Episode 96 – The Good Friends babble on about Pontypool

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Episode 96: Pontypool

We’re back and we’re trying to make even less sense than usual. This is for your protection. Pontypool has taught us the hidden dangers that lie in meaning, so we’re going to follow the advice of William S Burroughs and exterminate all rational thought.

William S Burroughs

Cut the word lines. And step out into silence. It is yours. It is everybody’s. You do not see the trees when you walk down the street because of ‘The “Word” Tree’.

While Pontypool is not based on the work of Burroughs, his influence coats it like a viscous splatter of undifferentiated tissue. This is possibly the strangest zombie film ever made, if you can even call it a zombie film, more concerned with linguistics than brain-eating. It deals with a maddening memetic plague, spreading like a virus through the English language. Any word could be the one that sends you into a spiral of cannibalistic insanity.

Saying “week” instead of “fortnight” has this effect on me.

While there is little action or violence in Pontypool, its strange ideas, claustrophobic setting and slow build up of dread are all great inspiration for horror RPGs. We spend some time picking these elements apart and discussing how we would use them in our games.

To be fair, this kind of thing happens in most games I run.

And speaking of horrible things coming from human mouths, spreading madness and suffering, there is more singing in this episode. We have a new $5 backer on Patreon, so we are singing our thanks in our own, indescribable manner. In fact, we have a lot of thanks to offer in this episode. This is probably because of the upcoming cut-off for issue 2 of our backer-only fanzine, The Blasphemous Tome. Time is running out!

The faces we pull while singing are far more alarming than this.

As we mention at the start of the episode, Matt appeared on a recent panel discussion hosted by Thom Raley of Into the Darkness. If you fancy learning more about scenario design or simply want to marvel at Matt’s groaning bookshelves, click below!

And in our Lovecraftian Word of the Fortnight Week segment, we mention a marvellous sketch from Burnistoun that mixes Lovecraftian horror and the mundanity of dealing with the council. Well, here it is in all its sanity-blasting glory.

If you liked that, you may also enjoy their cosmic-horror-tinged Epiphany Continuum sketch.

 

Posted in Horror Films, Television, The Blasphemous Tome, The Good Friends of Jackson Elias | 6 Comments

Episode 95 – The Good Friends scan the Mythos for science fiction

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We’re back and we’re setting our long-range scanners to search the cosmos for the insidious influence of the Mythos. One of the things that set Lovecraft’s work apart from the Gothic tales that had previously dominated the genre was the way it incorporated elements of science fiction. This isn’t to say that Lovecraft was the first writer to mix horror and SF—they have been kissing cousins since Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein.

Charles Ogle as Frankenstein's monster

Pucker up!

Instead, Lovecraft used science fiction elements to make a kind of supernatural horror that had no reliance on the supernatural itself. By using aliens as his gods and monsters, he created something that felt both familiar and utterly different from anything that had gone before. H G Wells’s Martians may have had tentacles and travelled to Earth on meteors, but no one ever worshipped them as gods.

Maybe they would have inspired more awe had they looked less like testicles.

Our discussion focuses on how a number of classic science fiction tropes are used in Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu. The main topics we cover are aliens, space travel, other dimensions, time travel and mad science. We also look at some published games and Call of Cthulhu settings that bring the SF aspects of the Mythos to the forefront. We wrap things up by brainstorming some science fiction scenario ideas of our own.

We never said we used our own brains…

This episode also sees a brief audio review of a new collection of Mythos stories, The Private Life of Elder Things. If you want to read a more in-depth review, we published one recently.

As we also mention this episode, there is still time to ensure you receive a copy of issue 2 of The Blasphemous Tome. This is the fanzine that we produce exclusively for people who back the podcast on Patreon. If you are a backer at the time of release (probably in early February) then you will receive at least one copy. Please see our recent update for more details.

Posted in Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft, Horror Stories, Review, The Blasphemous Tome, The Good Friends of Jackson Elias | 2 Comments

The Macabre

It’s been a good year for comedic Lovecraftian short films. As we’ve mentioned before, Greig Johnson and Chris Lackey have produced a number of excellent and funny takes on Lovecraft stories that deserve a lot more attention than they’ve been getting.

In a similar vein, The Macabre from Philip Kreyche mixes Lovecraftian horror and comedy deftly. Rather than taking its inspiration from a Lovecraft story, it instead uses Lovecraft himself as a character, blurring the line between his life and his work. This is a well-observed little film, and Lovecraft fans will find themselves smiling and nodding throughout.

The Macabre also has production values far beyond what I’d expect from a Lovecraftian short. While it may be a little predictable, it is unquestionably funny and entertaining. I hope to see more such work from Mr Kreyche someday!

 

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The Private Life of Elder Things

The Private Life of Elder Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Keris McDonald and Adam Gauntlett. Published 2016 by The Alchemy Press. Reviewed by Scott Dorward.

The Private Life of Elder Things

We discuss weird fiction occasionally on The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, but when we do, we try to tie it to gaming. Our focus for the podcast was always meant to be Call of Cthulhu. It only seems fair to take the same approach here, with the first book review to be published on the blog.

The gaming and literary sides of Lovecraft fandom can seem oddly divorced from each other. Many fans of the fiction may not be gamers; after all, a lot more people read fiction than play roleplaying games. It is more surprising how few Call of Cthulhu players have read Lovecraft, let alone other Mythos authors. Call of Cthulhu scenario writers may mine the fiction for source material, and non-gaming authors sometimes contribute to game-related anthologies, but it often seems like they occupy two separate worlds. The Private Life of Elder Things is very much at home in the literary camp, but it also appears to have roots in gaming.

While all three authors of The Private Life of Elder Things are accomplished fiction writers, the brief biographies in the back of the book each mention an interest in Call of Cthulhu or other RPGs. Adrian Tchaikovsky, recipient of the 2016 Arthur C Clarke award, is the only one of the trio not to have published any RPG material, although he is still a passionate gamer. Adam Gauntlett, on the other hand, is a prolific game writer, with a long history of publications by Chaosium, Miskatonic River Press and, especially, Pelgrane Press. Keris McDonald is primarily a writer of horror stories and dark fantasy erotica (under the pen name Janine Ashbless). She has also published one Call of Cthulhu scenario. Out of the three, McDonald is the only one whose work I had never encountered before, but after reading this collection I shall certainly be looking out for it.

The authors of The Private Life of Elder Things have borrowed creatures, locations and artefacts from classic Mythos stories, reinventing them in novel ways. While most of the source material comes from Lovecraft, a couple of stories delve into work by his contemporaries or influences. These elements will be just as familiar to fans of Call of Cthulhu as to wider readers of Mythos fiction, and most can be found in the Keeper Rulebook.

Part of this pleasure of reading this book is trying to work out what aspect of the Mythos is lurking at the centre of each tale. I am wary of spoiling this experience. While I will avoid naming any names when discussing each story, it will sometimes be easy to infer them. If you prefer to avoid details of the stories and decide to stop reading here, rest assured that The Private Life of Elder Things is an unusual and entertaining collection, sure to capture the imaginations of fans of both Lovecraftian fiction and gaming.

The book opens with Tchaikovsky’s Donald. While shorter and simpler than most of the other stories, it is one of the strongest. This is an oddly affecting reminder that while humanity (in Mythos fiction, at least) shares the world with eldritch horrors, these creatures also have to share it with us. Donald may not go as far in humanising the alien as some of the other stories in this collection, but it is still an unusually sympathetic take on the Mythos. This is something of a running theme with Tchaikovsky’s contributions to the book.

Gauntlett’s Pitter Patter is an atmospheric piece that draws obliquely from one of my favourite Lovecraft stories. Gauntlett brings his setting to claustrophobic life through its cramped corridors, darkness and decay, and builds a real sense of dread. Unfortunately, the payoff is the most obvious of the collection. This might have stood out less had the rest of the stories not been so strong.

Special Needs Child, McDonald’s first contribution, is by far the nastiest story present. It follows the lives of a couple of rescue workers who take in a foundling that turns into something feral and inhuman as it grows older. This is an uncomfortable, visceral tale, tinged with tragedy. The ending made me recoil in a way few horror stories have.

Irrational Numbers, from Tchaikovsky, brings one of Lovecraft’s classic creatures into the modern age and the world of mathematics, drawing out the scientific elements of the original story in new directions. There isn’t as much reinvention of the subject here as in Tchaikovsky’s other contributions. Perhaps given how iconic the original story is, this may not be a bad thing. Again, like Pitter Patter, Irrational Numbers is somewhat overshadowed by the other stories, but is still perfectly satisfying.

Gauntlett’s New Build moves away from Lovecraft and into the work of one of his contemporaries. The redevelopment of an old London pub opens up forgotten secrets, placing the protagonists in the path of one of the most dangerous entities of the Mythos. The strength of this story lies in the reimagining of this creature as part of the urban landscape, changing it from a mere monster into something almost mythic. Lovecraftian creatures are always most sinister when they are made strange and alien, and New Build does this excellently.

Branch Line Repairman, from Tchaikovsky, offers the collection’s most original take on its subject matter. Moving the elements of one of Lovecraft’s best-loved stories to the London Underground is a master stroke, making them all the weirder by placing them in a mundane setting. Just as impressively, Branch Line Repairman follows the structure and tropes of a Lovecraft story without feeling derivative. As in Donald, the creatures portrayed are inhuman, but sympathetic in human terms, adding unexpected emotional depth.

McDonald’s Devo Nodenti is equally impressive in its invention. It takes what I have long considered the dullest and most incongruous deity in the Mythos and turns it into something genuinely weird and creepy. The human story underpinning the horror is also compelling, with dark secrets and betrayals set against the backdrop of an archaeological dig and their repercussions decades later.

Even more so than in his other stories, Tchaikovsky makes the Mythos entity at the heart of Season of Sacrifice and Resurrection into something almost human. This is probably the best-written piece in the collection, telling the story of a socially isolated palaeontologist who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a colleague at the museum where they both work. There is nothing remotely horrific about Season of Sacrifice and Redemption; instead, this is a moving character study the likes of which is rarely seen in Lovecraftian fiction.

Prospero and Caliban, from Gauntlett, has the most original setting on offer. Gauntlett hails from Bermuda, which perhaps lends this unusual take on the Bermuda Triangle a richness of believable detail. Two men whose ships have become entangled in a monstrous web of sargasso find themselves facing a foe even more deadly than starvation. The creatures Gauntlett borrows for his story are obscure and kept me guessing all the way through. My favourite detail, however, is that one of the characters, driven quite mad, is only able to communicate in Shakespearean quotations. The effect makes an already strange story into something deliriously weird.

Tchaikovsky’s Moving Targets presents another marvellous piece of reinvention, taking the central conceit of one of Lovecraft’s shorter but still influential tales and turning it into something modern and nightmarish. Two police officers investigate what appears to be a new designer drug doing the rounds of clubs in a London slum, only to discover that something far stranger than mere narcotics is responsible for the weirdness they encounter. While most of the stories in The Private Life of Elder Things operate on a small, human scale, Moving Targets builds to mass catastrophe with merciless inevitability.

The final story, McDonald’s The Play’s the Thing, takes us back to 1902, to a house in northern England that refuses to conform to any sane geometry or architecture. An agent of a mysterious firm is called in to catalogue the rooms of the house, which proves a much more difficult and dangerous task than it first appears. While this tale borrows from some of my favourite stories, I approached it with trepidation, as the element it reinvents has been overused, often quite uninventively. I needn’t have worried. McDonald takes her story in wholly original directions, avoiding all the weary old clichés and making it one of the high points of the collection.

Although every story in The Private Life of Elder Things is a reinvention, none feels like a simple pastiche. It is all too easy to reuse elements of the work of Lovecraft and his peers in trite, obvious ways. Every story here makes its subject new and weird again, whether this is simply by moving it to an unusual setting or by transforming into something surprising.

What makes The Private Life of Elder Things stand out from most Mythos anthologies, however, is the emotional content and humanity of many of the stories. At its best, Lovecraftian fiction is unsettling, imaginative and weird, but it is rarely moving. The poignancy of stories like Season of Sacrifice and Resurrection and Devo Nodenti is all the more powerful for its presence in such an unexpected place.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, it is difficult for me to read Lovecraftian fiction without looking at the possibilities for gaming. Like the authors, my interest in the Mythos was fuelled by playing Call of Cthulhu. Keepers looking for examples of using Lovecraft’s creations in novel ways will much to fire their imaginations here. The Private Life of Elder Things is more than a source of new scenario seeds, however; it is a fantastic example of how you can prevent your games from becoming stale and predictable while still using all the goodies Call of Cthulhu has to offer.

Posted in Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft, Horror Stories, Inspiration, Review | 7 Comments

Episode 94 – The Good Friends welcome in The Outsider

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We’re back and we’re digging through the crypt to bring you another toothsome Lovecraft tale, dripping with succulent grave mould. This time it’s the turn of The Outsider, probably the most popular story from Lovecraft’s early, Gothic period. While the twisted shadow of Poe lies heavily over The Outsider, there are many elements that make it essentially Lovecraftian. These include hints and references that touch upon what would eventually become the Mythos.

Sadly, the ghouls in Lovecraft’s later stories spend more time moping around in graveyards than riding the night-wind.

As is usual for our story discussions, we look at the history of the tale, its adaptations into other media and what elements we can steal for our games. The meatiest part of the discussion, however, is our synopsis, which spoils the story worse than the most putrid of charnel fruits. If you haven’t read The Outsider yet, we advise you to do so before listening.

The Outsider and Others cover

You may want to find a cheaper edition than this one, however.

While there are many films inspired by The Outsider (just search for “Lovecraft” and “The Outsider” on YouTube), we focus on two of them. Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak stands out as the only one of his Lovecraft adaptations that none of us particularly like. It will still appeal to Lovecraft completists and connoisseurs of cheesy horror films, however. Aaron Vanek’s award-winning short film The Outsider is entertaining if still none too faithful to the source material. It may be found on volume 3 of Lurker Films’ HP Lovecraft Collection.

Had Lovecraft lived to see this, he would have kicked himself for not thinking of that title first.

The protagonist of The Outsider only emits one sound in his strange unlife. He describes this as “a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause”. The only thing distinguishing this from the sounds we make towards the end of this episode is that their cause is far from noxious. As long-time listeners know all too well, we sing our thanks to those generous souls who back us on Patreon at the $5 level. This episode features two such explosions of gratitude.

“No, don’t run! There’s only one song left to go.”

We also have a brief discussion about Matt and Paul’s recent visit to the Dragonmeet convention in London. One of the people Paul spoke to there is Chris Lackey, co-host of the excellent HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast. Along with his friend Greig Johnson, Chris has produced three comedic takes on Lovecraft stories that number amongst the best Lovecraftian short films available. Paul was shocked to learn that they haven’t received many hits yet on YouTube, which is deeply unjust. We urge you to watch them and share them with friends who enjoy Lovecraft, comedy or blasphemy of the most exquisite kind.

 

Posted in Horror Stories, The Good Friends of Jackson Elias | 2 Comments