Saturday, July 25, 2015

"A Happy Mother Takes Away Pain" (C.J. Henderson, Lai Wan: Tales of the Dreamwalker, Marietta Press 2007)

The last couple stories in the Cthulhu Mythos megapack I've been reading on my kindle have been utter duds.  A bad-bad-BAD pastiche (ripoff) of "The Music of Erich Zann" with a little of "Pickman's Model" thrown in for good measure, and then a sloppy Innsmouth story set in the modern day.  Yawn.  These duds, coupled with the intense sense of missing the man I got when I pulled one of his books off my shelf the other day when discussing the Hounds of Tindalos, led me into the comforting paperback embrace of C.J. Henderson.

I had the extreme good fortune to meet C.J. back in 2013, when he was the guest of honor at my alma mater's annual gaming convention, with a table overflowing with books to sell.  Truth be told, I'd not been all that interested in attending the convention until I saw that he'd be there, and meeting and speaking with him was the one bright point of that day, as the game I'd signed up to run proved less than fun for me.

C.J. was an encouraging, friendly person, seemingly as eager to meet me, his adoring fan, as I was to meet him.  We went back and forth about which of his works I'd read (I'm still a long way from having read everything of his - the man was prolific), with him also handing forth opinions on TV shows, movies, art, everything under the sun.  Every time I wandered away from his table, I wandered back with another $20 in my hand and a request for a recommendation from him.  He kept telling me the price of the books was whatever I thought they were worth, and then when I handed him what I felt was a fair exchange, that I was overpaying him.

I ended up picking up The Things That Are Not There and The Stench of Fresh Air, the first two novels in the "Teddy London" series, The Kolchak: The Night Stalker Compendium (two anthologies from Moonstone Books combined into one), and the book I started reading today, Lai Wan: Tales of the Dreamwalker, an anthology of short stories by C.J. and friends about Lai Wan, one of the supporting characters in the Teddy London series.  I think at some point he simply stopped accepting money from me, because I'm fairly certain I walked away with all of this for about $60.  He threw in a miscellaneous trading card as a bookmark with each book as well, and each book was signed by him.

But anyways, that's enough back story.

As mentioned, this collection deals with Lai Wan, a supporting character in the Teddy London series.  A woman of Chinese origin, Lai Wan is...complicated.  Her story begins with her dying on an operating table and reviving; she came back from the other side with a whole spate of new abilities, most notably psychometry; she can read the psychic history of a person, knowing their entire life and all their secrets by simply touching them or, in some cases, merely by standing within a few feet of them.  This power comes with an agonizing price; for years Lai Wan had no choice but to live in absolute isolation, carefully learning to control her powers and to build mental shields with which to protect herself from them.

The first story in this collection, "A Happy Mother Takes Away Pain," concerns itself with a young Arabic woman who comes to Lai Wan for assistance.  Her mother, it seems, is dying of a combination of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's; the young woman senses something more than mere illness at play, and comes to Lai Wan seeking a second opinion.  Her instincts prove correct; Lai Wan recognizes that the mother is being possessed by a particularly cunning breed of demon, well-versed in disguising its activities as a disease.  To the young woman's great distress, Lai Wan cannot exorcise the demon for her - she has to do it herself.

There's a certain mythic resonance - absolutely intentional - in arranging the story so that Lai Wan could not battle the demon directly, only offer encouragement to the woman fighting for her mother's life and misdirection to the demon.

I particularly liked the fact that the story was from Lai Wan's perspective, allowing the reader access to her inner thoughts, and presenting her inner conflict between the need to stay aloof and avoid physical contact, and her desire as a fellow woman and a daughter herself to comfort her client, was a highlight of the story to me.  This personal conflict, to me, was more compelling then the conflict Lai Wan had been hired to resolve.

The antagonist of the story, the demon or djinn possessing the mother, was a treat to read as well; C.J. absolutely nailed, in my opinion, a believable reconciliation between modern medicine and the idea of demonic possession, and the demon's motivations and desires, once made clear to the reader, are perfectly in keeping with the notion of an entity of evil and discord, without descending into cartoonish, puppy-kicking "Eeeeeeeevil."

C.J. passed away last year after a battle with cancer, and it's kind of a punch in the gut to know that his body of work has become a finite thing that I will eventually read all of.  He was a good, kind man in his dealings with me, and I carry a lot of what he's said to me at heart when it comes to my own writing.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"The Hounds of Tindalos" (Frank Belknap Long, Weird Tales March 1929)

Frank Belknap Long was a long-time friend and correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft, and as with many of Lovecraft's friends, he dipped his toes on the game of "Yog-Sothothery," as Lovecraft put it, penning cosmic horror tales that would end up bound up as part of the "Cthulhu Mythos." This story, first published in the March 1929 issue of Weird Tales, is Long's best-known contribution to the Mythos.

The story introduces us to a scientist and author, Halpin Chalmers, who has managed to synthesize the drug "Liao," allegedly what Lao Tze was on when he envisioned the Tao.  By consuming the Liao and focusing on the formulas of Einstein, Chalmers is able to mentally project himself backwards in time, remembering past lives or simply observing a time before the present.

Unfortunately for Chalmers (I can't write that name without wanting to put a "Superintendant" in front of it - thanks, Simpsons!), he goes too far in time, to a time before the evolution of multicellular life on Earth - a time before Time itself split into the curved space-time of Einstein and a darker, "angled" dimension.  In this time before Time, Earth was inhabited by creatures Chalmers understands as "the Hounds of Tindalos."  One of these creatures becomes aware of his psychic presence, and begins to pursue him down the vigintillions of years from its era to the present.

There's one way for Chalmers to protect himself; as an inhabitant of curved space, he's unreachable by the Hounds so long as there's nothing with a hard angle around for it to manifest out of.  Out goes all of Chalmer's furniture, and in comes the plaster of paris, to putty up every corner of his room.  But the Hounds are nothing if not cunning, and they have allies in curved space...

This is one of the best non-Lovecraft pieces of Cthulhiana in this era (outside of some of Robert Bloch's work, if you ask me), and Lovecraft enjoyed it enough to name-check the Hounds in "The Whisperer in Darkness" the following year.

The idea of time being split into "curves," containing the universe we know, and "angles," containing much that we don't know, is certainly a different one, though perhaps prescient; who knows what quantum physics will reveal in years to come? Either way, it's a novel take on Lovecraft's thesis that science will open up vistas that fracture the comforting "smallness" of a human-scale universe and force us to confront that smallness head-on.

The Hounds themselves have become quite popular, appearing in role-playing games ranging from Call of Cthulhu to Pathfinder, as well as being name-checked in video games like the Alone in the Dark series and one of the Final Fantasy games.  There's even a lovable plush toy version of the Hound out there to be had!

The typical depiction of the Hounds is of varying levels of canine-ness, which speaks to the evocative nature of the story and the title given to the creatures, though Long notes that the name "cloaks the foulness" of these creatures.  Game designer Kenneth Hite, in his "Ken Writes About Stuff" issue dedicated to the Hounds, notes that "[t]hey do not so much resemble hounds or wolves as they convey to their unlucky viewer an inescapable sense of being hunted." Brian Lumley presented the Hounds of Tindalos as fluttering, tattered bat-like creatures of pure shadow in his Titus Crow series of novels, while C.J. Henderson, in one of the short stories comprising the extended "Teddy London" cycle of occult hardboiled detective stories, depicted the Hounds as rhinoceros-sized armor-plated juggernauts with crab-like limbs and surprising degree of loquaciousness.

I'm actually gearing up to use a Hound of Tindalos in an upcoming session of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which is what led me back to the original source story.  My own description of the Hound is as follows:

"You see a long, lean shape, all hard edges and shifting rhomboid plates of glittering blackness surrounding a core of blinding blue light.  Azure phosphorescence drips from between knife-edged segments, obscuring the overall outline but leaving you with a cold knot in the pit of your stomach and an impression of greyhound, hammerhead shark and Cubist painting come to life viewed simultaneously.  The creature turns its long, jagged head towards you, and you could swear it seems to grin maliciously."

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

State of the Blog, an Update

Whew! It's been a while since I've posted here.  Much of my "reading time" lately has been eaten up by one of my other hobbies - I'm a game master of a couple different role-playing games, most prominently the pulp cult classic, "Call of Cthulhu," now entering it's 7th edition.

I'm pretty pleased to be able to announce that I'm officially registered with Chaosium, the company that produces Call of Cthulhu, as one of their "missionary" game masters - I'll be going to gaming conventions and hopefully at some point game stores and running newbie-friendly games of Call of Cthulhu to showcase the system and bring new players into the fold.

The first show I'll be working as a member of the missionary program will be Pulpfest in Columbus, OH next month.  This is the first year they're adding a gaming track to the show, and when I saw that announcement I immediately emailed them and asked if they could use another person running games.  I actually signed up for that before the revived missionary program was announced, so I've been in the process of updating the adventure I'd planned to run to the latest edition of the rules.  I'm most comfortable with 6th edition rules (which are barely different from 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th editions) but as part of the missionary program I do need to be doing my part to promote the newest incarnation of Chaosium's flagship game.  7th edition makes some interesting updates to the rules, most of them geared towards further streamlining the system.

So I'm signed up to run one adventure at Pulpfest, and then in September I'll be making the trek back to my old stomping grounds in Buffalo, NY for this year's Queen City Conquest, where I'll be running two Call of Cthulhu sessions back to back, the second of which, "The Get of Belial," is based on an unproduced script from the show Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  The first adventure, "Nightmare on the Slopes," draws from a number of B-movies released over the course of about 20 years, from the 1950s through the 1970s.  And that's all I'll say about that, in case someone reading this winds up playing in one of those games.

All that having been said, I have been doing a fair amount of reading-reading.  I've finished off both Theodore Roscoe's BETTER THAN BULLETS and Jeffrey Shanker's anthology ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS.  BETTER THAN BULLETS was the better collection on the whole, though a lot of the stories had a sense of sameness to them - Corday and Co. go someplace isolated, something unusual happens, we get an ironic or "twist" ending that turns the story light-hearted and comedic.  The most extreme example of this occurs in the final story in the collection, in which Corday's good friend, Yankee Bill, not only holds off a howling horde of fanatics single-handedly, but uses the sunlight flashing off the blade of his scimitar to send heliograph signals while he's at it to call for help!

ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS had some real gems in it, most of which I have in other anthologies in my collection - "Herbert West - Reanimator" from H.P. Lovecraft, "Pigeons from Hell" from Robert E. Howard, "Empire of the Necromancers" from Clark Ashton Smith.  A lot of the stories in here that I'd previously been unfamiliar with were kind of duds, I thought, though I did really enjoy G.H. Hutter's "Salt Is Not For Slaves."  Manly Wade Wellman's tale in here was supremely creepy as well, and a far cry in terms of tone and style from the "Silver John" stories, which are what I primarily know Wellman from.

Last night I started jumping around in a "Cthulhu Mythos Megapack" anthology I downloaded onto my Kindle, reading Frank Belknap Long's classic "The Hounds of Tindalos" and T.E.D. Klein's "The Events at Poroth's Farm."  I'll try to get a post up about them in the next couple days.