Sunday, August 14, 2016
Once again, I find myself posting a farewell on this blog. The end? I don't know. But I'm switching my focus to my new "official" website, matthewjconstantine.com. You'll be able to read the same amazingly on-point ranting about how great Star Trek is, how terrible the 90s were, and how handsome Jason Statham is (Jason, you gotta get back on the horse, man. Do Crank 3, already!).
In the Mouth of Dorkness has been an amazing outlet for me for several years. Brad has moved on to One Perfect Shot (and the ITMODcast, of course). I hope to continue to engage folks through my new site. So, please come join me. I've got some big stuff planned in the near future. Well, it's big to me. See you there.
Chaosium’s “Cycle Books” are a fantastic series of themed anthologies (for the most part). But they do have one thing that I’m not thrilled with, usual series editor Robert M. Price. It’s not one thing I can necessarily point to. Sometimes his introductions give away major plot points and spoil the story’s surprise. That’s annoying. Especially as short stories often live and die on their dramatic or surprising endings. He also has a sort of Tom Snyder style pomposity. There’s something in his writing style that makes me think of a boorish cocktail guest, speaking too loudly, relentlessly name-dropping, and smoking especially rank cigarettes. And finally, I find myself in disagreement with him on his interpretations of Lovecraft and the Mythos on a semi-frequent basis. However, I must admit that his knowledge of the subject is deep and profound, with a wide reach. He frequently pulls stories and information from surprising sources.
With “The Yith Cycle” he has collected several stories either directly involving the Great Race of Yith, or dealing with related topics like mind transference or unusual time travel. The Great Race featured in the original H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow Out of Time,” which is among my very favorite. Their history is strange and convoluted, but the gist is that they’re aliens from somewhere very distant, who transferred their minds into creatures in Earth’s distant past. From there, they reached forward into the minds of various beings throughout Earth’s history (including the protagonist of “The Shadow Out of Time”) and into our far future. In that future, in a time after Humanity has passed into forgotten history, they will eventually project themselves into beatle-like things in that future. The Great Race is not especially evil or hostile. In fact, while they certainly couldn’t be said to have Humanity’s interests at heart, they are fairly civil, and for an alien species, somewhat relatable. Simple, right?
The anthology starts with the novel, “The Purple Sapphire,” which I have reviewed previously. I was not a fan. And in truth, I just don’t see why it was included. Connecting it to the concepts of the Yith seems like a stretch. You could have put in H. Rider Haggard’s “She” or any number of other “lost civilization” or “reincarnation” novels and it would have had just as much point, and perhaps less racism (perhaps?). From there things improve. There are several good stories and interesting reads. I especially liked ‘The Horror from Yith,’ a round-robin story by three authors. Each segment explores and expands upon a theme, using some recurring characters. One of the authors has a follow-up story included, ‘The Changeling,’ which is also quite good. ‘The Sands of Time’ is a cool old science fiction story, reminding one of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others of his ilk. And the next story, by Richard L. Tierney is quite interesting, building on Lovecraft, but also on ‘The Sands of Time,’ and using other genre references. It has a very 70s, anti-hero kinda thing going on.
One thing that started to bother me a lot were the typos. I know Chaosium isn’t a big publishing company, but I found the frequency of typos, especially in the second half of the book to be off-putting.
The book would have been stronger without the inclusion of “The Purple Sapphire,” but features enough good stories that anyone interested in The Great Race should certainly give it a read. If you want a bit more science fiction in your Lovecraftian, cosmic horror, this is the way to go.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Monday, August 1, 2016
Fantasy isn’t my genre of choice. I’m a Science Fiction fan. Even when it’s mostly a matter of aesthetics, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, for example. I prefer laser guns and repulsor beams to spells and magic carpets. Yet, there are plenty of exceptions. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is the obvious. I can’t get enough of those stories. And like many lonely, sad teenage boys, I read Michael Moorcock’s Elric with great eagerness (though I preferred Corum). And then there’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. They’re something else.
Contemporary Fantasy literature tends to be descended from two major figures in the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. There were others, of course, but those two represent two of the major themes and styles. Tolkien’s side of the spectrum is High Fantasy, with lots of magic, destiny, mysticism, and Medievalism. Howard’s is more Low Fantasy, focusing on Nietzschean individualism, earthiness, and Antediluvianism. Yet, those two ends of the spectrum are not the final words on the genre. There are other voices that have done a great deal to influence writers over the decades. And Fritz Leiber is up there at the top of the list. Reading the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, you can’t help but feel like you’re entering a familiar world, even though things are very weird. Dungeons & Dragons, deeply rooted in Tolkien though it is, was obviously trying to reach for something from Leiber. In spite of the 30s/40s origin of the characters, the feel the stories elicit is of those wonderful 70s paperback covers. There’s a pulpiness, sure. But there’s also wistful nostalgia, bitterness, and hints of psychedelia, that makes it feel far more modern.
“Swords Against Death” is the second collection of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser stories. Leiber went back and arranged the stories into chronological order, and fleshed some things out in the 60s. So in this volume, the two heroes (?) are fast friends, well acquainted with each other, and building something of a reputation. Over the course of the stories, they achieve some victories, finally put to rest some ghosts, and gain some weird patrons. They also explore the world enough for you to get a sense that Nehwon is far stranger place than expected. Lankhmar, the city where most of the stories are based, is a kind of fantasy, urban archetype. All the seedy, degenerate, corrupt, and exciting things you’d expect in a medieval or ancient metropolis are present and thriving. But leaving that city, the world around is strange and fractured, wild and weird.
For Fantasy fans, Leiber’s stories are must read classics. For fans of tabletop RPGs, especially games like D&D or Rolemaster, these tales are an absolute must. But for folks who simply enjoy well told tales, these stories are also quite good. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are a great odd couple team. Fritz Leiber is a solid writer, and more ‘Literary’ than a lot of his contemporaries, who manages to inject a good deal of humor along with a lot of sadness in to his adventure stories.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
I recently did something I’d been debating for a long time. I plunked down the $75. for the new edition of Chaosium’s classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, “Horror on the Orient Express.” I got one of their ‘damaged’ copies which saved quite a few precious pennies. And it’s in fine shape. Looked like it could have come right out of the delivery box at a store. A slight crinkling on the box near one corner is all that could be seen as ‘damage.’ And the box is a monster. It’s over-full, with a daunting amount of material to sift through.
Here’s the thing, though. I’m not really a pre-made adventure guy. Since I started running roleplaying games when I was a lad, I’ve almost always written my own stories, and improvised the rest. I’ve read published adventures from companies, but usually to get ideas. I’ve played in some, but the best ones didn’t seem pre-made, because the game master (storyguide, DM, whatever) made it his own (I have, sadly, not had a female GM to the best of my knowledge/memory). Once, long ago, I ran the haunted house scenario from the Call of Cthulhu basic book, but I guess I re-worked it enough that the one player familiar with the scenario didn’t recognize it for what it was until the climax. So, I’m worried about the idea of running not just a published adventure, but an entire campaign. The reports I’m seeing on this game is that it takes a year or more to go through the whole thing (real time). That’s huge.
The obvious thing to do, and what I likely would do, is to run a shorter published campaign or some adventures to get a handle on the process, and on how I would make them my own. But there, I’m still running into my old problems. I’ve been bad about connecting with the gaming community in my area ever since I moved here 8 years ago. And I haven’t managed to do a good job of convincing my friends to try it (other than a brief, dramatically failed attempt a couple years ago). Yet, the draw of the hobby keeps me going; keeps me hoping and spit-balling.
So, start small, huh? OK. This new version of the campaign has several side adventures that are scattered across time, going all the way back to ancient Rome. One of the first is set in Victorian London. That got me to thinking, maybe I could run that side adventure as a kind of preamble. That’s a start, I guess.
And, with a scenario set in the late 1800s that leads into the greater Orient Express campaign, it got me to thinking about connections. One of the challenges that face a lot of RPG groups when a scenario or campaign begins is ‘why are we all together?’ But the Call of Cthulhu RPG takes place, typically, in a time when social groups were common; gentlemen’s clubs and the like. That presents a solid way to join the characters together. Add in a few bits, and it’s not too hard to have them be members of a group that’s large enough to use for replacement characters (should the nearly inevitable event of character death/madness happen). A few more bits, and you could have a club with some ties or interests in the occult. In the case of “Horror on the Orient Express” it even gives a link across the years between the events of the 1800s and the primary campaign in the 1920s. And of course, Professor Smith, as another link between the eras, can be linked with the social club.
Now, the 1890s and 1920s were hardly times of enlightenment. Women (all women over 21) didn’t get the vote in England until 1928. But, while that was the reality, and I don’t like to completely shy away from real life evils, making some things a bit more pleasant for potential female players is also a concern. Since Call of Cthulhu typically favors more intellectual and artistic characters, and those people tend to be on the forefront of social progress, I got to thinking that making an element of the characters’ social club women’s suffrage would be interesting. I think adding some era-grounded politics will help set the stage. Especially since there are some red-herrings about communists and the like in the campaign. Because I always like to dream bigger than I should, it also might work to help set the stage for a future campaign. If “Horror on the Orient Express” turned out well, I’d love to follow it up with another London based campaign, “Tatters of the King.” Again, I’m getting ahead of myself, but I love to plant seeds in one story that might bloom in a future story. So, even if I have no idea how this trip on the Orient Express might go or how it might end, I figure I’d try to drop in a few bits to introduce themes from “Tatters of the King.”
I have no idea if I’ll eventually run this campaign or not. No idea if it will go the distance, or if it will be successful enough to demand a follow-up. For now, it’s just a lot of reading and dreaming.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
After his many misadventures in “The Hard Way Up,” John Grimes is given a mission nobody wants with a ship captained by a guy who really doesn’t want John around. But things go off the rails pretty quick, with John and a tough lady cop stuck together in a dilly of a pickle.
A. Bertram Chandler published “The Broken Cycle” eight years later than the stories in “The Hard Way Up,” and it’s clear tastes had changed a bit, or the author had become a bit more untethered. There is some strong language and some semi-graphic sex. Where earlier Grimes stories would have been solidly PG, this book roves into more R-rated territory. And the sexism is still there, even if it’s been tempered a bit by modernity.
The story is fast paced and mostly unexpected. There was a point where I could tell there wasn’t much left of the book, and I had NO idea how things could possibly wrap up. Often, I had no idea where Chandler was taking me. One of the strengths of these Grimes stories is they read fast. That helps to gloss over some of the shortcomings. In the case of this book, there really isn’t much story or seemingly much point. It’s just some stuff that happens. It’s kind of like a filler episode from a TV series. I don’t feel like anything of note was advanced, but it’s still perfectly enjoyable to read it while waiting for a better story (hopefully) in the next book. Had the book been longer or less readable, with no more content, it might have become a grueling slog.
I’m taking a break from John Grimes now that I’ve finished the first omnibus in which I found this. Baen published “To the Galactic Rim” a few years ago as the first part in their complete reprinting of Chandler’s Grimes stores. Fans of classic science fiction should go get these. While I didn’t love this particular book (I enjoyed it just fine), the omnibus in general is great stuff.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Thursday, July 7, 2016
The third book in A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes series, “The Hard Way Up” follows Grimes’ first foray into commanding a vessel of his own. Across seven short stories, we’re treated to Grimes and his crew facing off against various Science Fictional dilemmas and foes.
It’s classic Golden Age Science Fiction stuff. Rocket ships, bug-eyed aliens, space dames, and Australians. Interesting worlds and trouble with authority. It’s solid entertainment. This isn’t high art. This isn’t going to change hearts and minds. This is fun, adventurous fiction. A great read. It was written in the 60s and early 70s, so there is some of the typical sexism and I think a bit of racism; but not worse than usual from that time. Otherwise, a great read.
-Matthew J. Constantine