A Child's First Cosmic Horror: Berkeley Square Number 50

You may know that I love hunting down old monster books from my childhood. A chain of research has netted me quite the find. I think it’s the first taste I ever had of cosmic horror.

I made a Tumblr of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. That turned into tracking down the werewolf and vampire books that fear master Stephen Gammell had also illustrated. And, dear readers, it was exploring that series that returned a nightmare from my childhood to my hands.

The Eerie Series was dedicated to introducing kids to the mythology of monsters. There were plenty of other books that gave encyclopedic listings of movie plots, like the beloved Ian Thorne Monster Series from Crestwood House. The Eerie Series, however, used as many classical legends as possible. This was where, as I recall, I learned about wolfskin belts, the proper way to stake a vampire, and the werewolf fighting power of the simple apron.

Mildred Heavewater of Murder with Monsters has a thing about counting sesame seeds because of the Eerie series.

So I order the Ghosts volume and find the book that gave me nightmares. I had the hardcover burn itself into my memory . . .

. . . but I also like the weird "Let the Buyer Beware" of the paperback.

There’s a lot of classic ghosts stories and very faded photographs inside. Also, some wonderful Stephen Gammell art. That’s not important. What matters is the weird terror of chapter 2, “The Nameless Horror of Berkeley Square.”

I’d been able to recite it from memory since I was seven. Memories of the inhuman illustration (seen above) haunted me. I’ve used Berkeley Square #50 in a Call of Cthulhu session! Worry started to well up within me: would the tale be as gruesome as I remember?

Hell, yes.

Madness. Not just fear or terror, but out and out madness. That grab’s an elementary schooler’s attention. Oh, it’s on.

Ancient tentacled beings from within the Earth! This is so different than any other ghost story you could find in similar collections. The only tale that drips with almost the same amount of WTFery is the Annan Road appearances. I’ll have to give that one a write-up sometime.

None of this is parsimonious. Nothing hangs together thematically, just a steady stream of scary weirdness. That randomness is more realistic, in a way, than a story with a more coherent theme crafted by a writer. It made the Horror tantalizingly plausible for young me. It's messy, the way real life is.

“Don’t let it touch me.” Brilliant. Less really is more.

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And that’s it. There’s no reveal, no italicized Lovecratian whammer or (as A Podcraft to the Curious wonderfully said) a Jamesian whallop. It’s still there, children, and it’ll kill you in weird ways. No wonder this became my favorite ghost story of all time.

Maybe it was exposure to this that made me appreciate Japanese ghosts. The onryo, the "vengeful spirits" of Ju-On and later The Grudge, work for me. I think Ju-On 2 was the only horror film to ever make me scream. After all, the pale apparition Kayako doesn’t leave clues or moan out messages. She kills you in unknown ways for reasons that she doesn’t care to explain. Matt Alt gives them a proper treatment in his excellent book Yurei Attack!, and he pulls no punches. These are ghosts as a force of nature, a hurricane in ectoplasm. Jacob Marley will give you exposition. These spooks want your jaw.

Apparently Berkeley Square Number 50 has been quiet, the hauntings coincidentally stopping after the end of yellow journalism. One wonders if the Daily Mail could stir up some spirits. Still, when my wife asked me I’d want to travel in the British Isles, there was only one place that belonged in the same sentence as Loch Ness.

Update!

My Lovecraft-meets-John-Carpenter’s-Thing story will see print soon in Alban Lake’s Miskatonic Nightmares! I had submitted it to their “Miskatonic Dreams’ anthology, but quickly got the response: “Nope. This goes in ‘Nightmares.’” Check it out!

Stephen Gammell's Vampire Illustrations

I’d just cracked open a copy of the Eerie Series’ s Meet The Vampire and received a pleasant (for me, that is) surprise inside. A decade before Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Stephen Gammell was already weaving nightmares. The picture above is from the Vlad the Impaler section, and it’s gorgeous. If it was in the better known SSTTITD series, I think it’d be regarded as one of his best.

Of course we need a general vampire …

… some classic atmospheric vagueness with mist …

… a vampire escaping destruction by disintegrating into creatures of the night …

…  and bats that are interesting, to say the least.

I have to hunt down the werewolf volumes to see if he’s illustrated that one too. I’m pretty sure he did the Witch one.

Expect a big post this weekend; I'm going to finish off this JUMP OUT AT THE AUDIENCE chapter in one rush to get closer to the things people are expecting . . . like her.

I Blog All of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. In the Dark. Part 1.

Part the First: Why The Hell Am I Doing This?

I would’ve been beaten for admitting this in elementary school, or at least shamed. I can hear the theoretical sounds of scorn and mocking laughter echoing throughout the crowded cafeteria in my head as I even consider typing this confession. Still, we can’t go forward without it, and I better get used to working through fear anyway.

I have never read any volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Blasphemy, right? Me, the guy who posts monster pictures, never read the defining horror books of a generation? How could I, of all people, miss out on one of the most defining fright books of my childhood?

As a kid, two things warred within my mind. Firstly, I loved monsters. Secondly, I was terrified of gore. Well, mostly the concept of gore.  I didn’t accidentally change the channel to a Herschel Gordon Lewis marathon, or get traumatized by Jason or Freddy. The most terrifying thing I’d glimpsed was Large Marge from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

I was just an imaginative kid with ADHD; the gore in my head that I imagined inside those films kept me well away. Just the concept keep me awake at night. Like any good horror, it was the implications that terrified me.

How did that conflict work out? Well, mostly I found my refuge in Godzilla movies, 50’s sci-fi, and mythology. I checked out so many cryptozoology books and Crestwood Monster Series volumes at a time that the local library eased their maximum borrowing restriction for me. All those things were refreshingly safe.

Somehow, this porch was terrifying.

I thus avoided the three Scary Stories books like the plague. I had no idea about the words inside, but I had seen some of those legendary pictures. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a series in three parts of freaky folklore from a wide variety of sources. Most people didn’t pick them up for the stories, though. SSTTITD hit the big time because of the detailed, expressive, nauseating artwork of Stephen Gammell, and I had caught a glimpse of those terrifying pictures.

No way, I vowed back then. I’m never cracking open those things; I’d probably vomit within seconds.

I got better, though.

During my freshman year in high school, my friend decided to try shock therapy. “Sit down,” he said, cackling like an old man in a slasher flick. “I have something that will change your life.” Then we watched the first two Hellraiser films back to back.

And I saw, well, this. Click if you're prepared.

Okay, I naively thought, that’s as bad as it could possibly get. If that’s gore, I can handle it. Things like Cannibal Holocaust were not on my radar yet, you see.

But I never went back and read those books. A little Goosebumps, a lot of Lovecraft and King, but not SSTTITD.

It’s time to change that.

Part the Second: How the Hell Are you Going to Do This?

My stated goal with this blog is to read the stories in the way they were meant to be read. I, a grown-ass man, will walk into my darkened bedroom, sneak under my covers, and sit in a crouch while wielding a flashlight. I will probably annoy the hell out of my wife, who is completely ignorant of this part of my plan. I’ll let you all know what her reaction is.

Part the Third: Why the Hell Are Doing This?

Because people have been trying to ban these books for years. Decades after its publication, the American Library Association still had it on the most challenged list as of 2012. They may just be a documentary about them. If it’s bothered that many parents, terrified so children, and caused more arguments about different editions than fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, I want to be in on the conversation and I have to go find a flashlight …

Next Time: A Big Toe. And an arm. Possibly a liver. Maybe a tail, too.

The Knife, the Library, and the Green Car

I take a knife to my library sometimes. Don’t worry, I only do it after hours.

You may be backing away at this point, so I’ll back up.

I live in a point in Florida where rural meets suburb. Within twenty minutes of my house is a sports stadium and casino. Within five, you can see horses ridden on city streets. Given that, there’s always a bunch of creepy Everglades-and-mist roads to transverse. The eeriest one was renovated just after my scariest night ever, where I had to call and apologize to 911 while things went down. More on that someday. The current creepiest one holds my local library.

It’s a small branch, near a horse farm, a pub, and enough trees to advance on MacBeth’s real estate. There’s no good reason to go there at night unless you’re as forgetful as me.

If you’re that absent-minded, you may realize that you have library books due long after you’ve put the kids to bed. “Oh, crap,” you think, “how many of DVDs are supposed to have gone back today? Those are expensive.” Thus, you gather up your materials for a midnight drop-slot run. After all, drop-slot returns count as being given in a day early, and fines can otherwise add up.

My problem is that I write horror fiction. I only get paid for fantasy currently, but that’s a matter of time and a tangent in any case. Stick me on a lonely path surrounded by woods, out of view of the main roads, and my imagination will start to eat itself. It doesn’t matter if I’m within one minute driving distance of a lit supermarket plaza; all I can see around me is a backdrop to shoot the next Swamp Thing movie in.

The knife comes along with me. It made my acquaintance when I borrowed my Dad’s car. The wheel went flat, but all I found in the trunk was Justin Bieber lamps, 70’s porn, an absence of automotive tools, and the little knife. My father is a classic get-rich-quick schemer, and packs his vehicle with accordingly random objects. The knife looked like it could be useful.

And I wouldn’t even bring it if it wasn’t for the Green Car.

Logically, I know there’s no creatures hiding in the forest. I’ll even grant you that the likelihood of encountering homicidal drifters is nearly insignificant. No, what sets my imagination afire is the Green Car. Come midnight, the only things in the parking lot are myself and the drop-slots on one end and the parked car on the far, darkened side other of the parking lot.

Now, I know intellectually that there’s lots of potential explanations for its presence. Someone in the neighborhood has a small driveway, or carpools home perhaps. I don’t know. Lots of things are more realistic that “They’re in there, watching me.”

But I am descended from tens of thousands of years of cagey bastards who assumed that predators were nearby, so I look askance at the tinted windows and wonder if someone’s looking back. Part of my brain’s wired to obsess over predators, and most of the time I let it exercise in its cage by writing about monsters, but every so often it rattles the bars and screams mostly empty warnings.

I could, I know, just drive by the silent, shadowed car. Flash my brights, see if anyone’s there. Odds are that the worst I’ll do is stir some poor homeless family sleeping in their safe parking spot. Still, the predator radar part of my brain doesn’t care about odds.

Thus, there you’ll find me, tiny little fishing knife in one hand, Darth Vader bag in the other, stuffing graphic novels and DVDs into the drop-slot while I look over my shoulder and keep an eye on my very close and still running car with its door unlocked.

The Green Car is Stephen King. It’s Richard Matheson. It’s the slightly outer in the normal, the thing that starts you wondering where reality keeps its teeth and how sharp they are. It’s the mystery that you fear to solve.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s worth a quarter a day per book not to deal with it. Other times, though, I wonder if I’d miss it. After all, everyone loves a hint of the mysterious. Twenty minutes of chilling atmosphere is an inspiring thing for a writer.

But I think I’ll stop by the library on my way home tomorrow. I got books coming due soon.

Spies Stole My Monsters

As a kid, my monster book buying options were limited. Too young to travel to bookstores, I had to rely on garage sales and library quarter bins. I canvassed like an archaeologist, carefully searching for anything in my interests.

And, along the way, I got really pissed at spies.

Now, I loved real-life spies. The only books I checked out of the library for most of elementary school were mostly nonfiction on monsters, myths, spies, and detectives. Man, did I get a kick out of Operation Mincemeat, where Britain dropped a dead body with fake spy identification and war plans off of the Spanish coast during WWII.

Fictional spies, however, spent years trolling me.

Every so often, I would get a temporary thrill as I spotted a book destined to crush my hopes. The titles are lost to me, but I can recall their flavor. Book after book, with names like The Minotaur Operation, The Gargoyle Sanction, The Gorgon Imperative. Often, the covers would even have a cool picture of the monster in question. And guns, too! Were they books about minotaurs hunted with guns? Oh my Ackerman, my young mind would wonder, are they about minotaurs with guns?

The blurbs wouldn’t always be the same. Something like:

Dashing, middle-aged, and strangely attractive Harvey Danger Whitebread is caught in a web of corruption, conspiracies, corrupt conspiracies, and Nazis…

And I’d lower the book, fooled once again.

Now, I freely admit that younger me had laughably narrow taste in reading material. I’ve expanded my interests quite a bit since then. Still, if I see a badass monster on the cover, I away wince if it turns out to be a metaphorical representation of a code name.

So now, I’m reading… this…

 

Somehow, I am still dedicated to clearing out the trashy paperbacks I've accumulated in the name of being a Goodreads-based Mystery Science Theater 3000 for you, the people. So far, this one is not making me hopeful. Still, I will give this book one test.

No matter how many points it loses in weird gender politics, I will hold one to that last, single point if it can just provide me with a real goddamned satyr.

Your move, Linda Crockett Gray.

Planning a Murder Part 3: Do-It-Yourself Vampire Construction

Writing monster fiction is like a salad bar; you take servings of whatever legends you like and build the one that fits your story.

Once I started Murder With Monsters, I already had the narrative structure in my head. This was going to be CSI with more monsters and less magic. Seriously, the forensics machines on CSI stray near Clarke’s Law: any sufficient advance piece of technology might as well be magically lazy writing, but I digress. Based on my preferences, I had to build a vampire that could interact with society without just becoming a person with fake fangs on.

There were a few rules that developed in my forebrain.

1) Vampirism May Not Be Fun for My Protagonist

In some books (like Newman’s Anno Dracula, if I remember right), vampirism is just another life choice. I wanted to go someplace different. After all, my detective narrator needed something to complain about, right? I mean, aside from being stuck with a name like Mildred Heavewater. To my mind, her condition shouldn't just be superpowers with a packaged overbite.

That was the mental breakthrough: thinking of vampirism not as a curse, but with the word “condition.”

I decided the lens I’d see the vampirism through was that of a disease victim. As a teacher, I've had to show a lot of videos where STD sufferers tell their side of the story, and that was my depressing inspiration. Vampirism would be something that changes your “life;” you might join a support group or might not, but it never becomes an overall net positive and never goes away.

Life offers plenty of unfortunate examples. One of my friends looked at the manuscript and was shocked at the idea that Mildred spent her high school career banished to a portable on the edge of her school, learning in solitary confinement. That just didn’t seem like modern thinking to my friend. I hated to inform her that I based that entirely off of the life story of a middle school age AIDS victim from the 80’s.

I admit, I write about werewolves and Bigfoot because sometimes I’m sick of the reality I live in.

2) Vampirism Must Be Fun for the Readers


So while Mildred might complain, I want you all to be glad you’re reading about a vampire. I picked out a serving of the entertaining baggage that’s cropped up in pop culture. Her being strong enough to pitch mailboxes and fast enough to outrun taxis give me the freedom to write crazy little action scenes.

3) Vampirism Can’t Interfere with the Mystery

I know Lugosi chose to play Dracula as a mesmerizing hypnotist, but I’m not going to give a detective the ability to mentally control people. Try picturing a Columbo episode that ends twenty-two minutes* in with, “Just one more thing; did you kill your wife?”

4) Vampirism Needs Weaknesses

Now, here’s the tricky one.
I want these to mostly serve as a touchstone for the reader. After all, weaknesses are the most famous part of some monsters. More people know how to kill a werewolves than what a werewolf looks like. Of course, the standard questions come out.

“She’s a vampire; she has a thing for daylight and stakes, right?” 

Yes, I am aware that Ol' Count D could originally walk in daylight and had more reason to fear a bowie knife than a wooden stake. Stoker’s Dracula is surprisingly far from our modern conception of bloodsucker. Still, I want sunlight and stakes. Feels classic.

It’s about standards.

So far, I’ve been building a relatively generic vampire. Deep within me flares an urge to be different, a desire to be weird. When that happens, I know I can always count on my misspent childhood.
 

You may have noticed from my Tumblr feed that I consumed a freakish amount of monster books as a kid. The goofy parts always stuck with me.  I may not recall everything about medieval werewolf lore, but I’ll never forget the story about a lycanthrope getting defeated by being beaten with an apron. Throw in a suitably ridiculous picture, and voilà! Perfect memory maker.

In some long-forgotten vampire library book (that undoubtedly had the creative name of “Vampires” with a generic subtitle) lurked a picture burned into my mind to this day. Picture a classic Dracula knock-off on his nightly search for blood. His terrible fanged grin is contorted into a look of, “Come on, you’re killing me!” as he kneels on the roof of a house, counting a gigantic mess of seeds.

Consulting the text, I was overjoyed when the author assured me that certain European vampires were compelled to count spilled seeds until sunrise. It was a wonderfully ridiculous detail to learn for an eight-year-old who was, at max, about eighty percent sure that vampires weren’t real. Shockingly, fiction rarely makes use of this weakness. The X-Files had a wonderfully comical scene in a vampire who rose from somewhere near The Sandlot runs into this weakness.

 

“You’re killing me again, Smalls!”

That decision flavored everything from then on. Whether the counting compulsion became a major part of any specific Mildred mystery story, its mere existence lets my readers know that this world was weird and people have to deal with it. This is a New York City where people might wear their clothes inside out for a week if there’s been a rash of faerie muggers.

Yeah, I know, so many books and movies use the “You shouldn’t believe every vampire movie” line of thinking, but screw it. Bring on the garlic. Let’s have things get kooky and see how things roll. 

Except that leaves two issues, and two biggies at that. Two weaknesses that imply significantly bad things about vampires in any cosmology.

It’s the mirror, you see. The mirror, and also the damned the holy symbol. Well, probably not damned. I mean, it could be damned, but then it’s not a problem.

You know what I mean.

Now, I had a world-building problem on my hand…

*Twenty-two minutes might seem like a lot, but I started rewatching Columbo recently with my phone’s stopwatch feature in hand. It turns out, like clockwork, Columbo arrives almost exactly twenty minutes in. Only the nastiest and most cunning Columbo murderers complete their killing within fifteen minutes.

Planning a Murder Part 2: Golems, Pilgrims, and Cthulhu’s Job Interview

And no, I’m not referring to Cthulhu’s role in the best part of the last Hitchhiker’s book.

Last blog post, I described how I got an idea for a world of monsters from my book Murder with Monster. Now I needed to figure out who’s running the show. My idea was having creatures that represented different archetypes, just because I liked the significance of having titles like Lord of the Winged. I might need to work on the names, but the idea was there.

I sat down right in the middle of my role-playing game and passed the time between turns by creating the political structure of a nonhuman world.  It beats Candy Crush, y’know? As my friends chattered on around me, I came to the big questions involving monster society: when did this start and why?

For the when, I picked Babylon. Books like Childcraft's The Magic of Words... 


and shows like The Real Ghostbusters...
 

had made Babylon and its myths and monsters cool for me. Why not have the inter-species relations start as soon as humans started to build cities? That’d make the association so old, I’d be ingrained into people; monsters are normalized.

Which leads us to the question, “Why aren’t they eating the humans?”

Firstly, I decided that some still were.

If I’m making the monsters people, than I hold to the principal that some people are dicks. I didn’t nail down exactly how many still preyed on society, though I knew it had to be small. If half of all monsters ate humans, you’d have less of a stable society and more like a tabletop war game of humans vs. beasties. No, it was a tiny percentage, but it had to be there. Like all writers, I needed conflict. 

But back to the friendly ones: why don’t they eat us? I gradually thought of Thanksgiving.

In elementary school, you’re taught a simplistic story of a corn-sharing sit-down dinner between Pilgrims and Native Americans. Later, you learn the more complicated, hidden motives for the pilgrims, ones that involve religious power plays, possible hijackings, and an over-riding urge for beer. 

And yet the elementary school textbooks still have smiling pilgrims and Native Americans.

No human really knows, I finally decided. There’s the high-minded answers that end up in my world’s history classes, but I thought it’d be fun to keep the real reasons complicated and  secret. Most people go about their lives buying into the talk about diplomatic ideals, but a few people wonder, “Why are the monsters being so nice? Why are they keeping us around? Are they waiting for something?”

I do know. You’ll have to wait a few books to find out.

In any case, a sensible world appeared in my head. Now I needed monster to run it. 

You should all know something about me. I ran a role-playing game campaign for my friends once that was an 1890s police procedural in New York. I had just read The Alienist, and walked to do some Teddy Roosevelt imitations. We were planning the game when I suddenly became aware of a betting pool.

“What, you guys are betting on the game? What about?”

“Can’t tell you,” they said while grinning at each other. “You’d influence it. There’s money involved.”

Because I’m a nosy git, I gradually pierced together things. Well, that and they kept the betting slips in a stocking. So, what were my friends so sure of that they were willing to throw their cash down over it?

Golems. The bet was over golems.

My friends, knowing that I’m a monster lover, folklore fanatic, Jewish, and me (they knew me very well), were betting how long it would take me to put the animated clay man of my people into our game. I mean, just because I did it in our Weird Wars game, and the Mutants and Masterminds game after that, and…

So, of course, if I’m making the council of nonhumans, I start with the Golem. Someone has to represent the Creations, the Frankenstein monsters, the talking dolls, and stone statues.

Heck, there were Jews in Babylon. Someone made a golem, and maybe he was one of the Founding Freaks.

Setting the deal in Babylon makes things fall into place. They have a legendary merman who taught humans agriculture; he’s our Aquaman. There’s plenty of choice for the animated dead. Are there any famous ghosts, I wonder?

Well, the most famous dead guy in Babylonian lore is Enkidu, the wildman proto-Wolverine. The Epic of Gilgamesh kicks into high gear when he dies (spoiler alert for the literal oldest story). If I need a famous dead guy, Enkidu could be a ghost.

I needed a lord of aerial beings, so I chose someone Babylonian to promote and immediately kill them off. Hey, I want the Jersey Devil on the council; he had to replace someone.

I grab the Wendigo to be more culturally inclusive and because, in any incarnation, he’s cool. Wendigo is probably the least controlled of these Lords and Ladies, I figure. The Jersey Devil might act like Snooki, but everybody’s happy if the Wendigo just sticks to the wilderness and doesn’t eat people. 

How about Cthulhu?

I solemnly realize I’m betraying Lovecraft’s core principal of cosmic otherness and alien inaccessibility to humanity. What the hell, though. It’ll be fun. Robert E. Howard had Conan occasionally stab the Great Old Ones, so I could throw them into a murder mystery. Maybe the inhabitants of Rl’yeh didn’t so much as float down from the stars as crash here like Optimus Prime’s Ark, possibly running from something worse. I realize I’m doing something like Alien Nation with shoggoths.

Now, one thing jumps to my forebrain. If I’m using the big guy this way, this is not Lovecraftian horror. This is closer to his science fiction, where you get monsters who are alien scientists while still being horrible, genocidal fascists. Seriously, why anyone casts the Old Ones or the Great Race of Yith as good guys is beyond me.

In the end, why not?

Hell, Lovecraft was a rampaging racist anyway. Maybe the shoggoths and Rl’yehians in his stories are about as accurately portrayed as he portrayed African Americans, Asian Americans, women, and everyone else who wasn’t a white male member of the Colonial America fan club.

Scenes start playing out in my head of what happened when Cthulhu met Tiamat, and that wins me over. I’m saving that part for book two.

Finally, how about devils and demons?

Screw those guys, I figured. Making the forces of Hell nice turned the world from a cop show grittiness to Hotel Transylvania. No, there’s a list of creatures that I absolutely don’t believe in even making good guys, and demons are the in the top four.

Maybe the monsters’ good PR comes from them handling the demons for the humans. Kenneth Hite did good work in GURPS Cabal with his monsters against the interdimensional Qlippoth, after all. My scenarios would be much less covert conspiracy and more a cross between Toho Films and Marvel Comics. Visions of the Wendigo grappling with the Great Beast of Revelation played out in my head…

When I finished, it looked like this.

You can see my protagonist’s character sheet in the background. Also of note is Cthulhu’s “original” name that I almost tried. When I changed the focus from a game character to an actual novel, I quickly came to my senses. If the big guy is in the public domain, if he’s met the Ghostbusters and Eric Cartman, he can be in my book.

Also, I changed “abominations” to “starborn;” Cthulhu’s been around long enough to understand how PR works.

So, now I had a world. It was time to make someone to stomp around in it.

Planning a Murder Part 1: I Blame Sailor Moon

Since Murder With Monsters comes out Saturday, I thought it behooved me to set down the strange and laborious path that leads an otherwise rational individual to self-publish. Let stand as a warning to the curious, or walk my dark path yourself. I'll retweet you, fellow sinner.

In any case, for the first entry, I feel like I have to point fingers. Who do I have to blame for this strange direction in my life? Who's at fault for two years of having vampires, gargoyles, and sasquatch on my brain even more than usual?

Makes_Me_Think_The_Wrong_Things

Blame Sailor Moon

It really is her fault.

Yes, it's true. About two years ago, my role-playing game group were all pretending to be magical girls. Because of that, I publish a book this month with the Loch Ness Monster on the cover and the Jersey Devil inside taking selfies.

I really should sketch that timeline out with a white board.

Writers get inspiration from weird things. Stephen King wrote The Mist after fantasizing about pterodactyls swooping through supermarkets. Conan exists because Robert E. Howard rewrote a Kull the Conqueror story to please an edition. I wrote grew my police procedural in strange soil.

The game in question was two levels of Kevin Baconesqe separation from Sailor Moon. I refer to what is, for many, the ur-example of the magical girl genre. School girl gets magic powers, monster attack town, romance happens, lots of people die. Really, it's stunning how the body count of the first season Sailor Moon dwarfs the entire televised run of G.I.Joe. That's one reason it hooked a lot of people on anime back in the 90's days. 

One night, my high school girlfriend brought her VHS tapes over for a sleepover. Yes, my Mom was very lenient. It was better than a back alley, to her mind.

My mother's fears were not to be realized that night. We hit play after dinner, and when the Sun came up, my girlfriend was passed out on the bed while I was spellbound by watching a reformed villain get brutally murdered by dozens of spikes while his prospective girlfriend watched. I quickly realized that these Japanese cartoons could turn on the brutality switch on a second’s notice.

This prepped me for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which is best thought of as Sailor Moon mixed with Breaking Bad. It's about the step-by-step corruption of several teenage magical girls. Imagine Sabrina the Teenaged Witch disemboweling rapists on a subway while she's wearing a cutesy Halloween costume. You start out thinking it'll be sweet and light, than the character who is obviously the protagonist gets her head bitten off three episodes in.

I loved showing that episodes to the kids in the middle school anime club I ran. Their tears have less calories than adult tears.

That brutal yet touching show captivated me, so a friend found me an easy sell when he asked, “Would you want to role-play it?” Apparently someone had written a free indie role-playing game called Magical Burst to simulate the spiraling corruption of super-powered teenage girls, and my friend Kev wanted to run it. Now, this man had already ran a tabletop RPG version of Pokemon that incorporated the Cthulhu Mythos and a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelations; I knew this would be a gonzo game to remember.

It was. My girls kept dying.

Not in the classic Dungeons & Dragons “You enter the room, and the wizard dies” way, mind you. They had romantically tragic deaths, full of drama that kept me from getting too frustrated. Still, after two or three characters, I wanted to try something new.

Since it was a dimension-hopping game, we were allowed to create entire worlds to justify the ridiculous backgrounds of our characters. The game was all about teenage girls making pacts with alien entities for power, and I was tempted to try something more traditionally dark yet paradoxically lighter.

Those alien power-granters were jerks; what if some world somewhere fought them? Maybe they had some traditional inhuman creatures. What would a world run by monsters be like, if they were open and public about it? Most importantly for me, what kind of dark super-powered girl could I make? Was there a type of powerful monster that you could theoretically volunteer to become?

“Hey, Kev,” I asked my game master over the phone. “Can my next girl be a vampire?”

As you do, I threw myself in the game. As these things go, I never got to tell the kind of stories that I wanted. I desperately desired to focus on the world of monster cops, without the distraction of dimension-hopping magical girls or Machiavellian fluffy aliens.

When I sat down at my laptop that November and felt the urge to type, I pruned everything that went beyond even my lax and liberal standard of crazy. I started with a dead policewoman answering an inter-species domestic disturbance call, and the rest gradually took form.

People say that many gamers are frustrated writers. You know what relieves that frustration?

Writing.

So I did, and I created something near and dear to my heart, something with bits of Columbo and Isaac Asimov mixed with a dollop of sarcastic New York Jews and splashed with Lovecraft, mythology, and the Universal Monsters. But somewhere, deep in my murder mystery’s DNA, there’s the slightest evolutionary trace of Sailor Moon.

We all have weird branches in our family trees. I'm just glad there's no genealogical resemblance; Mildred would kill me if I tried to fit her into a schoolgirl outfit.

Watch The Purge. Live The Purge. Eat Ice Cream.

Not fifteen minutes after finishing The Purge on DVD, I was skulking through a darkened house with a wooden sword in hand.

I should explain. It might be Horror Block's fault.

The shirt made me do it, officer.

The shirt made me do it, officer.

Having gotten a Purge shirt in my Horror Block, I snagged both movies out of the library to decide if I wanted to advertise them in public. My wife and I had just finished the first part and were kibitzing about the details when I get a call from a friend.

"Hey. I, uh, don't have time to explain, but you you help me check if my parents house was robbed?"

Shortly after, I climb into his car, worried that he'll make a crack about the combination of my "Survive the Night" T-shirt and wooden practice katana.

"Good idea," he says approvingly."

"Thanks. Being a child of the 80's, I brought you nunchucks and a flashlight."

Not the best role models, perhaps.

Not the best role models, perhaps.

Over the later drive, I am regaled with the tale of a desperate relative for whom a cripplig Yu-Gi-Oh card addiction lead to more nefarious things I should've known the damn things were a gateway drug to actual drugs; I sold them once, after all. Ever try to explain to a parent how a kid could spend sixty bucks of birthday money on three pieces of paper?

"How old is he? Twelve?"

"Twenty-two."

He had made noises about stopping by the house of vacationing relatives, and it was now our job to make sure he was about and stealing things. This was stupid, on the face of it. Grown adults should not decide to play live-action ninja turtles for keeps. Maybe I went along because it just fit into the theme of the night.

As we crossed a street to approach the house, a car passed by me and undoubtedly saw a crazy with a samurai sword walking down the darkened street. It's a wonder the cops didn't come and add to the hilarity.

Ninja weapons in hand, we enter the moderately lit house, which is basically two houses connected with a fenced-in pool. Thus, we begin a tense search, weapons in hand, scanning every shadow for a possible Trap Card.

I was a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament director. I'd rather go through a real Purge than do that 

I was a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament director. I'd rather go through a real Purge than do that 

Not gonna lie; we found jack. I had a fudgesicle. I figured I was owed that, at least.

As we headed out, I had to wonder how much the DVD and shirt affected my behavior. If I had instead popped in one of my other library DVDs, like It Follows or Housebound, would I have been in the mindset to do something downright stupid? I have no idea. How much did pop culture make my brain turn off? I don't know. Some studies suggest a link between pop culture and aggression, but I'm a grown-up, not a kid binging Ninja Turtles. I admit, I haymakered my brother once because I saw Batman do it in a comic, but I also set a toaster on fire and blew up a light bulb with milk. Kids just do stupid things. At the end of the night, I can't link my bizarre and irresponsible behavior to a somewhat goofy movie too much.

But at least I got ice cream.

What is Your Pleasure, Sir? My June Horror Block!

'... but there was one box which I found exceedingly puzzling, and which I felt much averse from showing to other eyes."

-H.P.Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Dammit_Nyarlathotep_Give_Me_The_Pretzels

 

I admit it. I'm a total freak for Lovecraft. I slipped an invocation to Cthulhu into my Bar Mitzvah prayers. I tried to get my middle school music class to sing the campy mythos songs in the back of the Call of Cthulhu RPG 3rd Edtion, much to the confusion of the teacher. So when I hear Horror Block is doing a month with Cthulhu, how could I possibly keep ahold of my money?

Horror Block is a subsidiary of Nerd Block, where the idea is to send you about $60 in random stuff each month for $20 plus shipping; in my case, about $30. With money to burn from the gift certificates students threw at me as the school year ended, how can I refuse? I mean, sure, I could have wisely used them like a responsible adult.

So I ordered the June Horror Block!

The green paper? Yeah, not giving clues to where I live. I saw how that worked out for Piers Anthony.

The green paper? Yeah, not giving clues to where I live. I saw how that worked out for Piers Anthony.

The box looks very attractive, which I suppose is a drawback if you have a mail service that leaves parcels on your front door. 

Ive_Seen_Worse_Sealed_Evil_In_A_Can

Only a strip of packing tape prevented me from beholding the true alien horrors of the universe. Eh. I've seen worse security on sources of evil and destruction.

Yeah, hobo Alice Cooper with scissors could totally unleash this evil.

Yeah, hobo Alice Cooper with scissors could totally unleash this evil.

Hoping for something labeled "CTHULHU CULT," I cast open the box!

Packed_Like_The_Angles_Are_all_Wrong

What do we have? Initially, we have a hashtag (Hi, Horror Block!), a shirt, and...

Old_Castro_Always_Kept_One_In_His_Pants

...behold, the tiniest plush Cthulhu ever. Seriously, I have three of the smaller ones, and they're all bigger than this. He's certainly cute, though.

No one really gets the number of eyes right..

No one really gets the number of eyes right..

It was my wife who spoke up and brought me untapped joy. She passed her Idea Roll, and recognized what I could not.

I_See_Forever_Hug_Me

Those twin pools of adorable cosmic indifference were embroidered, not glued on.

I_Can_Nap_Soundly_No_More

I had found baby's first Cthulhu! A snip of the tag, and my kidlet had lost her first 1d6 sanity points!

The company that makes this toy must be really new. The day I opened my box, their website only contained one image of their plush toys and more "Under Construction" labels then a 90's Geocities site.

Lets_Try_To_Make_It_Right_Oh_Goddamit

Then we have the shirt, which... I didn't recognize. I Googled the slogan, but only got links to that Five Nights at Freddy's song that can get stuck in my head for up to 10 hours at a time. A little more research identified it as a Purge: Anarchy shirt... which I hadn't seen yet. I immediately ordered it from the library, not wanting to be like the 7th graders at my school who wear Misfits T-Shirts without having even heard of Glenn Danzig or Michale Graves.

Not about to relive that year of college where every laundry day, I had to wear that Earth: Final Conflict shirt...

Not about to relive that year of college where every laundry day, I had to wear that Earth: Final Conflict shirt...

Then we have an Alien ice tray.

Quarantne_Quarantine

I don't care if it rarely looks as good frozen, my Han Solo in carbonite tray proves I'm a sucker for these things. Pretty sure I could've got one with the Alien's head, but I like this one.

Knife_Will_Be_Lost_In_Point_Five_Seconds_Once_Opened

A Scream retro figure. I like this toy series, although I wish I'd gotten Sam from my yearly Halloween movie staple Trick R' Treat. Not being very actiony, he'll go on the DVD shelf.

I had my friends come over recently with their five-year-old. He asked "Who's the ghost?" I calmly explained that he was just a guy in a mask who murders people, to which his mom replied, "Oh, he's a guy in a mask!" She then waved her arms at me and mouthed "No murder! No murder!" Apparently, I had broken the No Murder Rule; better wear my Purge T-Shirt.

Cover accurately depicts what happens if you mess up his scene. Not safe for any work, including Christian's.

Cover accurately depicts what happens if you mess up his scene. Not safe for any work, including Christian's.

Wrap that up with an issue of Rue Morgue magazine. I suspect they're a staple of the box, considering they've offered 10% off codes for the service. Honestly, it's not a bad way to keep up a subscription.

The_Mark_On_The_Right_Is_Where_My_Friend_Swore_the_Disposable_Grill_Wouldn't_Damage_My_Table

All in all, not bad. The Cthulhu was a new kind I didn't have. The properties were all recognizable, except for The Purge, which is my fault since That Is A Thing. It is, right? Also, there was a cheat card included in case I truly failed my Cthulhu Mythos and Library Use rolls. My main worry was that I would get a Funko figure of "Human Guy Who Was in The Walking Dead for Like FIve Minutes." Overall, not a bad use of thirty bucks. Once my budget goes away from self-publishing, I might subscribe.

After all, even the box is useful.

After all, even I can only carry so many Monsters in My Pocket at a time...

After all, even I can only carry so many Monsters in My Pocket at a time...


Baby's First Beowulf

Some monsters have a pretty stable look. Ask ten people to describe Jason Voorhees and things will stay in the same blood-splattered ballpark. Other creatures have a more varied image. Take Bigfoot, for example. Whether you first saw a gentle giant in a children's book or the menacing fuzzy hand come through the bathroom window in The Legend of Boggy Creek, that initial impressions colors your imagination forever.

I just found where my Grendel came from, and he's got quite the pedigree.

I had a book series called Childcraft as a kid. I got introduced to a lot of things in there, from Flatland to A Wizard of Earthsea. And, having recently rediscovered my copy of The Magic of Words volume, I found this inside...

Beowulf.jpg

That vaguely Native American bad-ass with the thousand-yard stare brought back memories. He was the psychopath I pictured while reading John Gardner's Beowulf in high school. I suddenly remembered the amazing image waiting on the next page, and gently turned it as if I had discovered the missing chapter from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. What awaited me did not disappoint.

Grendel_By_Brian_Froud

That's it! That's him! That was the image I'd always had of Grendel in my head, the archetype for all my giants and ogres burned into my cerebellum.

And Childcraft knew better than to illustrate the full end of the tale.

Naked Angelina Jolie would wait for volume two.

Naked Angelina Jolie would wait for volume two.

I kept flipping through, and was stunned to suffer one of those moments where the world becomes smaller. The illustrator was Brian Froud, who did the visual designs for Jim Henson's Labyrinth. 

The_Babe_Yes_Really_That_Babe

I'd been a huge fan of Labyrinth since high school, once spending a weekend ding nothing but re-watching the VHS and playing X-Com: Terror From the Deep, forever cementing together in my head killer shellfish, fiery death, and David Bowie's mystical expanding groin.

"You remind me of the babe.""What babe?""The babe with the butter."

"You remind me of the babe.""What babe?""The babe with the butter."

It's weird to realize exactly who's had an effect on you when you're young. Thank you, Mister Froud. You gave me more monsters than I had realized.

If anyone else has realized that something from your childhood had an unexpected pedigree, leave it in the comments.

Why I Write Monsters

The Pishtaco, from Eden Studios' excellent Atlas of the Walking Dead.

The Pishtaco, from Eden Studios' excellent Atlas of the Walking Dead.

There’s a gentlemen down in South America who’s been wandering through people’s imagination for centuries. He’s called the pishtaco. Picture a pale fellow with a coat and a knife. What does he do with the knife? Simple, really. A pishtaco performs guerrilla liposuction to get his dinner; he likes a fatty menu without the middle step of cooking anything. He may be a multiple murderer, but he's not a pig; he doesn't eat all of the fat he harvests.

What to do with the leftovers? Ah, there’s the really interesting question. 

It depends when you’re asking, you see. One thing that most people have always agreed on is that he doesn't save for later; there’s no fridge out there that you really don’t want to open. No, our monster is the entrepreneurial type: he sells the fat to people. One wonders how far the Craigslist rabbit hole you have to go to find a pishtaco listing, but we’ll put that to the side for now. Any fantasy will blow away like cobwebs if you look too closely.

Pishtacos are brilliant economists; they vary their markets like no one’s business. Currently, they sell to pharmaceutical companies. You won’t find that on any corporate manifesto or the pages of the Wall Street Journal, of course. These are just the cold, hard facts bandied around the schoolyard and bonfire. Go back a little in time and you’ll see the diversification of the pishtaco portfolio. He'll sell his product as airplane fuel, or peddle it for machinery oil. Heck, the conquistadors themselves bought it to oil their church bells back in the day. Whatever best represents the local fear of outsiders, that’s the preferred market of the pishtaco.

I bet no one deliberately changed the business model. Every so often, I’d expect, you’d get a really keen storyteller. As they amused the rest of the schoolyard audience or their terrified grandkids, every so often one gifted tale-teller would improvise something. They’d have the pishtaco rolling around in their heard, squeezing out of their mouth into the ears of the listeners, and the host would just suddenly say, “And you know how those new airplanes the Europeans have really take off? Pishtaco fat in the engine! True story.” Everybody would squeal and shiver, and decades from then would find one of the audience would make a spark of their own, connecting other cultural woes to the pishtaco killer.

Stephen King, as usually, put it best. In Danse Macabre, a book I have lectured out of more than once, he says that “if movies are the dreams of the mass culture… then horror movies are the nightmares.” Of course you can apply that to more than movies, considering King himself pulls the Victorian obsession about sex out of a few paragraphs from Dracula. That’s why my favorite subject is the cavalcade of imaginary creatures we've dreamed up. I write about monsters because many of them are crystallized chunks of our brain walking around exhibition-style.

Sometimes we tame them. A three-hundred foot tall reptilian metaphor for our atomic nightmare can, through familiarity, become a friend to all children (although that slogan more properly belongs to his flying turtle rival). Even the most recent Godzilla had the big G rise out of the ocean to save us, pulling out all stops except having people on the beach scream, “Look, in the water! It’s a seagull! It’s a seaplane! It’s Godzilla!” Monsters can bounce back from domestication; Freddy Krueger was becoming more and more cartoonish until the under-discussed New Nightmare resharpened his claws. Every wild animal kept as a  pet has the instincts to maul you buried in its DNA, and monsters in our mind are no different. They break their leashes.

I love ‘em all, though.

So, hey there! I’m K. T Katzmann. I wrote an upcoming mystery novel about a Jewish vampire who falls in love with a Bigfoot, and I’ll be blogging here. Come back here for movie and book reviews and pontifications on the shapes that shamble out of our nightmares. At some point over the summer, I intend to watch and blog about what it’s like to watch nine Puppet Master movies in a row. I have no idea if I’ll enjoy that, but I’m willing to rip my heart out for you people.

After all, I’ll keep writing about monsters as long as you’re willing to read about it.