Category Archives: horror writing

H. P. Lovecraft Gaming

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Back in the early 1990’s my little group of game players turned the full power of nerd obsession on the fantasy role-playing game Call of Cthulhu.  It is a totally weird little game based on the novels and short stories of H. P. Lovecraft.   It is a game about solving mysteries that, if successfully solved, will lead you to confrontations with all-powerful ancient evils that you cannot win against.  And you keep playing until your character absorbs so many insanity points that they go completely insane.  Your character then becomes a minion of demonic and irresistible evil that the next player character you roll up will have to hunt and defeat.  It is not a game you ever win.  You merely have to learn to survive and stay sane, things at which the game is set up to make you fail.

In 1991 the television gods took an old vampire soap opera that I had loved in the 60’s and remade it.  Dark Shadows came back to life starring Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins (the Chariots of Fire guy playing the vampire role that would later have a part in the downfall of Johnny Depp.)  The lead player in our group, a kid who was such a nerd that he would go one to be in the intelligence division of the Marine Corps, decided his character would have to be the vampire Barnabas Collins.  He reasoned that the only way to fight big evils was to fight back with evil that had been converted back to goodness.

And his instincts were good.  Barnabas and his lady love, Victoria Winters, were the only player characters not eaten by the minions of Nyarlathotep in the first adventure.  And Victoria had to be raised from the dead by having Barnabas turn her into a Vampire.

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Of course, the very next challenge would be from a white witch voodoo priestess from New Orleans, the Vampire hunter Sofia Jefferson.  (She was an NPC, not Sofie’s player character).  And she had a special potion that, given to a vampire, would restore it to normal human life.

This was a problem for Barnabas, because he really depended on his powers as a vampire and was not willing to go on without those powers.  So the vampire hunter had to be avoided without killing her and putting an end to her good work fighting evil.  If you can’t tell from the picture, Sofia was blind, yet could see with uncanny vision through sightless eyes.

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The next player character added to survive more than one adventure borrowed Luis’s vampire idea by making his character from the movie Darkman, a Liam Neeson movie about a doctor who had burned his face off, but could become other people by wearing their cloned skin.  He was the lead investigator to help solve the werewolf problem in the bayou , and took on the dark circus adventure where the foolish sideshow people were trying to make money exhibiting the captured Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

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There was a lot of death and horrible murders in those game sessions, but not committed by the player characters.  They had to keep good notes and draw conclusions and manage their characters’ powers and assets.  Notes like these;

And so, while the game never ended to my satisfaction, the players did get the feel of acting in a horror movie and fighting on the side of goodness against evil.  It was weird, but definitely worth doing.

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Hearts in Atlantis (a book review)

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I finished reading this marvelous book over this dreary sunshiny weekend.  And I am totally surprised by how much I loved it.

This marvelous book, Hearts in Atlantis, is a book by Stephen King, whom I have always considered a dreary sunshiny popular writing hack.  I have learned by it, how wrong I have been all along about this author.  He is now established in my mind as a serious literary giant  (as opposed to a comic literary giant like Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Pratchett).  He deals with the emotions of fear, loss, angst, and regret, and so falls too easily into the horror writer category.  I misjudged him for so many years because I read Carrie, his first success, and Firestarter… well, I tried to read Firestarter and only got 40 pages in when it was due back at the library… and… I mean, I never fail to finish a book I have chosen to read.  And then I did.  But both of those books showed me a writer who was trying too hard, following some road map of novel writing borrowed from some other writer he admired.  And it all becomes formulaic and trite, sometimes even boring.  He is mimicking someone else’s voice.  I filed him in the “authors who are hack writers” drawer next to R.L. Stine.

But this book proved me totally wrong.  I had to take King out and put him in a different drawer.  It starts out as a typical Stephen King monster story with a first section with a young boy as the protagonist and introducing us to the monstrous “low men in yellow coats”.  But it is a total trick to draw us in.  And it is even a very good monster story.  Like H.P. Lovecraft he has learned the lesson that a good monster story is not about the monster.  And showing us the monster directly is something that should only be done very briefly, at just the right moment in the plot.  Like the works of David Mitchell, this section connects you to threads from King’s other books, especially the Dark Tower series, which I must now read in the very near future.  Stephen King has learned through practice to write like a master.

But the theme doesn’t really start to score ultimate literature points until he tricks us along into part two.  The hearts in the title is actually the card game.  It is a card game that takes over the lives of college boys in a dormitory in the 1960’s.  They play it for money and it takes over their lives to the point that they flunk out of school at a time when that means they will be drafted and sent to Vietnam.  And the characters that are immune to the pull of the hearts game (also a metaphor for the second protagonist’s love life) fall victim to the urge to take on the government and protest the war.  Hence the “sinking of Atlantis” metaphor means the loss of innocence, and the devastation that comes from making choices when you are young that will haunt you forever.

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The post-war section of the book is filled with hubris, regret, lost love and stoic determination that is barely rewarded for only two characters in the entire plot.  I won’t of course, say anything that is a plot spoiler.  This is a horror story, and it is not my place to reveal the truth about the monster.  I can only tell you that this story is a devastating read for those of us old enough to remember.  And it is a fine work of dreary sunshiny fiction that frightens us with its truthfulness.

 

 

 

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Call of Cthulhu

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I feel the need to take up the subject of a role playing game that I planned for and played to a limited degree, but explored to the point of insanity.


But I am recovering now from the double-danged downers of taking care of my bankruptcy case and paying off a surprise new tax penalty that nearly sank my little boat. Therefore, I can’t go into this in depth until my mind is more fortified against the depredations of Yog Sothoth.
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So, next week I will begin talking endlessly and listlessly about the infinite insanity of Call of Cthulhu, the role-playing game. In a gibbering, half-insane manner, I will describe the playing of a game where you confront the depths of human darkness in an indifferent and terrifying world. And I will attempt to explain why a school teacher in his right mind (as much as a middle school teacher can be in his right mind) would ever take up such a game. So, stay tuned to Mickey the Dungeon Master’s silly little Saturday D&D blog.

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Is Mickey Icky?


This post is about writer doubt. And Stephen King. Do those two things go together? If they don’t then Mickey is an awful writer and does not know how to do what he does. It would mean Mickey is icky.
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I used to think Stephen King was a totally over-rated writer. Back in the early eighties I read Carrie, King’s first novel, and got halfway through Firestarter, and had to give up. Partly because the book was overdue at the library, and also because I found the books mechanical and somewhat joyless in the writing. I thought he suffered greatly in comparison to writers I was in love with at the time like Ray Bradbury and Thomas Mann. I began to tell others that King was somewhat icky.
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But King was obviously also somewhat successful. He began to get his books made into movies and people who don’t read discovered the evil genius of a man who tells stories to scare them and laces them with a bit of real humanity, real human feeling, and love.
I saw it first in Stand by Me. That movie, starring young Wil Wheaton as the Steven King autobiographical character, really touched my heart and really made for me a deep psyche-to-psyche connection to somebody who wasn’t just a filmmaker, but somebody who was, at heart, a real human being, a real story-teller.

Now, the psyche I was connecting to may very well have been Rob Reiner, a gifted story-teller and film-maker. But it wasn’t the only King movie that reached me. The television mini-series made from It touched a lot more than just the fear centers of my brain as well. And people whose opinions I respect began telling me that the books The Dark Tower Trilogy and Misery were also amazing pieces of literature.
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So I picked up a copy of Hearts in Atlantis at Half-Price Books and began reading a Stephen King novel for the first time since the 80’s. MY HOLY GOD! King is not a little bit icky. He is so NOT ICKY that it makes Mickey sicky to have ever thought King was even a little bit icky! Here is a writer who loves to write. He whirls through pages with the writer’s equivalent of ballet moves, pirouettes of prose, grand jetés of character building, and thematic arabesque penchées on every side of the stage. I love what I have discovered in a writer I thought was somewhat icky. Growth and power, passion and precision, a real love of both the words and the story. He may not know what he is doing. But I know. And I love it.
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And so, while I have been editing the first novel I ever wrote, Superchicken, to make it ready for self-publishing, I have begun to ask myself the self-critical question, “Is Mickey really icky when he writes?” My first novel is full of winces and blunders and head-banging wonders that make me want to throw the whole thing out. But I can’t throw it out. It is the baby in the first bathwater that I ever drew from the tap. The answer to the questions of Micky ickiness have yet to be determined, and not by me. I guess I have to leave it up to you.

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Werewolf Writing

dscn5093 (640x480)I am now in that period of deflation after having finished a draft of a novel.  My brain is drained and mostly empty.  I am left with leftover piles of stupid words and guileless thoughts that I didn’t use in the book and none of that is good fuel for thinking.

But I can tell you a few things about my novel.

First of all, the werewolf of the title is not really a werewolf.  He is instead a boy afflicted with a genetic hair-growth disorder called hypertrichosis.  It is genetic in nature and runs in families.  It may skip generations.  But it is a hard thing to deal with in terms of self image for the sufferer.  Once the wearers of werewolf hair were treated as circus freaks, to be marveled at, pitied, and sometimes reviled.

 

But this is a horror novel of sorts, not really about the hypertrichosis sufferer, but more about another member of the family who has become abusive in increasingly horrible ways.  And the murders in the book are committed using canines as weapons.

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The wolfishness is not located in the animals, but in the heart of a man.

There is a lot of Saturday night black and white horror movie watching in the 70’s that went into this book.  It also comes to fruition by way of my own experience being sexually assaulted at the age of ten.  The fear and self-loathing that this story has to tell about are metaphorically very real things.  I was not myself a monsterous-looking creature in my youth, but I felt the same feelings of isolation and rejection that one of the main characters, the boy with werewolf hair feels in this book.  Part of why it took me twenty years to write this tale is my own personal struggle to overcome my own fear and self-loathing.

But even though this book comes to its conclusion with silver bullets and death by wolf fang, it is basically a comedy.  Comedy, in the Shakespearean sense, always ends with the hero getting the girl and the monsters defeated.  And it has a few laughs that not even the death-by-teeth parts can overturn.

So, I am glad I am finally finished with this book.  Not edited and published, but finished as an exercise in wringing things out of the terrible nightmares and monstrous memories buried in my cluttered old brain.

 

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A Perfect Old Book… The Distant Hours

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This book, purchased for two dollars off the sale cart at Half-Price Books, was one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever had in my reading life. I knew when I picked it up that it was not a perfect fit for me. It is a Gothic romance tragedy, possible even in a black-and-white-movie sense a horror story. It is a story for women, written by a woman, and all the most important characters, except the man who is murdered, are women. It is definitely not a story for crotchety old men like me, even though the Mud-man is a classic Gothic horror tale monster.  I can relate to that.

But I will not give away any of the convoluted plot. No spoilers here. For it is not the plot that makes this a truly great read. It is the language, the beautiful, insightful, passionate language that links my very soul to the souls of the characters in this story. Three elderly sisters live in a rotting old English castle that once belonged to their father, a famous author who created the novel The True History of the Mud Man. A much younger woman comes along and discovers she has a secret relationship to the castle through her mother who was sent to live in the castle as a child during the London Blitz in World War Two. The characters are so well developed, you can see them breathe. They are real people in a way that real people, especially mysterious real people, always present you with a mystery to be solved. Who are they really? What did they actually do? Which part of what they said to you is true? And which are the lies? And there was a murder? It happened in the past? We didn’t even know he was missing. Where is he now? And what did a monster character in a beloved old book have to do with it? Okay, I promised you no answers to any of those questions. But if you feel already like you simply have to know, well, that’s the magic in this story. You will fall in love with Edie Burchill and her mother. And also the Blythe sisters, Percy, Saffy, and Juniper. And the story will leave you devastated, the way it did me. Test me and see if I’m merely telling hoo-haws. You will not regret it.

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Writing Myself To Life

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I have been working on my novel The Baby Werewolf, and I am now in the final phase, working on the climax and crisis point.  And I surprised myself.  The killer monologues to the main characters who have now become his intended next victims.  I have played this out over and over in the twenty-two years I have been writing this book.  Last night, for the first time ever, the hero character laughs in this scene instead of the cringing fear that had always been there before.

How is such a thing possible?  What changed?  I have been writing and rewriting this story since 1996.  But it goes much deeper and darker than that.  This story went on my have-to-write list in 1966 when an older, stronger boy who lived near my home trapped me in a place out-of-sight of others and stripped me, gaining some horrible kind of pleasure by inflicting pain on my private parts.  Recovery from that has taken half a century.  The recovery itself probably explains why I struggled so long to pull this story together in a finished form.

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There are things about my writing life that are undeniable.  First of all, I have to write.  There is really no other choice for me.  My mind will never know rest or peace without being able to spin out the paragraphs and essays and stories that make it possible to know those things.  Nothing is real if I can’t write it out.  Secondly, I am a humorist.  If I can never be funny at all, can never write a joke, then I will descend into madness.  My sense of humor not only shields me and serves as my suit of armor, it heals me when I suffer psychic wounds.  This book is a horror story, but like many of the best horror stories, it relies on humor to drive every scene and knit the plot together.  And it was a breakthrough for me to have the hero character laugh instead of cringe in the critical scene.  It allows me to live again.  And love again.  And the real monster that caused this book to be, is now forgiven.  The world continues to turn.  The picture is now complete.  And soon, the novel will be too.

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