Praise for Twisted Tales Events
'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell
‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill
Monday, 27 June 2016
Prior to taking on this role, Can was a film director by trade. He has written and directed several award-winning short and medium length films along with commercials and music videos for the last twelve years. Can has been interested in video game design since the days of C64 and was considered for various roles in companies such as Bioware and worked in Riot Games as a director.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is currently on Kickstarter.
DM: What is your pitch for Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones? Why have you taken it to Kickstarter?
CO: Stygian is a highly thematic, narrative computer role-playing game which takes place in the nightmare worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. We are developing a multiple-choice role-playing game which not only serves the themes of Lovecraft in storytelling and presentation but also in game systems and other design approaches. I am an avid role-player myself and I can say that I came across very few interesting settings in computer RPGs in the last decade or so. With Stygian, we also ask are we condemned to settings like sword and sorcery or space opera in CRPGs? Do we have to take a part in the war between good and evil eternally? Can't we choose fragile and flawed beings as player characters instead of heroes?
This is a pitch which may look a little risky from the perspective of a publisher. With Kickstarter, we opened our imaginations, visions, and our prototype directly to the players. Now it's up to them to continue the dream (or the nightmare) we've formed.
DM: Are there CRPGs that you particularly admire and take inspiration from? Or do you draw more from the imaginative worlds created for pen and paper RPGs?
CO: I can say that we draw from both worlds. At the CRPG side, we have been analyzing titles of the early 90s like Dark Sun and Ultima Martian Dreams to the more contemporary CRPGs like Pillars of Eternity and Shadowrun. We aim to create a unique experience with Stygian but we are very interested in how other teams crafted their worlds, created a sense of progress, approached their systems, etc.
I believe if you know where to look and have some patience, you can unearth incredible mechanics, approaches, and solutions from the history of CRPGs. On the other hand; tabletop role-playing, with its endless variety and freedom, is also an equally productive exploration field for Team Cultic. I can easily name settings like Ravenloft, Planescape, Dark Sun, WoD, Nephilim, Call of Cthulhu, and such among my pen and paper inspirations for Stygian.
DM: The cell-shaded art for Stygian is highly distinctive. Why did you opt for this approach?
CO: Lovecraftian horror takes its strength from the unknown. We are developing a turn-based, axonometric game, so we are risking showing all these strange, vague entities to the player. This was a challenge from the beginning. I decided to go for an authentic art style which is reminiscent of book illustrations instead of an approach which tries to duplicate reality. This way, I aimed to create a reflection of the indescribable nightmare actuality the player is facing, thus leaving space for your imagination while honouring the illustrations of the pioneering pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. Also, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for outlines!
DM: Although the game begins in Arkham, it has been transplanted into a much more hostile, alien environment. How does this build on H.P. Lovecraft's stories and distinguish the game as its own entity?
CO: H.P. Lovecraft emphasized humanity's fragility in the face of a cosmic threat and our inescapable demise when the Great Old Ones awaken, but he never described the actual apocalypse. Our aim is to create a supernatural post-apocalyptic anti-utopia which is being ruled hand in hand by the Mob and the Cult in the absence of the proper institutions after the fall of society in Arkham. We wanted to isolate the iconic town of Arkham in a limbo between dimensions to be able to create a pocket plane, which we intend on filling densely with figures and entities of terror. We take our inspiration from the social reality of the period in which Lovecraft wrote as well as his work to create the devilish status quo of our Arkham. So I can say that we are interpreting a lot while respecting the actual canon.
DM: This is a very unusual take on post-apocalyptic settings and reminds me somewhat of Curst in Carceri from Planescape: Torment. However, it feels as though there is more of a sense of slow-burning dread than a frenetic fight to save the town. How have you approached pacing in Stygian?
CO: A very true observation. Stygian's human characters have already accepted their doom. The surviving folk in Arkham lost any hope of seeing the sunlight or their loved ones again long ago. Most of them also lost their minds while trying to face this unbearable truth. Others struggle to hold on to their miserable existences by going to the extremes, whether in belief, in pleasure, or in power... The pacing of Stygian will come from the player character's urgent need to reach the mysterious Dismal Man before losing his tracks forever.
DM: Without wanting to spoil too much of the story, can you hint as to who the Dismal Man may be and how he is linked to the fate of Arkham?
CO: This may mean giving major spoilers David, but let's analyze the data we have at hand together. In his/her prologue, the player character meets this peculiar fellow called the Dismal Man and he says one thing: “Find me beyond Arkham after the Black Day”. This means he was aware of the coming events like the awakening of the Old Ones and the isolation of Arkham from our dead world. Is he a mere watcher of the events, or an actor in this scenario of cosmic dread? You will find the answers in Stygian.
DM: The combat system is very reminiscent of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. What are your reasons for making this choice and how large a role will combat play in Stygian?
CO: It was the perfect choice for our combat system considering Stygian's miniature-like perspective. Also we are all HoMM 3 fans here in Cultic Games and were very eager to add elements like action points, cover mechanics, and sight to the already proven, addictive Heroes formula. I personally spent probably thousands of hours playing the Heroes series.
DM: Stygian is described as a game of horror, madness, and loss. How do you explore these themes while allowing the player to make progress?
CO: We like to emphasize that Stygian is not about winning, but about “enduring” in terms of progression. From the beginning, we wanted our players to feel the sense of progression in continuing the journey somehow, rather than owning the game's meta. If you are alive, not completely insane, and still going, that is progress in Stygian. I believe there is a survivalist (and maybe a bit masochistic) satisfaction in that kind of design and balancing approach.
DM: Now that Stygian has funded, can you elaborate on the upcoming stretch goals? If the campaign picks up lots more backers in the final few days, do you have any really major additions that you would like to make to the game?
CO: We are very excited about the possibilities. Our first major stretch goal is the Dreamlands. It will add a unique questline to the game along with a bizarre, surreal landscape, which you will be able to enter only by resting. In this vague and blurry quest-line, you will try to reach the memories of your ancestors in the strange realm of dreams, thus witnessing their sins and struggling to redeem them. The Dreamlands will add adventure game mechanics to Stygian while giving an edge to the familiar “progress-rest-progress” formula.
Thanks a lot for your thoughtful questions, David! It was a pleasure!
Monday, 13 June 2016
Branching out into professional miniature painting and sculpting, Bryan has done his best to try his hand at every aspect of the industry. Writing, designing, collaborating, marketing, and managing; if it has something to do with the enjoyment of gamers, Bryan has shown that he happily will be a part of it! Currently a game developer and writer over at Cool Mini or Not, Bryan spends his days in his home studio fleshing out, designing, and spit-shining games like Dark Age, Wrath of Kings, and even has had some hand in the company’s popular board games like Rum & Bones: Second Tide and Massive Darkness.
For more information on Dark Age, visit www.dark-age.com.
DM: How and why did you become a tabletop games designer?
BS: I’ve been a gamer for over thirty years. It seemed to be the only thing, aside from comic books, that I stuck with. Every other hobby or talent came, left its mark, then vanished. As I grew as a gamer, I moved into writing house rules, adjusting what I thought was wrong with existing games, and eventually official playtesting for companies that would have me.
It was during that era that I decided I wanted to try and be a part of the ownership circle in a local comic book shop. The current owner of the shop took me to a retailer-only convention where I ended up playing lots of games of a little game that was not finished yet set in this RPG universe called the Iron Kingdoms. By the end of the show I was handing these guys my gamer creds because I wanted to demo their game when it came out. I wanted to help them make this thing happen. As fate would have it, they saw that I had done some writing for games at the exact moment one of their staff writers left the project. They asked if I could do a test piece, the test piece led to a contract that in turn became the original Warmachine: Prime. We won a few Origins Awards the following summer, and that basically set me on my path. I never looked back; gaming was going to be my career. Here we are, fourteen years later, and I’m still going strong.
DM: With Mark 3 of Warmachine out this summer, the game is getting lots of coverage. What do you consider to be its greatest strengths and have they influenced your subsequent game design?
BS: Yeah, I am very proud to have been a part of what got that game started in the first place… now it is a juggernaut, no pun intended. Greatest strength, though? Probably the simplicity of its core system. This plus this, roll dice, hit, roll damage. Easy as that. It doesn’t take too long to understand, but it takes a lot of time to “master.” As for whether or not it has influenced my work later on… maybe? 95% of what I did for Privateer Press was just narrative design, so the rules and stuff was on someone else’s plate. But I will say this, I learned a lot about the “process” of creating good, memorable characters that people actually want to read about and play. Hopefully the fans agree.
DM: What is your pitch when describing Dark Age to new gamers?
BS: It is a true sci-fi skirmish game set in a world ravaged not by one apocalypse… but several. Aliens, humans, monsters, and robots all fighting each other for domination of a broken world that no one else wants. It’s a dangerous game where technology isn’t necessarily going to work, probably will kill you, but you’re damned if you don’t try to use it anyway.
DM: Are there any post-apocalyptic worlds that you draw inspiration from?
BS: I watch a *lot* of movies and international television series on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, so my inspirations can come from the most random of places. As for specific sources that kind of fit, it depends on what I’m thinking about at the time. With the Forsaken, I can watch Kingdom of Heaven or possibly some Game of Thrones. Outcasts get Mad Max. Skarrd actually get Ghosts of Mars, Mutant Chronicles, etc. The CORE get VIRUS, Terminator, First Contact. But recently, with the impending new releases for the Kukulkani, I watched Apocalypto again. Now that I’m working so heavily on the upcoming Dragyri book, Predator movies have been in the rotation. Next year, when we do the Brood, it will be sci-fi monster movies from Species to Aliens. As for the world itself, I turn to anything Riddick has to deal with.
DM: Can you give an overview of where Dark Age began and where it is today?
BS: Dark Age was the first miniature game property of Cool Mini or Not. Dark Age, way back in 2003, began as a heavily narrative miniature game that almost felt like a roleplaying game. Low model count, heavy story factors, lots of in-game effects; that sort of thing. The game has evolved a great deal, and the current version is brutal magic, in my opinion.
DM: What do you consider to be some of the most effective and affective narrative elements that convey the horror of Dark Age to players?
BS: In the narrative itself, Dark Age is set on Samaria, a planet that was used, abused, and eventually abandoned by the collective corporate scum of the United Worlds conglomerated government. The humans, collectively falling into the religious fanatics of the Forsaken and the Darwinian survivalists called Outcasts, do everything they can to eke out a normal existence amidst honor-bound aliens, genetic monsters, sacrifice-happy space invaders, meat-powered robot monsters, and mutant cannibals. It is a rough place, and if they could stop their own Machiavellian schemes they might be able to thrive.
In the game’s rules, we represent the world’s situation in two real ways – the constant use of models’ “psyche” for fear and panic purposes, and the presence of a Malfunction number on most attack types that include anything more advanced than an edge or heavy weight. In Dark Age, pulling the trigger on your favorite sidearm might just backfire and cost you your hand! Sometimes, especially if an important model is already wounded, you choose the lesser attack with a smaller chance for Malfunction instead of a potentially more lethal one.
DM: There is a real focus on body horror within the setting, from grafting, mutations, cannibalism, and more. Is David Cronenberg an influence on the game?
BS: An influence on the game? Probably not. On me personally? Absolutely. I’m a *huge* horror movie fan, and if I said that some of the things I have let my eyes feast upon haven’t influenced the way I see Dark Age… I’d be a liar for sure. I love Cronenberg, but Carpenter and Craven are where much of my personal tastes lie.
DM: Can you give a sense of each of the main factions and what you consider to be their most interesting aspects?
BS: Sure! The Forsaken (and the Prevailers) are a theocracy battling amongst themselves politically while trying to survive against the world around them. The Forsaken have a great strength in their adaptability, because as a faction they definitely have the greatest number of units to look at.
The Outcasts, whether talking about the core survivalists, the Slavers of Chains Barrow, or the Salt Flat Nomads, are all about making a living outside the comforts of reliable technology. They cobble together what they can. Make use of it, and try to get by. Like the Forsaken, they have a lot to choose from, but they bring a ton of interesting skills and special abilities to the table.
The Skarrd – mutant cannibal cults bent on the evolution of mankind through hardship. True monsters made by forbidden science, psychic powers, and the harsh environments of Samaria, maybe with a touch of evil madness tossed in. They are offense, offense, offense; give them the opening and they will tear you to pieces… and eat them!
The Dragyri, who are getting a big update and a brand new sub-faction before the end of the year, are a race of aliens that have actually been on the planet for longer than humans, oddly enough. They are powerful close combatants that use either swarms of pathetic slaves or hulking Trueborn brutes along with some powerful “magic” to crush their foes. Dragyri armies have some of the most durable individual models at a mid-level point cost the game has to offer.
The Brood are genetic beasties born in a lab and eventually left to their own devices in the Blackmire Swamp. They are part animal, part science project, and the only faction built around the idea of regenerating wounds. They take a licking and keep on coming.
The CORE are self-replicating robots that run on scavenged or aggressively claimed organic matter. They are a force of somewhat mindless drones that never give up led by higher programmed AIs that can hold their own against nearly any enemy. The draw to the CORE is a collection of unit-changing Upgrades that certain models can choose, allowing certain models to play different roles to the army each time you play.
Lastly we have the Kukulkani- a race of Aztec/Mayan-themed alien invaders from space that (if you ask some of the other Dark Age staff) might have had a hand in the possible destruction of humans on Terra (maybe in 2012?). They live on the biological energies taken from living things through advanced technomancy, using science to create magical effects. On the tabletop they have a resource they gain from some of their units or killing others called Bio-Energy, which they spend to cast powerful rituals or enhance some of their units in spectacular ways.
I think that about covers it.
DM: Every faction seems to be getting a book of their own at the moment (those for the Forsaken and Outcasts are already available, with the Dragyri one due out later this year). What is the idea behind this and how are the books allowing you to build Dark Age?
BS: We are going forward with Dark Age in new ways, starting with an official “Web Update” for the Kukulkani coming very soon. We will be using our website downloads section a lot more to update factions, repair card typos, adjust for balance mistakes (we all make them, unfortunately), and such, but when we have BIG releases or faction/story-wide events that need more pomp and circumstance, we will put together a faction book. Eventually, we will release a compilation of the Web Update stuff, too… but only when we have enough to make it worth the customers’ while – no tiny splat book syndrome here! So, things like the emergence of the Dragyri Shadow Caste or a new evolution within the Brood, those require a published product.
In all of our books and web updates we will write narratives and further the overall story of Dark Age, but it is a matter of scope. In a Web Update, we will focus on the changes to the faction involved, maybe getting a little bit into the overall story, whereas a fully published book will have a heavy narrative element that will talk about all the factions – and more. Effectively we want to grow our world in small steps, space out the changes we make, and even the game as we go. A fair game is what we want; at least fair between players – the models themselves are pretty much screwed from Jump Street!
DM: Where do you see Dark Age going in the near future? What are your long-term hopes for the game?
BS: Well, in the near future we have the update and new releases for the Kukulkani, the long-awaited reveal of the Shadow Caste in the Dragyri book shortly thereafter, and then an update to the expansive CORE robotic hordes. That’s the rules and models part of it, as for the narrative… well, that is another story (pun definitely intended that time).
The Shadow Caste coming out to play is like breaking every rule of Fight Club all at once, and Samaria is about to get a heaping helping of violent interaction. The spidery Dragyri had a ton of little threads wrapped around their talons, and now that they are up and out of hiding – a lot of those puppets are about to dance.
As for the long term, the number one thing that I would like to see out of the game is a driving force of games being played all over the world for people trying to become "Immortalized" as a model in our annual Immortals tournament and March To Immortality event circuit. The “MTI” (as it is commonly phrased) is about to get a little shift in how it happens, beginning with this 2017 Circuit, and I really think that people are going to enjoy climbing toward our Immortals event in Atlanta, Georgia at the Cool Mini or Not Expo next spring. Basically, I want the game to be as popular as other skirmish games like Malifaux, Infinity, and eventually my old alma mater, Warmachine. Once people get to playing it, reading our stories, and seeing all the fantastic new sculpts and re-sculpts in the Dark Age line, it will be an easy sell, so to speak.
DM: For people who are entirely new to Dark Age, how would you advise them to get started? What resources are there for them to draw on?
BS: For beginners that aren’t getting to play in starter games at a convention or an official Legion (our demo team) store event, I’d say the first place to stop would be www.dark-age.com to peruse the factions, the gallery of models, and maybe download the basic rules. Also, hopping to our Facebook page (or the very popular fan group on Facebook, Dark Age: Samaria Reborn) and asking questions is always a good way to find out what’s what. For a game about everything being thrown to hell in a proverbial handbasket, we have a very tight and friendly community that is growing every week. I hope it continues to do so as we move forward. A good community is the foundation to a successful game, that is my belief.
Tuesday, 29 March 2016
Petter Nallo, Creative Director, has been involved professionally with RPG development and writing since the turn of the millennium. He headed the development of one of Sweden’s biggest fantasy RPGs, Eon, for over ten years, then co-wrote the critically-acclaimed and Game-of-the-Year-awarded Noir – a dystopic horror RPG set in a dreamy fictional film-noir world, together with Marco.
Marco Behrmann, Project Lead, is an RPG-industry veteran, and was co-founder of Sweden’s largest RPG publisher during the 1990s. Besides writing and publishing Eon and Noir, he has been involved with classic Swedish RPGs such as the cyberpunk Neotech and historical Viking.
Marco and Petter, together with other partners, run one of Sweden’s biggest RPG publishing houses, Helmgast AB.
KULT: Divinity Lost is about to enter the final 48 hours of its Kickstarter campaign.
DM: One of the most fascinating elements of KULT is its relationship to Gnosticism and the idea that reality is just an illusion. How would you describe KULT: Divinity Lost to someone who is unaware of its history?
PN: I think that the Gnosticism is something you discover when you dive into the game. To a newcomer, I would describe KULT as a modern role playing game of personal horror. The game is set in the world as we know it, except that what we know is a lie. Some of us have started to see through the veil that has been drawn over our eyes, to see that the world we live in is far darker and more dangerous. There are ancient beings living in our midst, hidden doorways and gates to other worlds. And we as humans are also the source of our greatest horrors, where our nightmares, hidden fears, passions, and dark desires may come to life to haunt us. It is grotesque, fantastic, and beautiful at the same time. And it does not hold its punches, but goes to places where most other horror RPGs wouldn’t dare to.
RL: I usually describe it as a game with a unique feeling of horror and vulnerability that other horror tabletop RPGs can’t recreate. KULT has this fantastic and complex universe with cool mysteries, weird designs, and philosophical groundwork that haunts you after you have experienced it. When you play it, you realise that this game is one of a kind.
DM: What changes have you made to the setting and system to update KULT for 2016?
PN: We have left the 90s behind us and updated the setting for 2016. KULT primarily takes place in our day and age, so the game has been revitalised with a modern setting where social media, the internet, and global politics are intertwined with the mythos of the game.
We decided not to use the old system from KULT, and instead created a completely new system based on the Apocalypse World engine, but rewritten and adapted for KULT. We wanted a fast-paced system where the rules always drive the story forward and which is really simple to understand for new players. We have had several groups of playtesters, many of which have never played an RPG before, and none of them have had any trouble to understand how the rules work.
RL: I loved the dark secrets and disadvantages in the first edition of KULT, but felt that they weren’t integrated to the storytelling mechanism. When I designed KULT: Divinity Lost, my number one goal was to find a way to create stories using the characters’ dark secrets and disadvantages as generators of plots and horror. It’s really easy to create stories the way the system works. The system helps the narrator to use dark secrets as background plots on which to build stories, and by letting disadvantages generate suggestions for events and twists. I think a tabletop RPG in 2016 should have a system that supports you to play the game as the creators intend you to. In KULT: Divinity Lost, the system will help you create dark horror stories with antiheroes haunted by their past, destined for great deeds or horrible fates. Every story will have its own life because of how the system integrates with the storytelling.
DM: Quite often, contemporary horror RPGs avoid linking their supernatural mythology to current political events. Can you give an example of how this works in KULT: Divinity Lost?
PN: KULT’s primary setting is our world, Elysium. The different powers (mainly the Archons and the Death Angels) that try to control us have their presence all around us. And, naturally, they are connected to the political events of our time. The Death Angel Hareb-Serap, for example, thrives on conflict, and tries to cause conflict. The being is also strongest in areas with a lot of conflict, such as today's Syria. On the other hand, the Archon Geburah is strongest where there are strict and clear laws and rules that entrap mankind and is of course strongest in police states with limited freedom. So, the influences of these beings sort of moves and shifts and changes in power and domain as the world changes - or they change the world. You also wanted an example. Well, even if it is not a current political event, 9/11 has a clear connection to the mythos of KULT.
DM: The concept of dark secrets is intriguing as a way of allowing the players to shape the horrors they will face. Will this edition of KULT focus on more personal stories than prior versions?
RL: In campaign mode, the players will shape the background of the story together with the GM. This type of play style will create very personal stories where the characters’ dark secrets are the focus. If the GM wants to prepare a scenario instead, she will control how much the characters’ dark secrets are connected to background of the story. I recommend always having some connections as it make the characters more important to the plot. The system for disadvantages also helps the GM to shape the story around the characters. The degree of personal horror is still up to the GM.
DM: Aside from previous editions of KULT, which influences have you been drawing on most while revisiting the mythology?
PN: KULT always had a close bond to the early work of Clive Barker. That bond is still intact. But we have also drawn inspiration from authors like Neil Gaiman and his fantastical and wondrous worlds that are interwoven with our own. The violence and cynical nature of Bret Easton Ellis and his book American Psycho, and the beautiful violence of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. When we come to movies we have visited the twisted worlds of David Lynch (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), and Lars von Trier (Antichrist), as well as David Cronenberg and TV shows like Mr Robot, True Detective, and Masters of Horror. But the book’s mythos chapters have their own particular inspiration, often rooted in the bizarre; grotesque, but also beautiful.
DM: Will the magic system still draw on elements of real-world occult belief systems? If so, how will they be integrated into the updated setting?
RL: The magic system in KULT: Divinity Lost is based on the magician’s belief in herself. The ritual is a tool for the magician to focus her powers, but can differ between different cultures. For example, a death magician could be a Brazilian Quimbanda practitioner as well as a traditional western occultist. Their belief systems and rituals are different, but it doesn’t matter as the magician’s power comes from within, not the powers she is invoking. A magician can do a lot of things that lie inside her school of magic, but more powerful rituals pose greater costs and graver dangers. There is of course a possibility to make pacts with demons, angels, and old gods. These pacts can give the human servant great powers, but they aren’t magic in nature and have different rules than the magic system. We also explain how magical artefacts work and how they can influence stories. A magical artefact in KULT is more likely to be like the puzzle box in Hellraiser: a mystical thing of great power that’s very dangerous to use.
PN: It is important to understand that in the mythos of KULT, we are all divine. How close you are to accessing those powers often depends more on you as an individual than the exact practice. Rituals and artefacts are ways to gain access to these latent forces within us. You can't just read books and learn spells—you need to expand your mind and find the nature of your own soul. So a person can be hell-bent on learning magic but never learn anything, because he or she is just staring blindly at the page, while another person may discover magic by accident. It is all about who you are.
DM: One Stretch Goal on the KULT: Divinity Lost Kickstarter that has caught many of the old players’ imaginations is the prospect of an English translation of The Black Madonna campaign. What is this and why is it so prized?
PN: The Black Madonna was the first massive campaign for KULT. It was never translated or released in English back in the day, which left the fans eagerly wanting it, and many probably lost hope of ever seeing or playing it. We intend to change that.
The campaign, as such, became legendary in Sweden. The events of the campaign started during WWII in Russia and reaches its peak with the characters in our time. It is a story with a lot of complex characters that have many of the classic pieces of an epic adventure puzzle. Dark magic, beings from the dream world, intrigues by higher powers, mental institutions, and several different parts of the world where the story takes place. From Berlin to Russia, and into the Dream World. The campaign will be updated to the new rule system and also tweaked at some places and patched here and there.
DM: What are your hopes for building and expanding the game line with this Kickstarter and beyond?
RL: My hope is that we will write books for KULT for years to come and explore new aspects of its universe together with the fans. I also hope that we can find talented people in the RPG scene to contribute as writers and artists to KULT: Divinity Lost in future supplements. KULT: Divinity Lost will reanimate the game for both old and new fans. Hopefully, this edition will invite people who are new to the horror genre to roleplay stories in the KULT universe.
Wednesday, 11 November 2015
romance, most recently the
TF: Your stories often have characters confronting a kind of weird ecstasy - the Pleroma in Course of the Heart, or Anna Kearney's experiences in Empty Space. The audience for Twisted Tales might be familiar with the dark side of ecstasy - the confrontation with cosmic horror that comes in a Lovecraft story - but for your characters and the reader the encounter is far less conclusive, far more confusing, if potentially just as devastating. Could you talk a little about ecstasy and your stories?
MJH: That's true. And the characters in the more mainstream stories, like Climbers, suffer (I think that's the right word) a kind of secular ecstasy, which you might describe as the ecstasy of simply being alive. It's that aspect of the encounter with the sublime--which you would see as often in Kerouac as in Machen or Hildegard of Bingen--that interests me. The idea that if something ordinary sits at the heart of the mystical experience, then, equally, something profound lies at the heart of the ordinary. You can make that statement in either direction, of course, and frame the subsequent argument to your taste. Some mornings I'm a shade more interested in finding the profane at the heart of the sacred than I am the sacred at the heart of the profane. A certain restlessness around that is where I'd locate the 'horror' in my fiction, that's where it has something in common with the horror tradition. But Lovecraft's anxiety of the unknowable, his sense that it must always be undermining of the human, is of less interest to me. It seems frame-dependent. I'm very much in favour of inexplicability as an essential component of human experience. Aickman quotes Sacheverell Sitwell's for his epigraph to Cold Hand in Mine: 'In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation'.
TF: Your characters often seem caught by that irreducibility. The Climbers are conscious of their trajectory towards an entangled ecstasy / annihilation, which they see in terms of routes mastered and cartilage ruined, but they wouldn't think of quitting. At the opposite end, those characters who try to deny the sublime, like Lucas and Pam in Course of the Heart or Michael Kearney in Light, become stunted, half-lived people. Is there a middle way?
MJH: Not if you want to map the tension between the two, no. But I think most of us eventually find a way of living with it. Of course, that's a defeat as far someone like Choe Ashton (Signs of Life) is concerned. I'm not sure I'd describe Lucas Medlar as the stunted one in Course of the Heart--he's still struggling at the end, in fact like all good fictional ephebes he disappears *into* his struggle. I still have real hopes that he's out there, trying to get it. The stunted one in that novel is the narrator. He's kept his life on an even keel, denied his actual aliveness much more successfully than Lucas, and he'll never find the Coeur or understand that there was something to find. I'm interested in how these dichotomies translate to the newer stuff--the KT novels, for instance, where the struggle to experience profane ecstasy is sidelined, even satirised, in the self-parodic fates of characters like Paulie deRaad and Ed Chianese. Anna Kearney decides to live 'for herself' but despite her narcissism doesn't know how. And in characters like RI Gaines and his daughter Alyssia, the issues have begun to shift elsewhere. This is visible in the eponymous characters of the short story "Cave & Julia". I don't know what it means yet, but I dare say the fiction will tell me in the end.
TF: It's definitely moving. At the end of Light - and I mean into the very last words, which I won't spoil for readers of the interview who might not have read the book - there was an immense sense of forgiveness and possibility as the characters realise their transcendental possibilities in a cosmic event. It was exhilarating and, ironically for something with so much narrative possibility, it feels like a conclusion. Then in the next Kefahuchi Tract novels the sublime and the drive to find it moves sideways, still present but not at the narrative knot in the way it is in Light or the earlier Signs of Life or Course of the Heart. Did that culmination and change have anything to do with your return to capital letters Sci-Fi in Light?
MJH: Not directly, I think. But those books were liberating in all sorts of ways. Curiously--given that we're talking about space opera, with its stress on movement, colour and imagery--the major liberation was in terms of character. Much of that was to do with elbow room. You have a lot of it in a space opera, and if I had more, I felt as if I could allow the characters more, too. Anna, Liv Hula, Helen Alpert, all got free and did interesting things. Some of the minor characters, like Anna's daughter (who was intended originally to be just a voice on the other end of the phone--a kind of invisible chorus commenting on Anna's ditziness), got free and did interesting things. Even the Assistant, that robot adolescent wet dream of sci-fi gaming, got free and did some interesting things. I took a lot of the impulses that lay behind the material and started to try and understand them through short stories like 'Animals', 'Cave & Julia', and 'Getting Out of Here'. The new short story volume, if it ever gets published, will show this as a process. (Although other processes were involved there too: my blog, for instance, has been a massively valuable halfway house between fiction and nonfiction, which run in and out of one another throughout the collection.)
TF: Reading several of your stories, a reader is likely to find repeated scenes and archetypes and imagery which return in different arrangements, with different significances, as though your writing is a long and dreamy thought process picking at problems - not necessarily to solve, but to find some of the edges. Are there any problems that you've so exercised they no longer feed into that process? And what are the main feedstuffs at the moment?
MJH: I don't think they're problems, so much as images that my head won't let go of until I've attached them to a concept (philosophical, scientific, political) and a character-- then via the character to some aspect of being alive. They occur and recur, combine and recombine, switch one another on and off like genes, reverse their meanings, invert each other's meanings. It's less a thought process (though plenty of thinking goes on) than a process of imagination. The biggest kick I ever get is to find myself pursuing some group of images without knowing why, so I look at the story I've produced and haven't the slightest fucking idea who wrote it. It's like being reborn again and again. Since 2008 I seem to have been obsessed with water; archaic hominin introgressions in the 'modern' human genome; a kind of bloodless mystic butchery; tainted business cults; shadowy UKIP rites that make Freemasonry seem sane.
TF: I'm not sure if I'm reassured or nervous that your stories are as mysterious to you as to the rest of us. It makes your meticulous prose (I think it was China Mieville who called it 'writing with a scalpel') and disarming ability to convey life and the world a little easier to reconcile with a human author if the writing process didn't all go through the forebrain; conversely it suggests the intrusion of dangerous metaphysics (non-euclidean geometries, chthonian intellects, etc.) in the gap. Assuming that you don't wake from a fugue once every few years to find a manuscript on your computer desktop, how do you train your imaginings into satisfying stories?
MJH: If everything 'went through the forebrain' we wouldn't have imaginative writing of any kind; but, yes, once the mass of material has suggested the direction it wants to take, and perhaps even fallen into pre-written units, it needs to be encouraged into shape. That can take a lot of work, or it can happen across a couple of hours. I look for connections between levels, opportunities for parallel and contrast. Echoing. Shaping rather than plot, but plenty of narrative push-through. Syntactical connections between scenes, just as you'd have between the elements of a sentence, are very important, because they manage the emotional, the political, the human logic. Then a few simple formal rules about when you make a reveal, how you prepare for it--because most of the short fiction is revelatory and epiphanic (though often enough the reveal is that nothing is revealed, and the epiphany is fairly oblique). I'm interested in scale and narrative grain. I use the iterative a lot to manage time, and to control the reader's distance from the events as they 'happen'. One of my favourite structural units is the two-line drop: you can cram a lot into that. If I use a traditional form or trope, that's usually to break it in some way, or refuse the closure it suggests. I often use structures out of nonfiction. I often use a 'character study' as the basis of the structure. All that is controlled through the surface. I often use a surface from one genre to control content from another.
TF: I'd like to pick up on the idea of refusing closure. Your stories are not conciliatory, sometimes even antagonistic - I'm thinking of some of the Viriconium stories. What does that offer you?
MJH: To begin with it was a bare-faced trolling of the f/sf reader, a way of seeming to offer what f/sf normally offers, then snatching it away by allowing the story to fall into a kind of absurdism. That was an act of metafiction, a criticism of the genre. From there, it became a way of exploring the refusal of closure as an act in itself--really, as a matter of technique; then of its potential as a political act. Now I'm interested in using it to look at individual emotional experience (which comes with an automatic political component anyway). When I began writing flash fiction and nonfiction on my blog in 2007, I realised that I could bring method and content together by making the fiction a kind of lost property department, or missing persons department, in stories of self-storage units or of people who make the decision to 'become lost in their own life'. Around then I finally felt that I had shed the original trolling dynamic of the technique, and discovered a less limited, perhaps more positive purpose for it. Probably the best way to define what I'm doing now is to quote the piece I put up on my blog today--
'The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that, and it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.'
TF: 'Bare-faced trolling of the f/sf reader' would have been a fun cover blurb for the Masterworks Viriconium. You've been telling stories with ghosts, echoes, apparitions for decades; the Shrander, the manifestations of/from the Pleroma, the Shadow Boys, even the Reborn Men and New Men if I'm stretching the definition. Humanish presences that linger, or (at the more MR Jamesy end of things) inhuman shades that pursue (though not for Jamesian reasons). Then there's Empty Space: A Haunting. For want of a better way to put the question: what is it with you and spooks?
MJH: Ghosts, hauntings, accidental interleavings of time or continua, faux retro, the slipperiness of perception, things which might be there or might not--all part of the armoury of the uncanny. In the KT trilogy, everything, from Shadow Boy to advertisement to human being, is made of information, and information is always slipping away into new combinations and meanings. It's another way of asking the reader, 'Is there anything on this page but letters? Is there anyone to read it who isn't made of slippage?' Then hauntology, of course: 'that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive'. And there's pure nostalgia--the haunting by an old photograph, or by a photograph not yet taken, a condition not yet reached, letters not yet written on pages. An old building is already a kind of haunting, an outcrop of the past into the present. As you say, ghosts or something like them are central to my stuff. I can't say I believe in them per se, though. They're grist to the mill, they facilitate certain kinds of fictional structures, which are in turn the best way of handling ontological or epistemological issues, the big question to myself as well as the reader: knock knock, is anyone there?
TF: There's a comparison back to the numinous (and Lovecraftian) there - a panghostliness, a cosmic haunting. A world-as-specter. I'm writing this the day before you talk at the Twisted Tales of the Weird event in the Manchester Gothic Festival, and as a parting question, I wondered if you could talk a bit about the weird and maybe how it relates to the other characteristics of your work we've covered - absurd, inconclusive, sci-fantastical, ecstatic haunted, romantic, surreal, et al. Maybe your thoughts going into or coming away from the panel? Also, can we plug your next book? Does it have a street date yet? I'm really really glad to see that Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, and Things that Never Happen are set for reprints in September 2016.
MJH: Aickman's 'Bind Your Hair' shows the obliquity and reserve I'd associate with a sort of English Weird; symbolism that doesn't quite mesh with--or even entirely admit to--its own subject matter. For me the Weird was always a kind of perverted or broken Imagism. It was also, for instance, permission to write SF on a philosophical chassis that the Church of Sci-Fi would consider bad or heretical theology, ie the proposition that the universe is not innately knowable.
As I said above, I like it best when I'm producing work I don't yet fully comprehend: writing then becomes a way of working towards that comprehension. I was pretty much finished with the KT trilogy in those terms by 2008, although I'd only just started the third book. That phase was closing; at the same time, new material was turning up. My intention was to take a break from space opera and explore that, but circumstances didn't allow. So since I finished Empty Space I've been working my way back into that material, trying to recoup it and beat the exhaustion that came from not dealing with it while it was fresh.
New work: there's a collection of short stories which, though it goes back as far as 2001, is primarily made of this new stuff, including flash fiction from the blog. It's finished, it's with my agent, but I haven't a clue when--or even if--it will be published. And there's a new novel grinding its way into the same seam of ideas. Neither of them have titles yet. The novel is Weird, set in the present--uncompromising but, I hope, funny.
Wednesday, 30 September 2015
M. John Harrison is one of the most influential writers of weird fiction that the UK has produced. Perhaps best known for his Viriconium sequence (1971-84) and The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (2002-12), for which he won the James Tiptree, Jr Award, Arthur C Clarke Award, and Philip K Dick Award, he also coined the term ‘New Weird’ and remains an innovator in the field.
Helen Marshall is an author, editor, and medievalist. Her two collections of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side (2012) and Gifts for the One Who Comes After (2014), have been up for the World Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Aurora Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. She lives in Oxford, England.
Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published in the summer of 2014. His short-fiction has appeared in Caledonia Dreamin’ and Leviathan 4: Cities, among other places. He lives in East London.
Monday, 15 June 2015
For more information, visit: http://haroldschechter.com/
DS: How do you define true crime?
HS: As I understand it, true crime is a genre of narrative nonfiction whose typical subject is (to use a popular Victorian phrase) 'horrible murder'. While it is common among moral crusaders to see our current infatuation with true crime as a dispiriting symptom of the debased sensibilities of our sensation-steeped culture, the truth is that the appetite for tales of real-life murder, the more horrific the better, has been a perennial feature of human society. In the old days, before the invention of movable type, accounts of shocking homicides were disseminated among the peasantry in the form of orally transmitted crime ballads: versified narratives of real-life stabbings, stranglings, bludgeonings, dismemberments, and the various forms of familicide. Gutenberg’s invention made it possible for his successors to profit from the undying human need for morbid titillation. Whenever a particularly ghastly killing occurred, it was promptly written up in either doggerel or prose and printed on broadsheets or in crudely made pamphlets to be sold by itinerant peddlers. From those primitive beginnings, the genre evolved into the illustrated proto-tabloids of the Victorian era, the pulp magazines and dimestore paperbacks of the early twentieth century, and the legitimately literary works of the post-Capote era.
DS: You’ve had a prolific and very successful career as a true-crime writer. What attracts you to the genre? Are there any writers or texts that are particularly influential on how you write and what you want to achieve?
HS: I suppose to fully answer that question, I'd have to consult with a shrink. Putting aside the issue of my personal psychology, however--guilt-ridden fantasy, unresolved Oedipal conflict, that kind of thing--I have, as an academic myth critic, a professional interest in true crime. Specifically, I have always been intrigued by the human need for stories about archetypal monsters. To me, true crime is essentially fairytale horror for grownups. You see that clearly in the kind of supernatural nicknames tabloid writers invent for certain homicidal maniacs: ‘The Night Stalker’, ‘The Vampire of Sacramento’, ‘The Pied Piper of Tucson’. These real-life criminals awaken infantile fantasies of supernatural demons lurking in the shadows, turning us all into awe-struck children again. It's why certain criminals--Ed Gein, for example, the model for Psycho's Norman Bates and Leatherface of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the subject of my first true-crime book, Deviant--achieve a mythic status in the culture. Those are the particular kinds of killers I'm interested in writing about. In fact, when I first started out, I thought, immodestly enough, that I was creating a new genre, not 'true crime' but 'true horror': nonfiction accounts of actual criminals who seemed like the flesh-and-blood incarnations of the kinds of ogres encountered in myth and folklore.
As for the second part of your question, I have, like virtually everyone working seriously in the genre for the last fifty years, been deeply influenced by In Cold Blood. But I have also been influenced by my lifelong immersion in horror cinema. To create certain narrative effects in my books, I consciously look at the ways specific scenes in my favorite horror movies have been shot and edited in order to produce tension, suspense, shock, etc. And then I try to replicate those effects in prose. What do I hope to achieve in a larger sense? In addition to producing compelling narratives--transforming newspaper articles, trial transcripts, prison records, and other primary source material into (hopefully) page-turning stories--I like to think that I am creating definitive accounts of some of our nation's most historically significant murder cases. Since I also believe that you can learn as much about a particular era from its signature crimes as from its politics or pop entertainments, I also see my books as a form of social history.
DS: Do you think that true crime can or should have any kind of social utility in order to be successful? If so, what is true crime useful for?
HS: That crime is inseparable from civilization--not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives--is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers. Picking up on Plato’s famous observation that the virtuous man dreams what the wicked man does, Freudians argue that violent lawbreakers make it possible for the rest of us to adapt to the demands of normality by acting out (and getting punished for) our own forbidden impulses. In the view of Émile Durkheim, the criminal contributes to civic well-being not only by promoting a sense of solidarity among law-abiding citizens--who are united in their condemnation of the malefactor--but by providing a cathartic outlet for their primal vengeful impulses. If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished--which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And this is precisely what true-crime literature provides.
DS: With texts like Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ in mind, could you comment on what you see as the role of the Gothic in true crime? Is true crime intrinsically Gothic/horrific, or does it depend on the case and the author’s perspective?
HS: To give a somewhat roundabout answer: as we all know, there are a dismaying number of ghastly homicides more or less on a daily basis. The vast majority of these generate nothing more than a day or two's worth of coverage before disappearing from the news. A tiny fraction, however, maintain an ongoing grip on the public imagination; some even become a permanent part of our cultural mythology. I've always been interested in why certain crimes--the Leopold and Loeb case, to take one example--exert such lasting fascination, while other equally sensational crimes (e.g., the horrific 1927 abduction-murder of twelve-year-old Marian Parker by William Edward Hickman) quickly fade into obscurity. One of my favorite observations about this very issue was made in 1836 by James Gordon Bennett, publisher of our nation's first sensationalistic ‘penny paper’, the New York Herald and the acknowledged father of American tabloid journalism. During his coverage of the famous case of the murdered New York City prostitute, Helen Jewett, Bennett wrote: ‘Men who have killed their wives, and committed other such everyday matters, have been condemned, executed, and are forgotten, but it takes a deed that has some of the sublime of horror about it to attract attention, rally eloquence, and set people crazy’.
Bennett’s insight that the murders people are interested in reading about are those which provide an experience of ‘the sublime of horror’ makes the connection between true crime and the Gothic very clear. It’s why Poe used Bennett’s paper as a source not only for his crime fiction but for certain of his horror tales as well. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, for example, was partly inspired by the Herald’s coverage of the 1840 case of Peter Robinson, who murdered his creditor, Abraham Suydam, and interred the body beneath the floorboards of his basement.
DS: What’s your take on the mixture of fact and fiction in true crime? In your own work, how do you balance fidelity to historical fact on the one hand and the need to craft a compelling narrative on the other?
HS: While In Cold Blood elevated the book-length true-crime narrative to the rarefied heights of serious literature, its author also set an unfortunate precedent by indulging in the kind of novelistic embellishment (not to say rank fabrication) that has become endemic to the form. People who write true crime, of course, aren’t the only authors of creative nonfiction who have been known to improve on the truth. Given the promise of absolute veracity that is embedded in the very name of the genre, however, I believe they have a particular obligation to stick to the facts.
Not that I’ve always done so myself. Early in my career, I occasionally allowed myself a bit of what I referred to as ‘extrapolation’ (less euphemistically known as ‘making stuff up’). My unacknowledged credo (cribbed from the first chapter of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was, ‘It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen’. In my own defense, I restricted myself to fairly minor atmospheric details. For example, there's a scene in my book Deranged in which the main character--the wizened cannibal pedophile Albert Fish (using his pseudonym, Frank Howard)--dines with the family of his future child-victim, Grace Budd. Here's how I describe the meal:
The men retired to the kitchen, a clean but dingy-looking room illuminated by a single bare bulb that tinged the whitewashed walls a sickly yellow. The long wooden table, covered with a plaid oilcloth, held a big cast-iron pot full of ham hocks and sauerkraut--the leftover remains of the previous night’s dinner. The sharp, briny odor of the cabbage filled the room. Arranged around the pot were platters of pickled beets and boiled carrots, a basket of hard rolls, and two ceramic bowls into which Mrs. Budd had transferred Frank Howard’s pot cheese and strawberries.
Now, while this lunch really happened, I took the artistic liberty of inventing the menu. I hasten to say that I did some research into the kind of food a working-class family like the Budds might serve a guest for lunch in the late 1920s. Still, I didn't actually know what they ate--I just wanted to make the moment seem real for the reader.
I no longer permit myself even such minor bits of imaginative re-creation. My field is historic true crime--I've covered cases from the Civil War era to the 1950s--and I've come to see the genre as a legitimate branch of American historical study. After all, the Leopold and Loeb case tells us as much about the Jazz Age as Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, just as the Manson murders shed as much light on the culture of late-1960s America as Woodstock. To be taken seriously as history, however, a true-crime book must adhere strictly to documented fact (which is why my last few books have included copious endnotes). There's no reason why a book-length narrative about a nineteenth-century serial murderer shouldn't be held to the same rigorous standards as, for instance, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt.
My task, then, as I see it is to produce a serious work of historical scholarship that stays true to the sensationalistic roots of the genre by providing ‘murder fanciers’ (as Edmund Pearson called true-crime lovers) with the primal pleasures they crave. Once I’ve settled on a subject, I launch into my research, a process that generally takes anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half and involves many long hours of digging through various archives, copying old newspaper-stories from microfilm, getting hold of legal documents, police reports, trial transcripts, and psychiatric records, tracking down and interviewing relatives (of the perpetrator and/or and victims), etc. Before I’m done, I’ll have accumulated several thousand Xeroxed pages plus a small library of books.
Shaping this sprawling mass of raw material into a readable narrative is, of course, my main creative challenge. While I'm scrupulous about keeping the content strictly factual, I feel free to manipulate certain formal elements--mostly story structure and point of view--for maximum dramatic effect.
DS: Thanks to podcasts like Serial and documentaries like The Jinx, we’ve seen a recent resurgence of interest in true crime. Why do you think it remains a popular genre?
HS: Simply put: we all, in the darkest recesses of our psyches, want to commit murder. True crime permits us to experience in fantasy what we would never allow ourselves to do in the flesh. It provides a safe, socially acceptable way to satisfy what the art critic Erwin Panofsky calls our ‘primordial instinct for bloodshed and cruelty’. It’s the same reason that Poe remains the most popular of nineteenth-century American authors.
DS: What do you see as the future of the genre?
HS: The only real changes I see have to do with technology--i.e., the ways the stories are transmitted and consumed. There are now entire cable TV channels devoted to true-crime shows, many of which rely heavily on dramatized recreations. I suppose the next step will be virtual reality true crime, where the audience will feel they’re actually wielding the hatchet while administering forty whacks to Andrew Borden’s skull.
DS: What are you working on at the moment?
HS: At this particular moment, I’m working on this interview. I also have a new book coming out in August--Man-Eater--on the legendary Colorado cannibal, Alfred G. Packer (at whose 1883 trial the sentencing judge reputedly said: “Packer, you voracious sonofabitch, there were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them!”). As for my next project, I’m contemplating a book about Belle Gunness, the infamous, ‘Lady Bluebeard’ of LaPorte, Indiana.
Monday, 30 March 2015
Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story aired in 2011 and played out to both criticism and critical acclaim. While Murder House exhibited an astonishing range of horror ingredients from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining to Rosemary’s Baby, likewise, the eagerly awaited second instalment to the American Horror Story anthology, Asylum, plunders from American anti-convent mythology and paranoid conspiracy narratives. There is no doubt that American Horror Story is a masterful lesson in American fictions that make monsters. Yet, the show’s monstrosity is not merely a fictional projection. Instead, it offers demonstration after demonstration of the making of real contemporary monstrosity: gimps, lunatic ex-girlfriends, phantom pregnancies, evangelical scientists, suicides, rapists, Nazis, rednecks, calculating and cruel clergy, maniacal mothers, corrupt fathers, child abductors and serial killers abound.
The unarguable popularity of American Horror Story shows us that television has come to serve as a convenient vehicle for the articulation of what American society finds truly monstrous in the twenty-first century. Asylum is set in Briarcliff Manor, a sanatorium set up by the Catholic Church for the criminally insane and continues to pose questions of the ‘monsters’ that American culture creates. This includes holding a mirror up to the audience’s voyeurism and seemingly obsessive appetite for the monstrous. Asylum initially opens in the present day and focuses on a couple of sexy, young newly-weds called Teresa and Leo (Jenna Dewan Tatum and Adam Levine) as they honeymoon on horror. In the opening shots, these thrill seekers venture into the abandoned sanatorium and, with much heavy panting and dirty-talk, get-off on the building’s gruesome past. Teresa, reading from a history book, reveals that one of the more notorious inhabitants was a serial killer called ‘Bloody Face’. A diabolic murderer of women so named because he likes to skin and then wear his victims’ faces. The couple are obviously thrilled by the building’s history of violence and mayhem, that is, until fantasy becomes a reality and a psychotic masked killer begins to stalk them through the asylum, ripping them limb from limb.
How, according to Asylum, did a dubious taste in foreplay, manage to get the hapless young couple violently dismembered? Well, as with all things in American Horror Story, the answer is bound up in the dark, dark past. Subsequently, the series explores the historical events of Briarcliff Manor. Beginning in the 1960s, it follows the stories of several misfits employed by the institution along with the inmates committed to its labyrinthine wards for crimes against normality. The fierce Sister Jude (Jessica Lang) and her sweet-tempered novice, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), are charged with the everyday running and maintenance of the institution and with upholding the religious standards set out by its founder Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes). While the nuns attend to the patients’ spiritual health, their mental and physical care is the domain of Psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) and scientist Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell). Briarcliff’s latest patient, Kit Walker, aka ‘Bloodyface’ (Evan Peters), is an alleged serial killer and mutilator of women. Walker has been sent to the asylum deemed unfit for trial due to his apparent insanity after claiming that aliens committed the crimes he is accused of.
Kit’s insane alibi aside, Asylum gives clear indication of his innocence early on and, instead, sets him up to be the focal point through which we experience the fear and injustices perpetrated by institutions of mental health during the 1960s. Yet, despite this Asylum is very much a women’s horror story. As David Simmons pointed out in his review of the first season, ‘American Horror Story places an unusual degree of emphasis on its female characters’. The second season continues this trend, reprising key roles for many of season one’s central female actors, including Lange, Rabe and the queen of weird TV, Frances Conroy, as the angel of death. It also introduces a new cast of female monsters and madwomen whose alleged mental disturbances and past crimes are the means through which the series explores a number of social issues related to what we fear. At Briarcliff, Walker meets many other patients with allegedly violent and twisted backgrounds including Pepper (Naomi Grossman), a microcephalic woman who killed her sister’s baby and cut its ears off, Shelley (Chloë Sevigny) a diagnosed nymphomaniac, and Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) an axe-murderer. The standout female performance, however, goes to Sarah Paulson whose vague and unconvincing role as a clairvoyant-for-hire in season one is more than redeemed by her new role in Asylum as ambitious lesbian journalist Lana Winters. Winters infiltrates the formidable Briarcliff determined to expose the wrongdoings being carried out inside its walls. However, when her relationship with a female school teacher is uncovered by Sister Jude, Lana finds herself incarcerated as a patient and referred to Dr. Thredson for help with her ‘affliction’.
As in the first series, a dominant theme of Asylum is the twisted morals and psychosexual disorders underpinning definitions of normative identity. Along with staple horror figures, the series examines public figures as diverse as the psychiatrist, the doctor, and the priest, representing them as authorised predators at their most imperious, ambitious, and downright evil. As the series progresses, the professional and personal lives of its authority figures are revealed to be adventures in sadism, masochism, self-hatred and perversion. Cue scenes of prolific cruelty including electroshock treatment, ice baths, emotional and physical abuse all delivered with a barely concealed sexual tension. Sister Jude harbours a secret lust for Monsignor Timothy and enjoys punishing the angelic Kit by bending him over a desk and caning his naked backside. Dr. Arden is a Nazi Eugenicist with an obsessive hatred of impurity; particularly it seems of the female sex. This fear guides his mysterious experiments in the basements of Briarcliff and his own dark desires for the innocent and chaste Sister Eunice.
Asylum preempts the accusations made by some critics that American Horror Story is a ridiculous pileup of mindless sex and cruelty, hard to stomach. From the season’s credit sequence, a montage of strapped-down bodies, heaving bosoms and tear-soaked faces, to the introduction of sex and horror tourists Leo and Teresa, to Kit Walker’s ‘probing’ by ETs, it unashamedly points out that the theme of scary and deviant sex is the series’ dominant metaphor for horror. In pursuit of these ends, Asylum continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to air on television. There are horrors upon horrors, brutality upon brutality, humiliation upon humiliation and every twist and turn is set up to both shock and shamelessly titillate. Nonetheless, there is also a deftness with which Asylum pursues some of the seemingly conflicted but entangled cultures that form modern American identity, including its voyeuristic embrace of celebrity, psychiatry, and fundamentalist religion.
Lana’s story is, in part, about the plight of gay people who historically have been ‘treated’ through medicine and psychiatry in a way that amounts to physical and mental torture. Instead of Thredson ‘curing’ Lana of her lesbianism, he subjects her to a cruel bout of aversion/conversion therapy that involves administering fellatio to an awkward but willing male volunteer as the psychiatrist looks on. As if this upsetting scene were not enough, the plot thickens when Lana becomes the object of Thredson’s own obsessive love disorder causing him to lock her in a basement/dungeon under his house. In one of many plot twists, the handsome and progressive psychiatrist is revealed to be more dangerous than simply a misguided practitioner; he is none other than the serial killer ‘Bloody Face’. In Thredson’s dungeon, we witness him taunt Lana with the dismembered head of her dead lover before enduring queasy scenes of her subjection to violence, rape and the enforced suckling of a grown man. Eventually, Lana escapes only to find she has been impregnated by her sadistic captor.
There is no doubt that Asylum tackles issues of homophobia, sexism, racism, and disability with a signature heavy-handedness that will not redeem it with outraged moralists. Nevertheless, the premise of the entire American Horror Story anthology is to test the limits of horror and morality by pushing every situation or relationship, real or unreal, to its absolutely worst-case scenario. Others will not fail to see through the layers of violence and horror and recognise the irony of a mummy-fixated psychiatrist or the underlying social commentary about a career driven, homosexual woman enduring the horror of misguided psychiatry and enforced motherhood. Like Lana, all of Asylum’s characters are monstrous, in that they are burdened with behaviours that are deemed to threaten society. However, as the series unfolds within the confines of the asylum walls, it digs into the pasts of patients and employees, making the audience question what monstrosity is. Is Shelley’s excessive lust really a sign of insanity or is she, as she claims, a gendered victim of double standards? Did Grace slaughter her father and stepmother because she is criminally and irredeemably violent, or was it really the desperate act of an abused child? Does Sister Jude really believe that all sex is sin, or is she merely acting out an absolution of her own guilty past? The further the series delves into the origins of its characters’ monstrosity, the more it appears that it is the product of other evils.
The berserk and vaguely satirical attitude of the series allows Murphy and Falchuk to slip other cultural controversies under the radar and develop sympathetic bonds with the monstrous, often capturing the humanity of those characters that inflict the worse kinds of cruelties. Monsters, in American Horror Story, are very human. Furthermore, they act as mirrors to our own cultural obsessions with the monstrous. As Sister Jude warns ‘if you look in the face of evil, evil is gonna look right back at you’. At the heart of this is a commentary on the grotesquery of our own fascination with violence and monstrosity, a commentary that began with Leo and Teresa but surely finds its antithesis in Lana’s reinvention at the end of the series. Lana more than survives her ordeal; it makes her a star. In 1969 we revisit Lana a year after her escape and witness her reinvention as a celebrity author, peddling in sensationalised and salacious versions of her own heroism and victimisation. As she entertains her fans at a reading of her acclaimed book Maniac: One Woman’s Story of Survival, the camera pans the audience as they sit like evangelicals at a Revival, communing with Lana and her trauma as well as devouring every morbid detail. We cannot help but notice the self-conscious allusion to our own macabre fascination with horror; the same fascination that keeps us glued to our seats throughout American Horror Story and seen the show garner several Emmys, a People’s Choice Award and, for one of its returning actresses, Lange, a Golden Globe. Rather than a criticism of its audience, Lana’s narrative is an exploitation of the public and social ceremony of monstrosity that offers an accomplished and insightful response to the outrage and affront aimed at it by some critics. Horror, it suggests, is an extreme form of art but it is also something from which we take comfort as well as fear, re-evaluate meaning and shape the boundaries of morality.
Eleanor is Television Editor for Twisted Tales and recently completed her doctoral thesis in English Literature at Lancaster University. Her research concerns the conjunction of Catholicism and sexuality in Gothic fiction and horror film and focuses on its trans-national and contemporary contexts. She is especially interested in the post-secular theologies of transgressive texts and their relationship to history, nationalism, politics and gender theory. Eleanor has published on the topics of religion, female sexuality, cinema and spectacle in relation to postmodern Gothic writing and has previously held the post of postgraduate representative on the editorial board for Gothic Studies.