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Review of In The Shadow of Their Dying by Anna Smith Spark and Michael R. Fletcher

In esoteric philosophy, it takes the combination of two polarised energetic forces in order to produce something new and original. The most obvious example of this is found in conception and childbirth. But the same applies in the intellectual and imaginative realms as well.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is one such original creation, sprung from the union of two giants of fantasy: Michael R. Fletcher, known as the Mad Titan of dark fantasy (what an epithet!), and Anna Smith Spark, Queen of Grimdark.

Having read both of these authors, I have to admit I was uncertain how their styles would effectively combine. Michael R. Fletcher writes in a stark and cerebral manner. His work explores powerful concepts and, at least in my view, seems primarily concerned with ideas. For example, in Beyond Redemption, his world is populated by Geisteskranken, individuals whose delusions are so powerful they manifest in physical reality. Fletcher uses this high-concept premise to explore the dark recesses of the human mind and our relationship with religion and belief. In many ways, his novel read to me like an allegorical tale, in which characters embody particular human delusions or desires or false beliefs. In this way, his work has a distinctly Spenserian vein.

By contrast, Anna Smith Spark’s epic Empires of Dust series is written in a deeply emotive and impressionistic style. Her story is not centred around precise plotting or logically worked out magic systems, but rather on the torrid and tumultuous emotional interiors of her characters; its these emotions, more than anything else, that drive them and the action. I compared Empires of Dust to The Iliad in my original review because, like Homer’s masterwork, it is the furyof Achilles that takes centre stage, not the politics of Troy and Greece.

My fears about how two such differing styles would combine were unfounded, however. In fact, the abilities each author brought to the table augmented and complimented the other beautifully. Fletcher’s sheer bleakness was lifted by Anna Smith Spark’s incredibly lush and stylish poetry. And conversely, Spark’s more abstract approach to narrative—which at times can be hard to follow—was grounded by Fletcher’s more concrete and direct approach, as well as beingilluminated by his jet black humour. Although it must be said both writers introduce comedy into their dark narratives in surprising ways.

But enough meditations on writing style. I should get to the plot!

In The Shadow of Their Dying is a story about three characters caught up in the midst of a terrible and pointless war. Though there are a host of players in the tale, our main protagonists are: the hapless yet cunning Tash, the “third best assassin in Sharaam”; Pitt, the leader of a curious gang of cutthroats and magical beings; and finally, Iananr, a demon bound in service to the King of Sharaam.

Clive Barker once wrote in his masterpiece Imajica that:

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course – thousands in fact – but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center.”

This is certainly true of In The Shadow of Their Dying, for it is these three players that constantly drive the action with their alliances and betrayals, their rises to power and subsequent falls, their changes of heart, and their reversions to their darker natures. Each perspective is unique. Tash is a strangely relateable narcissist who wants people to take him seriously and will do anything to ensure that. Pitt is an experienced manipulator who yet has a weak-spot for one woman in particular. And Iananr is perhaps the most fascinating perspective of all: she is a demon bound to human form, and her mind roves in ways that are utterly alien and almost incomprehensible to us.

In the structuring and styling of the story, both writers play to their strengths. It’s clear Anna Smith Spark handled the chapters written from the perspective of Iananr, using her gorgeously sensuous prose to conjure the unknowable thoughts and feelings of a being that is not truly of the flesh but of the spirit. At times, the writing almost becomes pure poetry, grammar and words bent out of all shape and recognition as they strain to evoke the labyrinthine mind of a creature that is more god than mortal. This is doubly appropriate, because it is with “words-chains”—a spell—that the demon is bound, and the demon is constantly meditating on the inadequacy and yet the hidden power of words.

By contrast, it’s clear Fletcher leant his hand to Tash’s chapters, his grimdark sensibilities rendering our assassin in delightful shades of morally grey. Tash is a loathsome human being, but strangely compelling. Comedy is interspersed with bloodshed and morally reprehensible acts in an almost Shakespearean fashion. The ultimate fate our assassin ishilarious and darkly fitting.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is only a novella, so the plot is neither grand nor sweeping. All the action takes place within the city walls of Sharaam. But this serves to up the tension and enhance the focus even further on the characters; in this way, the book feels almost like a play, and fittingly Tash wistfully reflects upon his own life as a play being written by a great playwright. Spark and Fletcher have created a darkly vibrant world despite the fact we only see a taster of it. They also take a few old tropes of the fantasy genre and remake them in gloriously inventive ways. Despite the plot not being the main focus of the story, there are a few wonderful surprises in store that will catch you unawares.

If I have one minor criticism, it is at times scenes are repeated from a different character’s perspective a few too many times for my taste, especially for a novella of this size. But this is a minor quibble, and the murky atmosphere of the story is sustained throughout.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is a gore-soaked, betrayal-filled, grimdark delight that yet hides a strangely spiritual core. It asks the question of what ties truly bind us to a life of misery, war, bloodshed, and addiction, and whether those ties might really be an illusion, and what might happen if we could free ourselves of those ties. The answers are not predictable, nor expected. And the characters we think are capable of redemption may, after all, be doomed to repeat their mistakes. And the characters we believe are irredeemable may yet surprise us.

I, for one, hope that we see another book from these two masters of the craft. A few threads have been left which could be used to weave a larger narrative. But even if we don’t see more, In The Shadow of Their Dying is a perfectly blendedshot of dark fantasy that burns the throat on the way down, and leaves an aftertaste as beautifully bitter as it is sweet.

You can purchase the novella here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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FANTASY, HORROR, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Recently, I had the good fortune to see my novel The Claw of Craving reviewed over on Monster Librarian. The fantastic reviewer, Murray Samuelson, opened the review with a really profound and intriguing observation:

Some of the best horror novels of the 80s and 90s weren’t really horror at all. They were, at heart, fantasy books with a dark core, with James Herbert’s Once, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and Ronald Kelly’s Fear being standout examples.”

In my view, he is absolutely right, and has hit upon a truth that leads us to thought-provoking questions about our contemporary and genre-obsessed era. In my view, it’s undoubted that some of the best “horror” novels of the twentieth century were, in fact, epic, sprawling fantasies that contained dark or horrifying scenes. But more than that, I would argue the connection between fantasy and horror has existed for a much longer time. We need only think of the nineteenth century gothic novels, with their dazzling supernaturalism and magic alongside scenes of cannibalism and terror (I’m thinking of Melmoth The Wanderer here), to realise that horror and fantasy are inextricably linked despite occupying separate shelves in Waterstones (or Barnes & Noble, if you are a friend from across the Atlantic!).

If we consider the conceptual nature of “fantasy” and “horror” this connection becomes not only more interesting but also self-explanatory. A “fantasy” is something we dream of, something that carries with it positive connotations of hope, magic, and illumination. There is also a sexual and desirous undertone, which is where the danger comes in, for a fantasy is often something taboo in society, something we must confine to the realms of dream lest it be enacted in reality at terrible cost… As you can see, we’re already veering into the territory of horror. What is horror but the nightmare to fantasy’s dream? Horror is the unveiling of that which lies in the subconscious psyche of its readers. The early gothic masterpieces, despite predating the establishment of psychological theory by some way, have an undeniably psychological bent to them, an inherent understanding that ghosts, whilst they may be literal, truly stand for the aberrances of our memory, the hauntings of guilt and shame and regret and love lost that manifest in a tangible way in our livesin ways that feel like horrible magic. But are we not now veering back into fantasy?

Horror and fantasy might be seen as two sides of the same coin, though I think it is more accurate to say they are a yin-yang, a ceaseless dance of “opposites” that in reality form a oneness. Desire creates fear creates desire creates fear in an endless cycle that leads us deeper into the mysteries of the human soul.

So, when did this bifurcation occur? When did we decide that horror and fantasy were separate entities, and that too much of one “spoiled” the other?

The honest answer is, of course, no one knows for certain. I am sure that an academic could research and reason out a fairly probable conclusion. But no answer can reflect the great complexity of forces that shapes human thought over decades or centuries. Tolstoy wrote despairingly about the folly of attempting to do such a thing, so I will not try. The truth is, over time, things change, and one thing that changed was that around the mid-twentieth century, fantasy began to acquire a new aesthetic and identity that was more aligned with the bright and colourful covers of Dungeons & Dragons modules than with the magic-strewn brutality of The Nibelungenlied. Our image of what fantasy is became altogether more aligned with Tolkien’s The Hobbit. That isn’t to say writers weren’t writing dark fantasy—they always have been and always will—but the fantasy in the public eye, and what critics and readers considered fantasy, was becoming dragons, treasure hoards, elves, dwarves, and heroic battles.

Let me be clear, I love all of those things with unapologetic and childlike abandon.

But I also have a darker side. As an eighteen year old, who knew he wanted to be a writer but didn’t know how, I remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand and meeting Randall Flagg for the first time, and having my tiny mind blown, realising that the mythic grandeur of old tales could still be told upon a modern canvas. I was awed equally by the dark magic that lived in the hands of this leather-jacket wearing madman, and by the cruelty of which he was capable; the gloves were off. No cutaways or convenient concealed armour. Here, I had a taste of fantasy and horror meeting in the middle. But it wasn’t until I was much older, in my late twenties, that I would experience Clive Barker for the first time, and realise what was truly possible when fantasy and horror collided.

Fantasy and horror complete each other. Fantasy without horror feels trite and shallow (and also highly predictable), whereas horror without fantasy feels nihilistic and obscene. Some people do enjoy books about relentless torture without hope, but I think they are in the minority. For most of us, the horror of someone’s skull being kerb-stomped into smithereens must be tempered by the awe and wonder of a spirit materialising in the hour of need; the beauty of a first magical kiss must be properly seasoned by the bloody hand of a cowled killer. This interplay is, to my mind, what I find sorely lacking in many novels, both horror and fantasy, but the fantastic news is we are now seeing a glorious revival of this genre marriage.

Of course, I cannot cite every example, because no one can read everything out there in the world, but here are just a few of recent books I’v encountered embodying the best of fantasy and horror:

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie is perhaps one of the greatest fantasy novels I have ever read: occult, metaphysical, labyrinthine, daring, bloody, mystical, yet bizarrely and paradoxically hopeful. It is one of the most hyperviolent and hypersexual stories I’ve ever encountered, and yet it wields its violence and sexuality not for the sake of shock value, but to probe the absolute limits of the human condition and human sanity. BleakWarrior is a non-dual meditation on the interconnectedness of all things, explored via the medium of a darkly fantastical world whose rules can be bent and broken by those with sufficient madness and will. It is Highlander with occult philosophy and a triple R rating.

Daniel Volpe’s A Story of Sorrow is a splatterpunk fantasy that pushes the brutality of a dark, medieval world to its very limits. Volpe’s characters are callous and bloodthirsty, his magic is twisted and disturbing, and yet within this harsh framework is a vitality of human spirit, even a sense of adventure. Though A Story of Sorrow is really only a brief toe-dip into Volpe’s world, I am excited to see where his story goes. It has an episodic feeling which is very much aligned with fantasy’s roots, yet is clearly all building to a crescendo which will transform our woebegone hero from a killer into something more. Then again, perhaps I’m projecting my optimism onto a story that is, ultimately, one of sorrow…

Full Metal Octopus by Carlton Mellick III is filed under bizarro, but at heart is a fantasy novel that contains scenes of nightmarish horror, especially for those with claustrophobia. The novel follows a precocious fairy, Eliot, living in the slums of Grub Town—a city located in Mellick’s fantastical version of America—who gets involved in a gang war on a mythical scale. The adventure features tentacle sex, death-by-vaginal-constriction inside lamia strippers, and yakuza elves. The tone oscillates between enchanting romance, pure weird, and a desperate bid for survival in the bleak reality of a world that stands allegorical of our own whilst losing none of its dark magic. The ending made me ugly cry. It’s a tour de force that, for all its modern perversions, exposes the true, enduring power of magic and fantasy and its connection with the timeless hope that lives in the human spirit. Truly a masterpiece.

The Serpent King by Brian Barr is an occult, science-fantasy epic that contains scenes of abject horror intermingled with startling, dazzling magic. Set in another galaxy, one in which serpents rather than apes have become the dominant, sapient species of their planet, The Serpent King charts the rise and fall of the galaxy-spanning Nagan empire and the quixotic sorcerer Zian. Brian Barr has one of the most fecund imaginations of any writer working today, and his unique blend of science-fiction and fantasy offers up a feast of world-building and sociological commentary that cuts to the bone of contemporary struggles. In addition, Barr’s understanding of occult principles lends grisly verisimilitude to his magic. The Serpent King is equal parts Illuminati conspiracy, a satire of that very premise, and a terrifying bloodsoaked tragedy, all combined by the finest of dark alchemical magics.

Iseult Murphy’s The Mountains of Sorrow may seem like a cute tale about a wood-witch and her squirrel friends, but do not be deceived. The Mountains of Sorrow contains harrowing scenes worthy of a canto in Dante’s Inferno. The evil queen, Zelda, may sound like a princess from a popular video-game series, but she is anything but: Zelda is a cruel, terrifying antagonist whose masterplan is so callous and gruesome it leaves one reeling. Murphy uses the fantasy setting to brilliantly underscore her horror themes by way of contrast. For example, juxtaposing the beauty of the natural world and those who defend it with those who worship technological idols, and the sacrilege of the human flesh and spirit that is the only possible result of such idolatry.

I also want to add a forthcoming book to this list. I had the privilege of reading Stolen Pallor by Sean Eads and JoshuaViola, a book soon to be published by Blood Bound Books. This novella is a darkly fantastical horror that explores the meaning of art. Set in a modern world that parallels our own, yet is also just different enough to enchant us, we are soon drawn down the rabbit hole of strangeness until we reach what seems the very precipice of hell itself. This book feels like Fincher’s Seven and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser conceived a warped lovechild. It has such sights to show you.

Well, I think that does it for now. Thank you so much for coming this far. If you can think of any books that do this well and haven’t been mentioned, or would like to chat about the ones I have included, please let me know in the comments! As always, my love to you, brave explorers of these subterranean realms!

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The Beauty of Carcosa

When I was eleven years old, a friend of mine, Rob, used to live near a large shopping complex called Castlepoint, in my home city of Bournemouth. Like me, Rob was an avid reader, and we would often make trips to the Castlepoint Waterstones (the UK’s equivalent of Barnes & Noble) together. Most of the time we would not even buy books—because buying them new was expensive—but simply browse the rows and rows of shelves. We shared a love of dark fantasy, but like many bookstores, one had to wade through the celebrity biographies and pretentious literary fictionsections to get to the good stuff: fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. These three profane genres, along with graphic novels and manga, were relegated to a secluded place on the first floor, right at the back of the shop, in a curious, windowless nook that took up only six feet by six feet. However, despite the fact our favourite genres had been hidden away, the shop manager possessed the wisdom to make something of this little nook (knowing it would call the most reliable and avaricious of reading addicts), laying out old armchairs, putting up fairy lights around the high, ebony bookshelves, and creating what seemed a little pocket out of time for those who loved fantastical tales, tales of wonder and magic and adventure and horror, tales that stretched the imagination rather than reinforced the bleak zeitgeists of modernity.

My friend and I would often spend hours sitting in that nook, taking books off the shelves and reading them while reclining in the armchairs, discussing our favourite stories, and of course writing our own, though we rarely set anything down on paper. In those days, storytelling was an ephemeral process—and that only made it more magical. I would spend weeks—and I do not exaggerate here, the man hours were absurd—crafting the most compelling narratives my tiny brain could conjure, only to use them all for a one-shot D&D campaign that we would never revisit. But that was their magic, the very fact that—like dreams—they would cease to exist the moment we decided to wake up. Some of my friends still talk about those one-shots; they have become our own personal mythology. They exert more power because we can never get them back, because they have no fixed form. Many writers would do well to remember the pure joy and escapism of this childhood creation. As a recent father, I now recognise that some of my best stories are tales I make up on the spot to help my daughter get to sleep. I wouldn’t dream of writing them down. They are for her, for the moment, and all the more beautiful for how they will fade back into the dreamscape from whence they came after they’re told.

This ritual of visiting Castlepoint’s bookstore with Rob continued for around seven years, until I was eighteen. The only reason we stopped going is because I went to university in another city. Our friendship was not impacted one jot—we’re still friends today, and still read like maniacs and share many books together—but all traditions have their endpoint. But before this end came, Castlepoint Waterstones had one last gift to give me. I am fairly convinced, in fact, it is the last book I ever bought there.

One day, I was browsing the horror section (Rob stood on the other side of the nook, looking at the science-fiction), when I spotted a slender volume. The book did not look like it belonged. What was a Wordsworth Classics edition doing on a horror bookshelf? Surely the book belonged in the classic literature section, which, to be fair, was the only other section of the bookstore I spent much time in (me and Rob were both in agreement that Frankenstein was one of the best novels ever written).Taking this curious book off the shelf, I was surprised by its rather rudimentary cover: a man in a hood with a pale mask—nothing more. The title read, The King In Yellow. I had two immediate thoughts. Firstly, why was the border of the book cover in red not yellow, given its title? Secondly, I thought I recognised the author’s name. In fact, I ignorantly had confused myself, thinking that Robert W. Chambers was Robert E. Howard, the author of Conan. However, mistakenly believing the book might have some relationship with Conan turned out to be serendipitous, given my love of sword and sorcery, and so in a rare moment of spontaneous retail therapy I decided to buy it.

Little did I know, I had just purchased a book that would shape who I am. Not just as a writer, but as a person.

I remember the exact moment I opened the book and realised that something life-changing was about to occur. Unlike my usual procedure, I hadn’t looked at the contents of the book in the store—I normally always perform a “first line test”—something had compelled me to take the book home first. Secure in my room, somehow feeling like I was doing something more profane than simply reading fiction, I opened it, discovering to my great surprise an epigraph in the form of a poem, “Cassilda’s Song”. Opposite the poem was a quote in French, and the opening lines of the first story in the collection, “The Repairer of Reputations”. I was familiar with poetry—in fact, I was an avid devourer of it. And I had read a few books with epigraphs in Latin, modern European languages, or even Japanese. But something about the combination of the two, and the mounting suspicion that this was not a poem written by another author but by Robert W. Chambers himself, that already the book was weaving its magic about me, gave rise to—and I hate to sound like a Lovecraft rip-off here, but it’s the only phrase I can muster that feels true—an indescribable sense of mystery. I knew then, though I’d read but a few lines, that these stories were not going to give me all the answers. They were going to tantalise and tease me like LeMarchand’s puzzlebox, offer me a glimpse of something beyond my current conception of reality.

All of this leads up to me first reading the word “Carcosa”.

What many writers these days do not realise is that words are not just magic in the metaphorical sense, they are magical in the literal sense. Sound is magic; magic is sound. The creation of new sounds is the creation of new meaning. That is why music undoubtedly reigns supreme in the arts; at the very least it is the most universal medium. And that is why one can read a word like “Carcosa” and intuit what it is trying to convey, or rather feel some sense of evocation—like the rising of a memory in connection with a smell, a form of distant synaesthesia—without that word having any contextual framework or etymology that is traceable with intellect. I remember repeating the word several times, ensorcelled by it.

Carcosa was a place described in terms of hushed terror, but awe and wonder too. This is perhaps best expressed by the concluding lines of Chambers’ story “The Court of the Dragon”: “Then I sank into the depths, and I heard the King In Yellow whispering to my soul: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!’” More than once reading the collection, every hair on my arm stood on end. The above quote was certainly one of such moment, but there were others. Despite the horror, Carcosa was a place I wanted to go, a place of dreams where one might meet the living God in all His dark splendour. And indeed, it’s a place I’ve revisited many times in my life.

The first time came several years later during 2014 when a show called True Detective aired on HBO. During the second episode, the detective Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) reads from the journal of a young prostitute who has been murdered in a ritualistic killing: “I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest. The King's children are marked... they became his angels.” As I heard the name of The King In Yellow spill from the lips of Matthew McConaughey’s sociopathically intelligent detective, chills went down my spine. Chills of nostalgia, chills of recognition, chills of anticipation. Cohle subsequently remarks, “It reads like fantasy.” This is a strangely important comment, for it hints towards one of the keys as to why the Carcosa mythos is so enduring and so original. Though it is often described as cosmic horror, and indeed Lovecraft greatly admired Robert W. Chambers and even incorporated the King In Yellow into his own pantheon, The King In Yellow is fantastical as well as horrific, mysterious as well as dreadful, and beautiful as well as strange. Carcosa is not just a black void full of nameless horror, nor is it the horrifying sunken city of R’lyeh (which can only offer us death or madness), it is a place of dark wonders and living fairy tales, a place that you want to reach despite your common sense telling you not to peer too closely into the abyss.

Watching the mythos come alive in the capable hands of Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective’s creator and writer, lit a fire, causing me to dive back into the mythos once again. I discovered to my shock that Robert W. Chambers was not, in one sense, the originator of Carcosa. Indeed, the first mention of Carcosa was to be found in a short story by Ambrose Bierce entitled “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”, a fantastic reading of which can be found here. Bierce’s tale is even more elusive than Chambers’ subsequent interpretation, but what the two share is a sense of loss and a sense of liminality, that however far Carcosa might seem, it is but a step away—and yet, you shall also never reach it in truth. All we can do is stare at the megalithic ruins and wonder. Yet, should we stare long enough, these ruins might begin to speak…

I next visited Carcosa in the hands of Brian Barr. By chance I stumbled upon a short story collection he had released entitled simply Brian Barr's King in Yellow: Stories Set in the Robert W. Chambers' Mythos. The cover instantly grabbed me, not merely because of the phenomenal artwork, but also because it was a similar red to my Wordsworth Classics copy of The King In Yellow, which I still have to this day. I’d never heard of Brian Barr before; he is an independent author, and nowhere near as well known as he should be. But I decided to take a punt. I’ve honestly found more joy and gems in giving independent authors a chance than I have ever found reading big name trade authors. That’s not simply a biased statement from one who is also an indie author (and who’d very much like people to take a chance on him), but the honest truth. Barr is an absolute genius (I’ve read many books by him since), and I found myself riveted from the first line of his astonishing re-imagining of the mythos. Here was somebody not merely homaging Chambers and Bierce but completing re-inventing the theology of The King In Yellow in modern style. He did this partly by incorporating occult elements, such as astrology and kabbalah, into the mythic weave of the story—at the time, I was only just beginning my own study of the occult—as well as introducing alternative history and science-fiction into the mix. I was already inspired to revisit Carcosa, this time on my own terms, but Barr’s modern collection is what really convinced me I had to do this for my own sanity.

It was inevitable—destiny, perhaps—that one day I would try to write a story in the Carcosa mythos. After all, there was a strange synchronicity in that the fateful day I picked up Robert W. Chambers’ work, I was in the presence of another Robert, my friend. That early encounter forever shaped my understanding of dark fantasy, of grandeur and beauty nestled like a pearl in the scum of terror and dread, all the more beautiful for how it is nearly subsumed. For many years, I tried to come up with a tale, but nothing I wrote felt right. I definitely had something to say about Carcosa, but I did not quite know the way to say it. I had wild ideas and concepts, but what was really missing was character. I had the where, but not the who or what.

But then, one seemingly ordinary day in 2022, I was visited by the black goddess Kali, the goddess of bloodshed, ruin, but also creativity, and she showed me the way. She opened the doors of Carcosa to me anew.

It is in keeping with the legacy of Carcosa to leave it at that and say no more on the mysteries divulged to me by this eidolon of my own desires and fantasies, this inner Muse of decimation and beauty. Suffice to say, once she had left her mark upon me, the story flowed and flowed, and I became possessed by it, just like the characters of Chambers’ tales become obsessed and then possessed by the cursed manuscript of the eponymous play: The King In Yellow.

In the words of Chambers, “The time had come, the people should know the son of Hastur, and the whole world would bow to the black stars which hang in the sky over Carcosa.”

That hour is upon us, friends, when the King In Yellow shall return, and all of you shall witness the beauty of Lost Carcosa!

***

You can find out more information about my upcoming book inspired by Carcosa, The Claw of Craving, as well as listening to an extract from the first chapter, here. I’d like to take a moment to thank the incredible folk at Blood Bound Books, Joe Spagnola and S. C. Mendes, for being brave—or perhaps mad—enough to publish my take on the mythos.

There is also going to be a Carcosa-related treat coming soon for those signed up to my mailing list. So, why not subscribe and receive the blessing of the Yellow Sign (you’ll also get a free sci-fi horrornovella right off the bat)?

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11 MAGICAL BOOKS TO READ THIS HALLOWEEN

Hello my dear friends,

I’ve been silent for a while, but mindflayers never sleep, we simply dream in our dark labyrinths to wait out the aeons until it’s time for us to reclaim the surface world.

As it’s Halloween, which is my favourite day of the year, a magical time of year in which anything is possible, I have 11 magical and horrifying book recommendations for you! Some of these are recently-reads, and some are oldie-goldies. Either way, they’ll ensure you have a spooktacular Autumn and Winter. These are not in a particular order, so without further ado, here they are…

1. Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti

Okay, I’ll admit I’m quite late to the Ligotti party, but I’m so glad I’ve arrived. Ligotti combines psychological insight, impressionistic and poetic prose, and cosmic horror in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft to produce his own unique brand of darkness that is as addictive as it is unsettling. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is a collection of short stories—each one allowing the reader a glimpse into the blackest of unknowns, exploring existential questions of love and being. If you’re not a regular reader of short stories (in which case you’re not alone as I prefer longer mediums) I’d still recommend this compelling collection. Venture to the further reaches of the human psyche, to places where alchemy is not merely about the transubstantiation of matter but also of spirit. Glimpse the darkest worlds where only the truly mad can find their home. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is like an acid trip into the heart of darkness, one that cannot leave you unchanged.

SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER

2. Witchopper by Dan Soule

Dan Soule has written many books, all of which I love, but Witchopper is a very special tome. This story explores the relationship between father and son, between light and dark, between faith and chaos, between atavism and restraint, and explores what it means to grow up. It’s a story of post-Edenic loss of innocence told with tremendous passion, fierce intelligence, and fearless honesty. It’s a book not afraid to challenge social mores, sensibilities, or traditional ideas of morality. But at the same time it’s a hopeful story of redemption and love conquering all. The scope of this book is such that no brief review can do it justice, you’ll simply have to travel to the rural town of Southwell, and find out for yourself…

WITCHOPPER

3. All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve reviewed All of Me previously on this site: it’s probably one of the best novellas I’ve ever read. This is a story of Faustian pacts, body-image, and the near-impossibility of self-love. It’s a harrowing and surprising tale that had me riveted from page one to its emotional, moving finale. Whilst it bills itself as body-horror, and there’s plenty of that to go around, the aspect of the book that will stay with me is the powerful psychology explored through its principle characters, a psychology which is as believable and sympathetic as it is unnerving.

ALL OF ME

4. Petite Mort by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes

Over the last year or two I’ve reviewed several works, both long-form and short-form, by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes, including a novella they wrote together called Algorithm of the Gods and the short story #DeadSealChallenge. Mendes and Noir are an awesome writing team—their styles blend effortlessly—and some of the ideas they come up with would make a bizarro author jealous. What I truly love about their work is how rich it is with symbolism, so that each sentence, image, or event feels loaded with meaning and purpose. While there is plenty of gross-out for even the most diehard fan of gore, and sex to satisfy the porn addict, the guts and orifices are never pointless titillation but a mechanism to explore deeper themes. Petite Mort is a collection of Mendes and Noirs’ shorter collaborative fiction, including Cucumbers and Comforters (which I reviewed here) and other horrifying wonders. If you’re curious about Mendes and Noir, this is the place to start.

PETITE MORT

5. We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Those who know me knows how much I adore Grady Hendrix. He is an incredible writer who manages to combine the humour and humanity of life with a rich texture of darkness. Of his many books, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is undoubtedly my favourite. However, one book by Grady Hendrix that is often overlooked when I see discussions about his body of work is We Sold Out Souls. This is a fundamentally occult tale that explores conspiracy theories, Faustian bargains, and the intimate connection between rock ‘n’ roll and the dark powers. Balanced against feisty heroines is the ever-present malignancy of the dark eye, which is at once Sauron-like but also something altogether less fantastical and more disturbing. Several scenes in this book are so vividly described they will never leave you (if you’re claustrophobic, then you’ll probably want to tap out of this one), and the plotting is elegant and cunning in how it dovetails. This is a story of the pitfalls of success, the injustice of the world, and the timeless struggle between good and evil.

WE SOLD OUR SOULS

6. Flesh Rehearsal by Brian Bowyer

I reviewed this book fairly recently, but you will have to forgive me for recommending it again, because Brian Bowyer is simply a genius. Flesh Rehearsal shares some similarities with We Sold Our Souls, it’s a book about heavy metal, occultism, powerful women, and the darkness dwelling in human hearts—but it’s also surprisingly a book about love.In many ways it’s a deranged novel, written with feverously intense prose that cuts to the heart of matters with the precise brutality of a sacrificial blade. Flesh Rehearsal embodies the wisdom of John Ruskin, “All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”

FLESH REHEARSAL

7. Incarnate by Steve Stred

Almost every single book by Steve Stred would be appropriate for Halloween reading, but I think Incarnate is one of Stred’s most disturbing and accomplished books. Incarnate is particularly potent because it takes on so many horror tropes—holidaying in a remote location, a haunted house, a séance gone wrong—and yet remakes them into new, weird, and wondrous forms. Just when I thought I could predict what was going to happen, Stred throws a curveball. And the unconventional way Stred approaches writing horror scenes—sometimes narrating from bizarre or unexpected perspectives—casts a deeply unsettling spell over the reader. Stred is one of the few authors who can make me feel dread, and Incarnate succeeds in doing just this. If Shirley Jackson had lived to write a sequel to The Haunting of Hill House, this might have been it.

INCARNATE

8. Inside Perron Manor by Lee Mountford

Continuing the theme of haunted houses, Lee Mountford’s introductory novella to his Haunted series is a sublime masterclass in epistolary or “found footage” horror. Written from the perspective of a paranormal investigator obsessed with an ancient, malevolent house, Mountford inveigles us in the occult and disturbing history of Perron Manor to the point where we begin to lose our sense of reality. The aim of all good verisimilitudinous horror tales is to destroy the reader’s perception of the truth and make them believe, against all odds, in the reality of the tale, and Mountford succeeded so well in this I actually googled “Perron Manor”… Do you need any more encouragement?

INSIDE PERRON MANOR

9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In recent years, I’ve largely found myself preferring indie and self-published books to traditionally published ones—they take more risks and they explore unchartered territory—but there are exceptions to the rule, and Susanna Clarke is one of them. Piranesi is a phenomenal book that explores occult ideas, including the dissolution of the Self, the presence of other planes of existence, and much, much more. The horror here is subtle—a horror of not knowing one’s own mind, of doubting reality to the utmost extent. The tale is told in a style that is hauntingly imagistic, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. There are a number of surprises in this story, but even if you work out the true nature of things, the journey to get there is so thrilling, so heroic, so mysterious that you will want to re-read it again the moment it finishes.

PIRANESI

10. Oblivion Black by Christa Wojciechowski

This may seem an odd choice, as it is less fantastical and overtly “horror” than the other selections on this list. But likePiranesi, the horror in Oblivion Black is subtle yet no-less present. Oblivion Black is at its heart a novel about addiction and beauty, and how the two interrelate. It explores the story of a recovering heroine addict who takes up a job modelling for a legendary sculptor—erotic tension and unspoken desires ensue. However, beneath the sculptor’s charismatic facade lies darkness and trauma, just as our heroine, Ona, stills feels the draw towards her addictive past. Both are liberated by the creation of art, but even art can be corrupted when it is made with ill-intent. Oblivion Black is shocking, provocative, seductive, beautiful, and horrifying all in equal measure. And it’s sequel, Hierarchy of Needs, which I had the pleasure of beta-reading, is even more so. Don’t miss out.

OBLIVION BLACK

11. Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Maturin

Four years ago, I wrote a ridiculously long article about Melmoth The Wanderer. My feelings about the book have not changed since then, I still regard it as the underrated masterpiece of Gothic fiction. What stands out about this novel is the style in which it is written, which is at once poetic and precise yet also labyrinthine and haunting. Maturin ensnares the reader in the runnels of Melmoth’s mind until we begin to think like the deranged anti-hero who threads his way through the complex layers of this book’s framed narrative. Imagine Inception written by Mary Shelly and Christopher Marlowe and you have a sense of the warped genius of Melmoth The Wanderer. Everyone should try reading this book at least once—though be warned those who succeed may end up mad!

MELMOTH THE WANDERER

Well, that’s my 11 recommendations for this spooky occasion. Have a terrifyingly joyous Halloween my dear friends. And stay classy!

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Thanks for reading this epic-sized blog! If you’ve come this far, then I can only profusely thank you for your dedication. If you want to support my work, including the production of more detailed content like this, then you can head on over to my Patreon where I post monthly content, from essays to behind-the-scenes videos to exclusive cover reveals and beta-reading opportunities. 

Games

Dead World: Reborn (the RPG behind Save Game)

samurai with sword standing on sunset background,illustration painting

Hello everyone.

A lot of people asked me "How did you create such a detailed world in Save Game?" The reality is, Save Game is the result of more than a decade of work!

I have been building RPGs and games ever since my wonderful god-mother, Helen, first introduced me to a Dungeons & Dragons game. I played as a warrior, and was pretty useless overall, but enjoyed every second of it. It was such a rich and immersive experience, it blew my mind. Ever since then, storytelling and role-play have been kind of indistinguishable from each other. I use D&D to help me tell stories, and writing novels and telling stories helps me make a better Dungeon Master and player. D&D helps me to hand over the story to my characters and let them decide what to do. Writing novels helps me to create worlds that are more solidly built, and to avoid cliches that are present in so many fantasy adventures.

Whilst I love traditional D&D, I'm never one to do things the easy way. I like to take things apart and rebuild them the way I want them. So, I created my own role-play system, called Dead World: Reborn (due to it having many iterations), which focuses more on the narrative side of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst still providing a logical rules framework.

It occurred to me the other day, that with all the craziness in the world resulting from coronavirus, and lots of people at home looking for ways to spend time and to connect with those around them, whether digitally or under lockdown, that role-play is one of the best ways to do this. Some of the best friends I have are those I spent hours, days, weeks even playing Dead World: Reborn with. They battled, bargained, and boasted their way through what must be tens of thousands of encounters. Their energy, creativity, and enthusiasm made me the writer, and DM, I am today. I cannot thank them enough.

And here they are on my wedding day. From left to right (above): Valthorian The Elf Warrior, Perturabo Lord of Iron, Tydorr The Lizardkin, yours truly, Aron The Avatar, Harragan The Ranger, Ferrus Manus The Smithy, Hugo The Third (below) Kopperberg The Druid, Fulgrim The Perfectionist, Sir Lancelittle, & Sammus The Necromancer

Role-play allows you to step out of your own body in a way that is unique and unparalleled. I've seen people overcome severe mental difficulties during role-play, such as anxiety or even depression, all because the shared storytelling experience facilitates a healing journey. There's a reason why some of the best episodes of The IT Crowd and Community were about Dungeons & Dragons! 

So, we're all trapped inside, to a degree (or working on the front lines, if you're in the NHS!), but either way, we need ways to healthily escape and bond. You can play this game with those you're isolated with, or with people over Zoom / online. It's up to you. You don't need much, and in fact, the dice are largely optional; the storytelling mechanics are what's important.

So, I wanted to offer you all the tools to play my special homemade (sometimes called "home-brew") system for free. Below you will find a rulebook download, a character-sheet download, as well as a package containing details of a small campaign to get you started. However, I also consider this game a tool for writers building their worlds. You don't actually have to play the game, but you can use the character sheets and mechanics to determine elements of your story. For example, you can use the character sheets to understanding your hero's strengths and weaknesses, and you can use their "stats" to understand what challenges they can and can't face up to. What kind of opponents might be difficult for them to face-off against? And I'm not just speaking combatively. Role-play encompasses the entire wheel of human endeavour, that's the beauty of it.

But of course, it's fun to play as a game too, and sometimes it can be liberating to free oneself from the onus of creating a novel or screenplay or short story, which at times can feel like "work". Games allow us to be free without imaginations, because the only purpose is entertainment and fun (although the irony is this often leads to great ideas)!

Dead World: Reborn is a dark and fantastical role-play game. Step into the shoes (or claws) of a demon, undead, or rat-person. Wield massively overpowered magical spells. Begin your own epic legend, just like Levi Jensen from Save Game. And remember, it's best enjoyed with friends!

RULEBOOK

Download the rules for Dead World: Reborn. Whether player or potential Dungeon Master, this will help you craft characters and worlds for people to journey through or play as!

Dead World Reborn_D&D5_28032020_JS

CAMPAIGN: ZIGGURAT OF DREADFUL NIGHT 

This is a small campaign for relatively new players. The legendary hero Valthorian has journeyed into the dark north. You are tasked with finding him. But what if he has gone beyond even the Ziggurats, a place where dark cultists worship forbidden gods? What could possibly have driven him to do such a thing?

Ziggurat of Dreadful Night_Campaign_online download package

CHARACTER SHEET

To create your Dead World: Reborn character, you'll need a character sheet. Feel free to download and print, or edit via a PDF editor to create a digital sheet.

Character Sheet

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If you've downloaded this game and enjoyed The Mindflayer's whacky worlds, please consider buying him a coffee / tea via his Ko-Fi page. Lapsang Souchong is the favourite beverage of the Mindflayer, and he can subsist on its smokey aroma for many eons; it also stimulates him to create more weird and wonderful games.