Of all the re-imaginings of Lewis Carrol’s classic, Alice In Wonderland, my favorite is a video game released in 2000 called American McGee’s Alice. The game took the Alice mythos and gave it a dark and disturbing twist.
In 2011, American McGee released a followup game: Alice – Madness Returns. Either Mr. McGee has grown less conceited or more tasteful, because he left his own name out of the game title this time.
Dark Fiction Author Carole Lanham let me preview her upcoming collection of dark fiction short stories titled The Whisper Jar.
From the Publisher
“I do not know what you have done, but put your mouth right here. Confess your crime to this fruit jar as though it were God’s ear.” ~ from The Whisper Jar
Some secrets are kept in jars, others, in books.
Some are left forgotten in musty rooms, others, created in old barns.
Some are brought about by destiny, others, born in blood.
Secrets, they are the hidden heart of this collection. In these pages, you will encounter a Blood Digger who bonds two children irrevocably together; a young woman who learns of her destiny through the random selection of a Bible verse; and a boy whose life begins to reflect the stories he reads.
Most importantly, though, if someone should ever happen to offer you a Jilly Jally Butter Mint, just say No!”
Review of The Whisper Jar
[2016 Update – The cover has changed. I’ve left the original review text here. -Z]
The cover shows a red eye peering through an ornate door/windowframe. This looks great, and a touch unnerving. Definitely fitting for a work of dark fiction, but I was disappointed that it wasn’t more directly related to the title itself. I would rather have seen a visual of an actual Whisper Jar.
The Whisper Jar consists of nine stories:
The Whisper Jar
The Good Part
The Blue Word
Maxwell Treat’s Museum of Torture for Young Girls and Boys
Friar Garden, Mister Samuel, and the Jilly Jally Butter Mints
The Reading Lessons
The Adventures of Velvet Honeybone, Girl Werewuff
The Forgotten Orphan
The running theme of this collection is secrets, and none of the stories capture this theme more succinctly than the first story/poem, also named The Whisper Jar. This is a riveting story/poem written (in rhyming couplets) about people capturing their secrets in glass jars, and the troubles that follow… A quick and fun read, this first story definitely piqued my interest right out of the gate.
Another delightful poem/story is The Adventures of Velvet Honeybone, Girl Werewuff – a short, rhymed couplet that gives a new twist to the classic Red Riding Hood mythos.
The stories Keepity Keep and Friar Garden, Mister Samuel, and the Jilly Jally Butter Mints both have a Brothers Grimm feel to them. Keepity Keep is about a fairy discovered by two brothers. (Or two brothers discovered by a fairy, if you like.) The contrast of this innocent fairy and these two nearly-innocent brothers is fun to explore. I enjoyed Friar Garden… but it was tough for me to put my finger on exactly what was real in the story and what was imaginary. Actually, I think I enjoyed Friar Garden…because it was tough for me to put my finger on exactly what was real in the story and what was imaginary.
The Good Part is the highlight of the collection for me. A wicked, incestuous story reminiscent of Let Me In but set in the deep South. The story highlights the relationship between coming-of-age teens and coming-of-age vampires. The Reading Lessons is another awesome addition of teenage angst, lust, and doubt about who-is-really-in-control. These two stories work so well because Carole’s writing really sells the characters. They are disturbingly real, and so are their actions.
The Blue Word is a post-apocalyptic genre tale with a clever twist. But I don’t want to tell too much here, lest I spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, the story twist in The Blue Word would make this story a great Twilight Zone episode.
Carol Lanham’s stories flirt with relationships, sexuality, paranormality, brutality and even reality. The stories are glimpses into dark places and alternative realities which never go to full-on Horror, but there is at least one implied death. Plenty of sexuality, but very little actual sex.
The Short Story
The Whisper Jar blends dark and sometimes paranormal situations into the really-real everyday world with clever writing, an Edgar Allen Poe sensibility, and a splash of Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things. Carole Lanham writes in her own carefree but intuitive voice. Audiences will slip into these short stories as easily as they would a warm bath, only to be surprised at how quickly the waters deepen. Those looking for a variety of dark character studies, whimsical situations and disturbing relationship dynamics will enjoy The Whisper Jar.
The breaking of my Dark Fiction virginity – Dark Forces #1 – The Game by Les Logan
Early Books That Inspired My Path Into Dark Fiction
Someone recently asked me what books I read while growing up that influenced me to write the kind of stories I do. I was a fairly voracious reader in middle/high school, and fully capable of devouring one complete paperback book per day. (It was a long bus ride to school and back.) I was also lucky to have parents who valued reading, and although money was tight, books were considered a necessary expense, like food and clothing.
Much of my early reading was non-fiction, but filled with elements of horror: Bigfoot, The Bermuda Triangle, The Loch Ness Monsters, Witchcraft, Aliens and my favorite subject – Sharks. I decided after seeing the movie Jaws and reading the story, I decided I was going to become an oceanographer, although I didn’t even know what an oceanographer was. But I knew they got to hang out with sharks. Cool.
My taste in fiction took a while to gel. I enjoyed the Encyclopedia Brown series of mystery books, and I have fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I remember reading a Hardy Boys adventure and thinking it was utterly lame. Ditto for Nancy Drew. Ugh.I don’t recall why I read the first 35 volumes of the Trixie Belden series of mystery books, but I can safely say that Trixie Belden was my first fictional love.
I latched onto a mystery-adventure series called Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, the first of which was The Secret of Terror Castle. A cool cover led me to read A Clockwork Orange at far too young an age to appreciate it. And I enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings when the only people who read such things were the social outcasts who played Dungeons and Dragons.
Most of the fiction I read was dark, but it was all mystery or fantasy. The very first book I can recall that I would classify as horror or dark fiction would be the first in the Dark Forces series of books, The Game by Les Logan. I hadn’t even finished the book and was looking forward to the next in the series. No doubt if I read any of the Dark Forces books today, I’d find them filled with enough cheese to keep a Taco Bell in business for a month.
I quickly graduated to modern horror classics by Stephen King and Clive Barker. Reading Alan Dean Foster’s Alien late at night in bed with a flashlight was a bad idea. Soon, I found myself branching into older horror classics by authors like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P.Lovecraft. And it wouldn’t be until years later that I decided to write dark fiction myself (a blog post for another day) but these are the roots of my love affair with horror, paranormal and occult fiction.
How about you? Any early books, movies or inspirations that set you on the author’s path you find yourself on?
Who would have thought anyone’s first-ever short story submission would end up becoming their first published work? I’ve been working on the novel Evil Looks Good for years, and something that I ran off as a fun side project ends up in the limelight.
You start Dead Space 2 wearing a straitjacket. You couldn’t wield a weapon if you had one. Wanna live? Then mash the RUN key and run for your f**ing life, while hideous monsters called necromorphs chase you down, each of them eager to take your body apart in high definition.
Dead Space 2 adds to the list of Electronic Arts (EA) Games I’ve raved about (namely Mass Effect and Dragon Age) that make EA the MGM of Video Games. These are more than just video games, they make you feel like the lead character in a movie. The level of detail in every aspect of the gameplay is sick. In a good way.
I just completed the game, and the folks at Visceral should be proud. They really did their homework. Check out this article from Wired that covers their disturbing analysis of anatomy. The writers spin an intriguing story, and the game designers know the tricks of pacing and timing. The musical score would give Howard Shore goosebumps, and I was pleased to hear Russian Circles contributing some audio kick-ass to the soundtrack. Dead Space 2 has an engaging plot, puzzles, environments, characters, conflicts and complications that distract you from the horror, and then… Well, let’s just hope you have a change of underwear handy.
Those familiar with shooters like Doom 3 are in for a surprise.
There’s no pause button.
Browse through your inventory for too long, and your body parts are likely to become inventory for something else.
Ammo and weapons are scarce, so you can’t just shoot at everything that moves. You eventually inherit a plasma cutter that’s about as dangerous as large Swingline Stapler. You’ll scavenge for clips to reload it, and you better make every shot count. No spray-and-pray here, Choirboy.
No more gentle deaths, either.
No more, “Oh I’m floating up into the sky, looking down at my body! How peaceful! Is there a tunnel?”
Trust me, watching yourself get pummeled, crushed, dismembered, skewered, decapitated by necromorphs or chopped in half by an airlock is not for the squeamish. One screwup, and you’ll get a lesson in internal anatomy: yours.
And just see if you can make it through a mini-game of running a drill press into your own eye. You need a steady hand for this one. In fact, you probably won’t get it right the first time, and even if you get it right and “win” it still looks painful.
Instead of downplaying the gruesomeness of the game, EA and Visceral Games embrace the horror. Check out www.yourmomhatesthis.com to see Moms’ reactions to this game. Marketing Genius.
More of the Same?
I won’t lie, Dead Space 2 is simply an extended version of the original Dead Space with a multiplayer option and some general improvements.
You play the same character, Issac Clarke, and your story picks up several months after the end of events in Dead Space 1. I recognized plenty of graphics textures and sounds from the original game, as well as many of the monsters and weapons. Health monitor, stasis, suits, stores, benches, power nodes, upgrades and more are all straight out of the first game.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The original game was top-notch, and 2 is as good if not better. It’s safe to say that if Dead Space didn’t put you in the loony bin, you need Dead Space 2.
So What’s New?
Multi-horror… er, I mean Multi-player
Dead Space 2 adds in the ability to play with/against others online. I dig the occasional multi-player mayhem, but I certainly did not buy Dead Space 2 to play with/against others. The multiplayer option of Dead Space 2 seems like an afterthought to compete with L4D2 or cave in to fanboy demands, very similar to the way F.E.A.R. handled it.
I’d gladly trade in the multiplayer component of Dead Space 2 for pretty much anything else. More content in the single-player version, or a reduced price. Maybe they could sell the multiplayer component as a separate add-on for people who actually want it?
Zero G x 360
Dead Space 1 had a short section of Zero Gravity, but all you could do was jump straight across the room. In Dead Space 2, you have micro-thrusters built into your suit, so you can maneuver around in zero gravity. The controls are intuitive and you can press “Z” to reorient yourself to the floor.
Zero G is unsettling all by its self, but when you add in 3-D 0-G puzzles, traps, necromorphs and a fricking countdown timer that shows how much air you have left before you DIE… well, the results are uberharrowing.
The story from Dead Space 1 continues in the single-player version of Dead Space 2. You wake up in an insane asylum long after the events on board the USG Ishimura, and you have no memory what’s happened since then.
The military wants you dead for reasons unknown. Religious zealots want you alive for reasons to horrible to mention.
There really isn’t anyone to trust, not even yourself, since your exposure to the artifact has left you with hallucination scenes of your dead girlfriend that are possibly the most frightening part of the game.
Oh, and let’s not forget the necromorphs. Lots and lots of necromorphs, who want everything dead. Including you.
Weapons of Gross Destruction
There’s your old friends the line gun and plasma cutter, the assault rifle (my primary weapon), and the force rifle and flamethrower which are perfect for swarms of necromorphettes.
But one of the new kids on the block is the Javelin gun, which pins bad guys right to the wall. Gotta love that rag-doll physics engine.
Use the line gun to sever creatures legs to slow them down, or their arms to limit their attacks, or their heads to limit their lifespan.
Ah yes, and you stomp on corpses to loot them, crushing them into bloody bits. Genius. And the sound is spot on. [Editor’s Note: How do you know this?]
In fact, anything you can pick up is a weapon: chairs, magazines, plants, debris… What the hell are all these long, metal spikes laying around for? Heh. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more disgusting, use your telekinesis power to pick up and hurl body parts as weapons.
Never thought I’d be comfortable playing an RPG without a map, but the stellar ‘breadcrumbs’ feature from Dead Space made me a believer. Just press a button, and a line on the floor shows you which way to go. No more getting lost or turned around. No more pulling up maps that take you out of the game.
In Dead Space 2, the breadcrumbs feature gets an upgrade. Now you can also use it to find the nearest store, game save location or upgrades bench.
Opportunities for Improvement
Weapons Improvement Matrix
I like the idea of using power nodes to upgrade your equipment, but whoever thought up the weapons improvement matrix should be shot with their own line gun.
Power nodes aren’t handed out like Pez, you gotta work for them. Plugging power nodes into a matrix where they don’t actually increase weapon stats is a poor return-on-investment.
While you can reallocate your power nodes, it’s still frustrating to have to pick some arbitrary upgrade path just to improve the features you want. Please. Either one upgrade per power node, or make them cheaper/more available.
EA Download Manager = Way Too Little, Way Too Late
Dead Space 2 comes bundled with an optional utility called “EA Download Manager”. Beware. This is simply a poor knockoff of Steam, a utility created by Valve that was released over a year ago and is Far Far Superior:
Steam works with almost all game companies. EA Download Manager connects you to the EA store, which only sells EA Games. You can actually buy Dead Space 2 through Steam, but you can’t buy Blade Kitten through EA Download Manager. Nyah.
Steam software keeps your installation media and keys in the cloud, and keeps your game software updated in the background. EA Download Manager only updates EA Games. Supposedly. It didn’t show Dead Space 2 after I installed it, even though that’s the game it came bundled with. WTF?
Steam offers in-game voice chat
Press F12 in game to grab an instant screenshot, and choose to share it out to Facebook or Twitter.
Steam offers social networking. You can find your friends and see what they’re playing, and the lobby feature lets you gang up and hang out ‘backstage’ to make sure everything is working before launching into the game.
Steam tracks stats and achievements.
Steam did it first, and does it better.
Business 101 – if you want people to switch to your product, you have to offer something the existing competition DOES NOT OFFER. No one wants to run two gaming clients in the background, and no one’s going to ditch all their existing Steam friends, achievements, and purchased games just so they can run your limited knockoff.
The only thing EA Download Manager might be useful for is updating your EA game software. But shouldn’t this ability should be left built into the game? Don’t separate a necessary component from the game, connect it to your online store and call it a fucking feature.
Usability vs Piracy
The video game industry is still struggling to strike a balance between PC game accessibility and protection against piracy. Obviously, the game makers can’t just leave the game unlocked, but they also can’t have you calling in to their office with a note signed by your mother each time you want to play.
Dead Space 2 hits you up for e-mail, username and password each time you start up. Annoying, but you can cancel past that if you just want to play the single-player version.
Sadly, if that’s what it takes to make the game companies comfortable releasing games to the PC market, then I won’t bitch too loudly about it. Of course, these copy protection schemes doesn’t stop people from breaking the games and dropping them on torrents.
Yes, I could probably get Dead Space 2 for free, but I don’t want game companies to drop the PC market for the console market. Notice that Red Dead Redemption is NOT available for PC, which is a shame. The way I see it, my money goes to a good cause, and is also a vote to keep game companies interested in the PC market.
Dead Space 2 is a disgustingly, gruesomely horrific masterpiece sure to give you paranoia, high blood pressure, a nervous tic, seizures, a heart attack, and (if you survive all that) post-traumatic stress disorder.
Occult Thriller Season of the Witch a decent start to the 2011 movie season.
Does Nicolas Cage ever take a break? I mean, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was only a couple months ago, and Drive Angry is only a couple months away, and this weekend Season of the Witch is released. Take a look at Nicolas Cage’s filmography on IMDB. Talk about busy.
And why do people rip on his acting? He doesn’t actually act, you know. He’s made a career of being himself on camera since I first remember seeing him in Raising Arizona, waaaay back in 1987.
Season of the Witch casts Cage as Behmen, a Knight of the Crusades who suddenly realizes that killing innocents in the name of God is not the path for him. Ron Perlman is Felson, his good friend and comrade-in-arms. Together, they desert the crusades and go off on their own, only to find a village with a witch problem.
The writing in Season of the Witch was good. A simple plot, but it keeps you guessing about who the bad person really is and what’s really going on. Reminded me of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Not as much sorcery and witchcraft as I would have expected, and the ending had a layer of cheese on it. Although the ending wasn’t a happy one, it also wasn’t disappointing. But the accents were. I don’t know how a New York cabbie got teleported back to Medieval England, but it did make sense that he was their guide.
The filming is gritty and dark, but not quite as dark as the Underworld series. (Could anything be darker than the Underworld series?) Score and soundtrack were good, and at the theater I saw it, the sound was damned loud. Guess I’d rather have the sound too loud than too quiet.
Overall, I rated Season of the Witch a 7 of 10 on IMDB.
Twenty-four years since Raising Arizona, and Nicolas Cage’s character in Season of the Witch isn’t so different from anything else he’s done. But I’m totally fine with that. Although in this film, I don’t recall him freaking out like this:
I’d tried to play Arkham Horror once before, and the game host was hoping to figure out the rules on the fly. Unfortunately, the rules for Arkham Horror would drive the sanest of people barking mad, so needless to say, Cthulhu was victorious on that day.
So when I heard about Arkham Nights at Fantasy Flight Games in Roseville, MN, I figured I would have to be insane to pass it up. The part-gaming-conference, part-product-placement event offered people the chance to sign up for all the different variations and expansions of Arkham Horror, as well as the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, and the Call of Cthulhu card game, and a board game called Mansions of Madness that hasn’t even been released yet. Some of the games were being run by the game designers themselves. There was also a panel discussion with the game designers and a costume contest.
Friday I attended “How To Play Arkham Horror” (See if you can find me in this pic.) On Saturday I played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game with one of the Fantasy Flight game designers.
Review of the Arkham Horror Board Game
For those who haven’t played it, Arkham Horror is preposterously complicated. In fact, if it bears any semblance to the struggle we’ll have to go through when Cthulhu finally does awaken…we’re fucked.
That said, the game is also preposterously fun to play. All players work together to kill monsters, close gates to strange dimensions with bad geometry, and at best, just keep the peace until the Ancient One hits the snooze button and goes back to sleep. If you’ve never played before, it’s good to have a moderator there to hold your hand, answer rules questions and give you sage advice. By the end of the game (5 hours, and we did win btw. Take THAT Elder Wimp!) the five of us noobs could have run a game without a moderator.
Review of the Arkham Nights Gaming Event
The facilities were really nice, and just the right size for the over hundred people who showed up. I understand you can rent out table space and there are rooms in the back for those who want to run their campaign against the ancient ones in secret. Fantasy Flight Games offers a membership that provides discounts on game rental and table/room use. Yes, you can rent the games to play right there at the facility. And if you’re planning on actually getting into games like Warhammer 40K you’d be foolish to pass up that member’s discount. Just the core rulebook will set you back $75. But casual gamers won’t balk at the few bucks it costs to rent space for gaming.
No outside food is allowed, but there is a local pizza place that they will allow delivery. Pop, chips and other snacks are available in the facility.
Asking people to pay twenty five bucks to play games you’re trying to sell them is steep. For the price of three people going to this event, you coulda pooled your cash, bought the game and figured it out over the course of several years. And $25 was the pre-registration price – the door admission was more. The real value in the Arkham Nights convention was the ability to play all the variations of the game, with all the expansions, (some of which are as expensive as the core game.) You also got to play with the game designers and with other enthusiastic fans of Lovecraftian Mythos. I’d say $25 was… almost worth it.
Conventions like Minnecon and Convergence charge more than $25, but the offer way more content. Fantasy Flight Games could have offered a ten dollar Fantasy Flight Games gift certificate with each paid registration, free membership, or better yet, knocked ten bucks off the admission price.
The discussion with the game designers and the costume contests were a nice touch, but really there could have been a lot more depth to this event. Focusing on the mythos of HP Lovecraft instead of the games (only) offered by Fantasy Flight would have made this a better event. How about a table for a local book vendor with a selection of Lovecraft’s books? How about local artists Lovecraft-inspired works? How about panels/discussions of the Chtulhu mythos? How about other vendors besides Fantasy Flight Games?
A convention with these things would pull in hundreds if not thousands of interested fans, instead of the hundred or so people who attended. Perhaps they are building up to that. If so, this was a good start.
Strangely, the event organizers waited until the doors opened for people to register for game slots. This means people who showed up at the door had the same chance as someone who pre-registered to get in on the limited games. I was one of the first people in line and signed up at 6:10 for a game that started at 6:00. As you probably guessed, several games filled immediately, and other scheduled games had no one sign up for them.
The event coordinators should have taken game-slot registrations as people signed up. Then, the supply of available games would have been in-line with the demand of people who wanted to play them. Forcing people to fit into their ‘schedule’ didn’t really work. For example, I wanted to try out the Cthulhu card game, but Sunday was the only day I had available for it. There was only ONE Cthulhu card game on Sunday, which booked up immediately. As a person who pre-registered and paid a more-than-modest admission price, I was disappointed.
Hopefully, the administrators of Arkham Nights will take what they’ve learned from this event and use it to make future iterations of Arkham Nights even better. By offering a little more for a little less, and fixing the scheduling issues, Arkham Nights could really take off and become something to look forward to each year.
Conrad Zero as an evil harlequin with a chainsaw. Halloween 2006
Bringing Scary Back (to Vampires)
Q: What’s more frightening than a vampire clown?
A: A vampire clown with a chainsaw.
And that’s what you’ll find in Draculas, the e-book that drops today by no less than four authors:
Four well-known horror authors pool their penchants for scares and thrills, and tackle one of the greatest of all legends, with each writer creating a unique character and following them through a vampire outbreak in a secluded hospital.
The goal was simple: write the most frightening book they possibly could.
Which they did.
A word of warning:
Within these pages, you will find no black capes, no satin-lined coffins, no brooding heartthrobs who want to talk about your feelings. Forget sunlight and stakes. Throw out your garlic and your crosses. This is the Anti-TWILIGHT.
I’ve been following Jack Kilborn (AKA: JA Konrath) for years, and I’ve promised him a beer next time he’s up in Minneapolis. Jack is the author of the long-running series of Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels books, including the upcoming Shaken.
Bram Stoker award nominee, Jeff Strand rounds out the foursome with several horror books under his belt.
The Review of Draculas
I read the pre-review copy of Draculas in a single, sleepless night. The plot is more than just straightforward, it’s dead simple. A skull reputed to be the actual skull of Dracula is discovered, and causes all sorts of problems for its new owner and many people in an isolated hospital. People attacked by vampire creatures called Draculas are either killed outright by the literally blood-thirsty monsters, or worse, converted into another of these ruthlessly fast and dangerous beings.
The body count and the monster count both ratchet up plenty quick.
The authors call Draculas “The Anti-Twilight” and I can vouch for that. You won’t find this Paranormal watered down with Romance or worse; stoic teens waffling over mindless choices. Draculas overflows with over-the-top carnage coupled with a sense of humor that would make Rob Zombie proud. The pace is fast, and made even faster by bouncing the point-of-view between many of the characters, including a chainsaw-wielding vampire clown.
Each chapter is titled with the point-of-view character’s name; a clever way to ease the transitions between characters. Some may not like the head-hopping, I thought it was a great way to keep the story fresh. Although as the story progressed, I gravitated towards my ‘favorite’ characters and began skimming the non-favorite character chapters to get to the characters that I liked.
It’s easy to see that these four authors are truly “Bringing Scary Back” to vampires. My only complaint is that parts of the story came off as schlocky humor, which took away from the horror. Not that the story had to be as serious as a CSI Minneapolis episode, but when the blood-soaked vampire clown picks up a chainsaw and heads for our hero, its giant clown shoes squeaking as it walks… When the gun-toting Dirty-Harry-wannabee pulls out a .454 as if he just got back from a black market weapons expo (why not a fifty cal elephant rifle? You were so close!) … when someone bites the vampire clown on the neck, then says “he tasted funny”…
Let’s just say humor in horror is a spice, best used sparingly. Balancing between a Horror/Comedy and a Comedy/Horror is a fine line, and subjective at that. You may find a chainsaw-wielding vampire clown with giant squeaky shoes horrific, but I’m laughing now just thinking about it. A little more serious would have been a lot more scary for me, but your mileage may vary.
The Short Review
Horrifically bloody good fun. Finally, vampires to be afraid of.