remain

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

As outlined in the first part of this article, the popular rumours smearing Dungeons & Dragons were largely driven by the James Dallas Egbert III case, but soon took on a life of their own. It would take other hands, however, to really bring them to the absurd pitch that they’d reach during the Satanic Panic – and the primary driver of that process was Patricia Pulling.

You can see Pulling as the David Icke of Dungeons & Dragons conspiracy theories: many of her ideas were parroted from others, her credentials and competence as a researcher and investigator were wildly overstated, and she’s mostly notable for weaving all of the different theories she picked up from others into a dizzyingly paranoid collage, a fear-riddled look at the world in which almost anything she didn’t approve of was part of a grand conspiracy to destroy America’s children.

The major difference between Pulling and Icke is this: in Britain we laugh at our extreme conspiracy theorists, in America they get elected President. Whilst Pulling never attained quite that level of power she did end up with an undue level of influence – particularly within police forces which turned to her as a consultant on “occult crime” – which resulted in her being treated as an expert in criminal cases when in fact her credentials were not up to snuff. (If you want an illustration of how dangerous it is to have unqualified amateurs posing as experts and hyping their personal conspiracy theories to the police, you could do a lot worse than doing some Googling on the subject of the West Memphis Three.)

Continue reading “Save vs. Libel, Pt. 2: The Rumour Dies, the Scars Remain”

Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

The most infamous variant of this story is Jack Chick’s second most paranoid tract, Dark Dungeons. (Chick’s most paranoid comic is, of course, The Last Generation.) The beloved tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is not a mere hobby, but an indoctrination system for occultism and Satanism – one which teaches participants real magic, drives them insane, and causes them to commit suicide. It’s an implausible story, rendered even weirder when someone tries to get the idea across in a brief little comic with unintentionally hilarious and highly quotable dialogue, a surprisingly progressive gender ratio in the gaming group depicted, and an evil Dungeon Master drawn by an artist who can’t quite conceal their secret attraction to hot goth ladies that their religion won’t let them act on.

It’s an urban myth which had a pretty brief shelf life. The movies Mazes & Monsters and Skullduggery were based on it, but after they had their day in the Sun it was largely evangelists riding the Satanic Panic bandwagon pushing the concept – and most of them moved on to other targets after a while. The current boom in popularity of D&D thanks to hit streaming shows like Critical Role, Harmonquest and the like is pretty much the last nail in the coffin; this conspiracy theory is the sort of thing which hinges on tabletop RPGs being a poorly-understood thing where people don’t have much of an idea of what goes on in a typical game session, and now that there’s plentiful examples online of people who can apparently bathe and look after themselves gaming happily the mystery is gone.

A discussion of the wider issue of where the Satanic Panic came from, why it happened, and why it died down is something you could right multiple PhD theses on – but I’m not going to go that broad this time around. Instead, I’m going to cover a brace of materials which, between them, illustrate where the particular moral panic surrounding tabletop RPGs emerged, why it stopped, and how some of the gaming community’s worst habits of the present day can be traced back to the fight against censorious moral panics of the past.

Continue reading “Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error”

Fool Me Once, Dzyan On You…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Among the various changes that have happened at Chaosium since they went under new management has been the appointment of a new Executive Editor for their fiction line, James Lowder. Much of his work since the takeover has apparently focused on handling wayward payments to contributors and contractural issues; if these problems were anything like those that had infamously affected their RPG publishing efforts, Lowder had a big job on his plate. He has now issued new submission guidelines for Chaosium’s line of tie-in books, with an eye to relaunching it in 2018.

Many tabletop RPG companies have taken a sidestep into the world of producing more conventional books – if you can arrange to get an RPG rulebook printed, after all, you’ve got most of the logistical issues licked – and back in the day Chaosium were no exception. Starting in 1993, their non-gamebook releases included both original fiction and reprints of old material, with game lines like the Arthurian-themed Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu each, as a result of being based on various literary traditions (of very different vintages), having a strong body of material available for Chaosium to republish.

Continue reading “Fool Me Once, Dzyan On You…”