Monday, December 14, 2009

Planet 51

When my wife and I went to see Planet 51, it was a Sunday night in the pouring rain. We were the only people in the theater. And that was apt, because we're probably the only adults who actually bothered to see the movie and got all the jokes.

On Planet 51, things are looking up for Lem (Justin Long), an aspiring assistant manager for the local planetarium. He just got the job and he's about to ask out the girl next door, Neera (Jessica Biel). Until an "alien" shows up. And that alien is Captain Charles (Chuck) T. Baker (Dwayne Johnson), a human astronaut.

Chuck, you see, has landed on a planet he thought was uninhabited. His job was to plant a flag, play a few rounds of interplanetary golf, and then get back to his ship and report home. But all those plans are threatened by the military that wants to dissect him, embodied by the sinister General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and the resident mad scientist Professor Kipple (John Cleese).

On the one hand, Planet 51 wants to entertain the kiddies. It features a computer-rendered world full of lush retro-futuristic landscapes rendered through a 1950s lens. It has rocket ships, aliens both benign and belligerent, and not one but TWO cute dogs-that-aren't-dog characters.

On the other hand, Planet 51 wants to be an action homage to the sci-fi of yesteryear. It features characters smooching, gunfire, 50s-style nostalgia, 50s-style paranoia, and references to genitalia.

The problem is that Chuck's kind of a jerk. Put in the role of the kindly extraterrestrial, Chuck can't pull it off – he's not above intimidating people, playing into their worst fears, lying to get what he wants, and his cries of "not having the right stuff" are hard to believe given that he's, ya know, an ASTRONAUT. Lem spends most of the movie whining about not getting the girl, Chuck spends most of the movie whining about not getting home, and the only reason the plot moves forward at all is because Rover (one of the two aforementioned "dogs") saves the day.

In fact, Rover steals the show. Cleverly designed to look like a cross between the Mars rover and a dog, Rover propels the plot on his tiny wheels alone. If the movie was more about Rover and got rid of Chuck, it would have been a much more entertaining film.

Instead, Planet 51 teeters between tedious characters arguing, simplistic moralizing (Lem explains to the General that he's "afraid of the unknown." Really?), and lame side plots that are just mean-spirited (two citizens have their brains removed…hilarious!).

If you're a twelve-year-old boy who happens to remember 1950s science fiction movies, E.T., Populuxe architecture, Aliens, and The Right Stuff, then this movie's for you. But since the odds of that happening are about as realistic as a planet full of half-dressed English-speaking aliens, adults will likely find Planet 51 too childish and the shout-outs to older sci-fi will go over the kids' heads.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Godzilla 2000

I was a big Godzilla fan in the 80s, when the Monster Movie of the Week seemed to play every hour of every day of the week. Although I can't precisely remember every monster and every battle, I fondly remember "Godzy" (as my mom would call him, both of my parents are sci-fi fans) beating the rubbery stuffing out of his opponents. Sometimes he had allies (Rodan), sometimes he had recurring enemies (King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla) and sometimes he just blew stuff up a lot.

Appreciating a Godzilla movie requires the viewer to adjust his expectations. Godzilla movies aren't about great acting, linear plots, or special effects. The Japanese movie industry understands its audience--if you're going to buy into a gigantic atomic-breathing humanoid lizard, pretty much anything goes. "Anything" includes robots, aliens, robots built by aliens, size-shifting robots (Jet Jaguar ROCKS!) and tiny singing faeries. And don't forget the giant moth.

Trying to make the Godzillaverse make sense is a huge mistake, as evidenced by the failure of the American version of Godzilla in theaters. There's nothing quite like creating a titanic lizard and then not giving him atomic breath because "that just wouldn't make sense." Godzilla 2000 is the Toho studio's response to the American movie. Which is to say it is both better and worse.

By the time we get to Godzilla 2000, the big lug has been around long enough to create two rival investigating forces. On the good guy side we have the Godzilla Prediction Network (GPN) led by Shinoda (Takehiro Murata) and his daughter Io (Mayu Suzuki). The GPN team (if you can call them that) is accompanied by Yuki (Naomi Nishida), who is trying to get a good picture of Godzilla for the local newspaper. Ironically, nobody can get a good close-up of Godzilla because he emits enough radiation to ruin photography. Which really does make one wonder...shouldn't just being in proximity to Godzilla fry every human being in a hundred mile radius?

The bad guys consist of the Crisis Control Intelligence (CCI) agency, led by Katagiri (Hiroshi Abe). The two groups have a bit of history: Shinoda used to work for the CCI before he left due to their "violent tendencies." Where GPN seeks to examine and understand Godzilla for the good of mankind, the CCI wants to blow him up into big, radioactive chunks.

Much of the movie centers on this philosophical argument as to how to treat Godzilla. It's pretty clear that Godzilla doesn't care either way, as he comes rampaging ashore in a quest to find Japan's power sources. Why? Because in a not very subtle way, Godzilla is a parallel for the dangers of atomic weapons. At least he was, when Godzilla first graced the screen. Godzilla is the result of our warmongering and he retaliates with a vengeance by attacking atomic plants.

The CCI takes the direct approach, accepting any human casualties that might be necessary to take Godzilla head on. Tanks, mines, armor-piercing missiles...none of it works, because Godzilla regenerates at incredibly high speed. That little tidbit of information greatly interests the GPN, who names Godzilla's DNA (Regenerator-1) and seeks to use it to save humanity. Well, maybe eventually. In another movie.

The unearthing of a meteorite by the CCI eventually interrupts Godzilla's rampage. Sure enough, the meterorite, which is millions of years old, awakens when touched by light. And that meteor is in reality an alien spacecraft with DNA mimicking capabilities. It immediately makes a beeline for Godzilla.

This alien being/ship is known as Orga, and it goes through several phases. First it starts out as a particularly feminine looking saucer. Then it transforms, for about thirty seconds, into a large jellyfish. This scene is so short and irrelevant to the movie that it seems like something was cut. Finally, Orga turns into a big guy in a rubber suit. And then we're back to the Godzilla movies from the 80s, where guys in suits slap each other silly until one of them falls down.

Godzilla has been redesigned for this film to make him look more feral looking. For the most part, it works. His dorsal spikes are particularly vicious, his fangs jut out over his lips, and his eyes are perpetually fixed in a cruel glare. Orga, on the other hand, looks ridiculous. He's a big, floppy-fisted monster with barely enough motion to move his gigantic oversized claws.

I never appreciated the physical acting required for Godzilla. When it's a rubber suit, the emotion that can be conveyed must be over-the-top pantomiming. This actor doesn't have it.

Godzilla has arms. Past Godzilla movies have made sure Godzilla ripped things apart with his claws, mauled his opponents, or twitched in agitation. This version of Godzilla doesn't have much to do but sort of wave his arms around slightly. It makes him look pretty foolish when he's trying to be scary or in pain.

The other problem, and this is a big one, is how Godzilla uses his breath weapon. In other Godzilla movies, he reared backwards and you got the sense that breathing atomic fire took a lot of effort. When the flames blew out of his mouth, it seemed like a true exhalation of atomic destruction. In this movie, Godzilla looks vaguely constipated, waves his head about, and then the flames sort of fall out of his mouth.

Throughout the first half of the movie there is some amusing dialogue (or at least, amusing translations), some real moments of tension, and a lot of human stupidity. During the second half, the humans stand around and watch the city get blown up real good.

Of all the characters, Katagiri steals the show. When staring down Godzilla eye-to-eye, Katagiri simply lights a cigarette and says "I've never been this close to Godzilla before." But as well all know, nobody stares Godzilla in the eye and walks away without glowing.

The movie spirals into bizarre territory at the end, with Orga trying to absorb Godzilla, who strangely complies (there's a whole Orga/female Godzilla/male thing going on too, ICK). Scientists spout about Regenerator-1 genes, military generals philosophize about aliens from outer space, and Shinoda tells his daughter in a voice over about how Godzilla keeps protecting humanity because there's a little bit of him in all of us...

Meanwhile, in the background, Godzilla sets the entire city ablaze with his radioactive breath.

This movie is more like two movies, bridging the original Godzilla film with the later Monsterama battles that Godzilla has become known for. In fact, it's more a homage to all the Godzilla films that went before. All in all, a worthy successor to the Godzilla series and certainly more respectful of its origins than the American version.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The original movie version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of my father's all time favorite movies. A science fiction classic that permanently embedded the catch phrase "klaatu barada nikto" into the geek lexicon, the first film was a parable about the Cold War. Both the producer and director were criticized for the liberal themes of the film, which promoted world peace and a draw down of military hostilities. The "standing still" of the world was a reference to all electrical systems on Earth freezing for a half hour, with the exception of critical systems. In short, the movie's message was thought provoking, intended to begin a discussion about American policies.

The remake is no different (spoiler alerts abound). This new version features a hostile military led by Regina Jackson (the stalwart Kathy Bates), the monotone human-like alien (Keanu Reeves as Klaatu), an aggrieved scientist widow (the beautiful Jennifer Connelly) and her angry son (played by Jaden Smith). This new version pokes viewers with a stick: the Benson patriarch died in Iraq; the president's response to an alien invasion is openly hostile; and the Message is no longer about the Cold War but Global Warming. In other words: the movie's message is thought provoking, intended to begin a discussion about American policies.

But is it a good movie? Overall, the film bulks up special effects, smoothes over some of the rough edges from the original, and does its best to translate the original to modern sensibilities. GORT now stands for Genetically Organized Robot Technology, is a giant nanotechnology war machine, and the descending globes of light are arks to save the Earth. The computer graphics are outstanding.

The acting, not so much. Reeves sleepwalks through his role, which, while not inappropriate, doesn't stretch his acting chops either. Klaatu is suitably creepy as a blank-faced drone, but difficult to sympathize with as he becomes more human. Connelly has little to do besides plead at the camera with her eyes. Smith comes off as recalcitrant and unlikable, a weakness in the child actor who represents the sum of humanity's relationship. The sole stand out is John Cleese as Professor Karl Barnhardt, projecting a level of warmth and kindness that's we rarely see on screen. If I had to pick a person to argue for humanity's survival, Cleese would be an excellent choice.

The ending feels sloppy. GORT transforms from a giant robot (scary!) to a hissing swarm of metal locusts (biblical, but not as scary). The biblical parallels continue with Klaatu's birth and sacrifice, but the film seems conflicted as to how to wrap things up. The movie concludes with the Earth standing still, permanently – hospital machines and airplanes be damned.

Whether or not you agree with the movie's tenets is moot. If you're nodding your head or rolling your eyes then this version, like the original before it, did its job. But in comparison, the original has better acting and a tighter plot.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Twisty Little Passages

Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort, addresses a much needed gap in gaming analysis and history: that of interactive fiction. The precursor to Multi-User Dungeons, interactive fiction was a form of text-based interactive game that sprang to life in tandem with the rise of the personal computer. Single player in scope but capable of taking its players anywhere the programmers could imagine, it relied primarily on the written word to share its world. Although the games initially started with VERB NOUN responses (e.g., "get book", "read book", etc.), they eventually advanced to natural language parsers.

Throughout the book is a history of interactive fiction and its development through the eighties and nineties. It also analyzes the comparisons between hypertext fiction and interactive fiction and the inequalities in how the two or treated. If you can't guess, interactive fiction isn't treated very well.

Montfort seems to have an axe to grind, citing shoddy research that conflates certain interactive fiction as being fantasy adventure games and confuses the origins of Adventure (or ADVENT). Montfort corrects all these misperceptions and more through personal interviews with Will Crowther, creator of Adventure, and Dave Lebling, one of the creators of Zork.

Twisty Little Passages seeks to redress these inconsistencies, positing that interactive fiction is more than just a game but a form of literature in its own right. Montfort makes a convincing argument, but then as an administrator of RetroMUD for over a decade, I'm one of the converted. It's unlikely that literature snobs are reading his book.

Although occasionally defensive in tone, Montfort's retrospect and analysis of interactive fiction is a welcome addition to any game developer's library. It's important to know what went before, and this book addresses an important part of gaming history that has been all but forgotten.

Moterhship Zeta

There were two places I absolutely had to visit in Fallout 3: Dogmeat and the crashed spacecraft. With the new downloadable content, Mothership Zeta, what was once a visit to a spooky alien craft turns into a full-fledged abduction scenario.

After being beamed up by into a saucer, the player is subjected to a disturbing sequence in which the aliens conduct experiments with painful probes. You wake up naked in a holding cell with another abductee, Somah, and have to fight your way to freedom.

Like The Pitt and Operation: Anchorage, this content is an entirely self-contained environment. You're in a spacecraft, after all. The green men, with their guardian drones, pack personal force fields and painful disintegrators that make the weapon you found on the dead alien in Fallout 3 look like a pop gun.

Leading the way through the labyrinthine architecture is Sally, a little girl who is small enough to traverse the ductwork. With a nod to Newt from the movie Aliens, she is at turns annoying (not all of her advice is sound) and helpful. You eventually are joined by other abductees awoken from cryo-sleep, including a samurai, a cowboy, and a medic abducted from Operation: Anchorage.

Like Operation: Anchorage, Mothership Zeta forces cocky players to change their tactics. The aliens are physically weaker but they make up for it with powerful weapons and armor. They come in groups of three or more and attack in enclosed spaces. Mothership Zeta is no cakewalk.

Along the way, the aliens plans are revealed. Creepy tapes of abductees being interviewed and experimented are littered throughout the ship. At one point, the player must conduct a spacewalk – although there's not much of a challenge in doing so. The finale is suitably climactic as you attempt to command the ship to fire on another UFO while fending off wave after wave of angry aliens. The win is hard-earned.

Mothership Zeta provides a few items that will be valuable back on Earth: biogel (heals hundreds of hit points), a disintegrator (inflicts massive amounts of damage in a single shot), and the energy ball-bouncing drone cannon (acts as a grenade but is very imprecise). When I returned to the regular Fallout 3 game, I used the drone cannon to devastating effect, especially because you can bounce the shots around corners.

Motership Zeta isn't for everyone. The foes are a bit repetitive, and listening to the alien chatter (they don't speak English, natch) gets old fast. More often than not I had to resort to bashing their big green heads in with a shock baton – ugly work, as the aliens squeal with every hit. But for fans of 50s science fiction, little green men, and Mars Attacks, this is a must buy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Titus Crow, Volume 2: The Clock of Dreams; Spawn of the Winds

After having slogged through Volume One of the Titus Crow series, complete with lisping dragons, green haired space princesses, and a narrative riddled with ellipses, I steeled myself for Volume Two. With the prototypical pulp hero Titus Crow and his trusty sidekick Henri de Marginy cleaning the clocks (pun intended) of the Cthulhu Cycle Deities (CCD, ugh), there wasn't much left for them to do. But like every good epic series, when the heroes become gods among men in the mortal realm…they leave the mortal realm behind to find adventure.

The Clock of Dreams begins with a rather peculiar scenario: Crow and Tiania have been captured in the Dreamlands. How this happened is hand waved; basically, Crow and Tiana are drugged and enslaved by the Men of Leng. Given that Crow is a cyborg that is highly resistant to damage, it seems unlikely that poisoning him would work…but perhaps that's because this is the Dreamlands and not Earth's reality.

The first half of the novel involves de Marginy's quest to find Crow in the Dreamlands. Once there, Crow takes up the second half as he seeks to rescue Tiania. What's interesting is that Clock of Dreams is one of the first to posit that Cthulhu's dream sendings actually infect the Dreamlands. Here, great nightmarish factories corrupt the land, guarded by three foul guardians: the worm-like Flyer, its tentacle-armed Rider, and a three-legged Runner. Overseeing the entire operation is a deathly titanic Keeper, who in turn servers Nyarlathotep.

Overall, this is book is an improvement over the first volume, if only because there's more for Titus to do. Unlike the previous books, it's told in the present tense, which lends much urgency to the narrative. There's plenty of combat, skullduggery, and a hilarious moment where the only way de Marginy can return to the Dreamlands is to get roaring drunk. With guest appearances by Randolph Carter and King Kuranes, flying airships, and shields that shoot laser beams, this is pulp Cthulhu at its wackiest. But it's juicy and satisfying, especially when Nyarlathotep shows up at the end to put our heroes in their place.

Spawn of the Winds, on the other hand, is a different breed of pulp. Crow and de Marginy are nowhere to be found in this book; its inclusion is primarily because of Ithaqua, who is assigned a peculiar set of personality traits here. Ithaqua, you see, lusts after human women (as all pulp villains inevitably do) because he seeks to spawn terrible progeny who will walk among the winds with him. The winds, as defined by Lumley, are the spaces between worlds, and occasionally Ithaqua kidnaps people and carries them across dimensions to the world of Borea.

Borea is a wind-swept frozen world filled with every snow land clich̩ imaginable: Vikings, Eskimos, white wolves, polar bears, ski-boats, and lots and lots of snow. I kept waiting for Santa Claus to show up. Ithaqua's penchant for turning people into wendigos is turned on its ear here Рinstead, Ithaqua alters the physiology of those whom he traps on Borea so that they are immune to the cold.

The protagonist is an American named Hank Silberhutte, a member of the Wilmarth Foundation out to avenge his cousin, whom he believes was killed by Ithaqua. Silberhutte is a Texan, which of course means he can punch anybody's lights out who dares mess with him. He is also a powerful psychic, capable of linking with Juanita Alvarez, a telepathic receiver and our narrator, across the gulfs of space.

Tagging along is Silberhutte's companions, Paul White (an oracle known as "hunchman"), Dick Selway, Jimmy Franklin, and Silberhutte's hot little sister Tracy. A fateful encounter with Ithaqua ends with Selway dead and the others changed. Only Tracy, holding onto her star stones, remains unaffected.

Awakening on Borea, a brutal war of attrition ensues between worshippers of the Wind Walker who want nothing more than to sacrifice Tracy to Ithaqua (she's a "damned good-looking girl" says Silberhutte). Leading the opposition is Armandra, Woman of the Winds and daughter of Ithaqua. She's basically Storm with wind powers. She flies about the wastes, her flame-red hair whipping behind her, with skin as pale as snow and eyes as stormy as a winter…you get the idea.

Silberhutte falls madly in love with her, both physically and psychically, and their escalating relationship only complicates the war between the two factions. If Armandra dares intervene directly with her wind powers, Ithaqua joins the fray as well. And yet Armandra refuses to let any harm come to Silberhutte, who also wants to join the fight as the macho leader of his Eskimo warriors. It's all very primal.

Unlike the other books in the Crow series, this is a lusty, gun-toting, fist-swinging, princess rescuing, rip-roaring yarn that chews up scenery like a bad actor in a Shakespearean play. It doesn't always make sense, but it's a heck of a lot of fun to read.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Pitt

Part of the genius of Fallout 3 is that it mixes 1950s sensibilities with post-apocalyptic atrocities, striking the perfect balance between humor and horror. With the Pitt, the balance definitely shifts towards the nihilistic, more The Road and Swan Song and less Beyond Thunderdome.

Like Operation: Anchorage, the player enters former Pittsburgh stripped bare of weapons and armor. He is pretending to be a slave. Mingling among the slaves, the player must fight his way through The Hole, a series of arena battles against increasingly difficult foes. My high-level character tore right through them in record time.

Surviving multiple rounds in The Hole grants an audience with Ashur, the head slaver and a former Brother of Steel. Indeed, this title may be more apt, because Ashur has created a bustling economy using Pittsburgh's steel mill to churn out weapons and armor.

It soon becomes clear that things are a little less black-and-white than in the rest of the Fallout wasteland. With the population largely sterile due to the Troglodyte Degeneration Contagion, Ashur settled on slave labor as a short-term solution to his manpower difficulties. Those who are tough enough ascend to join the slavers in bullying slaves and raiding other communities. The twist-ending requires a sadistic choice with no real winners or losers. It's as grim as it sounds.

Also like Operation: Anchorage, The Pitt provides one of the best melee weapons: The Mauler. An auto-blocking, persistent damage-inflicting beast of a weapon, The Mauler gets blood and guts everywhere, but then, killin's messy work.

That pretty much sums up The Pitt too. I felt a little dirty after playing it.

Operation: Anchorage

Operation: Anchorage was the first downloadable content available for Fallout 3. Fallout is far too complex a game to explain here; suffice it to say that the paranoia and jingoistic patriotism of the 1950s became a permanent way of life due to the escalation of nuclear war between communist forces and America. Operation: Anchorage fills in the back story of the game by thrusting the player into a pivotal moment in Fallout's history: the liberation of Alaska from communist China.

Because this downloadable content is part of the Fallout universe, it's a game within a game. Brotherhood of Steel outcasts need your help to reach a stash of pre-war technology in a bunker (dangling the promise of loot at the end of the simulation). But getting in requires a user with a Pip-Boy interface – an interface only the player possesses -- to successfully complete the virtual simulation.

This isn't really an addition to Fallout so much as it's a complete mini-game more in the vein of the Tom Clancy sneak-and-shoot games. The mission involves a series of escalated attacks against Chinese forces in a windswept arctic climate. There are soldiers that can be commanded to fight on your behalf, enabling some rudimentary squad tactics. There are no mutations and therefore no mutants, no irradiated wasteland and thus no radiation concerns, and only the equipment Anchorage supplies you. In short, it's a completely different game with a similar interface.

Even ammunition and healing are doled out in unlimited dispensers, just like a virtual game. There's no scavenging; corpses fizzle out in virtual sparks and there are no crates that can be opened. In short, this is Fallout stripped down to sneaking and shooting.

And sneaking is critical here. It was a shock for my 20th-level Fallout character, stripped of his huge arsenal of drugs and equipment, to be regularly outmatched by sharpshooters who often had a tactical advantage. In fact, all of the opponents are considerably more difficult, including the invisible Crimson Dragoons. I faced down several threats by staying near a health dispenser and clicking it every few rounds as I was pounded by Dragoon fire. There were several points in the game where I died multiple times using the brute force approach, eventually forced to sneak my way through much of the content. In short, Operation: Anchorage gave me a good dose of humility.

The conclusion involves a final push against Chinese forces. Judicious use of a high Speech skill ended the battle quickly with minimal bloodshed. I didn't even bother to use any of my squad. But it was all worth it. What lies in the vault is some of the sweetest weapons and armor this side of the apocalypse…and a good measure of skullduggery to boot.

Anchorage provides two items that will change your Fallout 3 experience. The first is the Winterized T-51b Power Armor. One of the most powerful armors in the game (DR 45), it never gets damaged. The other standout item is the Gauss Rifle, which has a scope, uses microfusion cells, and causes creatures to be knocked down for four seconds on a critical hit.

Words can't properly express how satisfying it is to hit a Deathclaw full in the face and watch it go flying off a cliff. Those four seconds can be a lifetime on a battlefield, bestowing a critical combat advantage to the player's companions who continue to pound away at the prone target; players using VATS and the right perks can knock an opponent around like a hockey puck.

Operation Anchorage isn't like the rest of Fallout 3 and that might be a turn off for some. But the Gauss Rifle and Power Armor make it all worth it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Spiraling Worm

Chaosium achieved a real coup for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game (RPG) in a way that Dungeons & Dragons never did: it put RPGs on equal footing with Lovecraftian literature. Because Chaosium publishes fiction and RPG supplements it presents both as legitimate, best evidenced by the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, which draws on both sources to round out the Mythos.

So it's a bold move when Chaosium publishes a new modern work without the comforting bosom of the surrounding Mythos to prop it up. Even more daring, the Spiraling Worm is a collection of action stories set in the modern day.

Ignore the cover. The picture of Peel, with his oddly stubby arms and stiff posture, isn't particularly compelling.

David Conyers may be best known for his RPG contributions, but he's equally comfortable in the fiction realm. His protagonist of note, Australian Army military intelligence officer Major Harrison Peel, is a no-nonsense action hero waging war against a cosmic threat he barely understands. John Sunseri's character of choice is NSA agent Jack Dixon, who is a bit less stalwart than his Australian colleague. Rounding out the global trio and connecting the stories is MI6 agent James Figgs, who ranges from cold aloofness in Sunseri's stories to borderline psychopath in Conyers'.

The series starts out with Peel and Figgs in Vietnam in Made of Meat, featuring only a hint of the Mythos in the Tcho-Tcho and their worship of Shub-Niggurath. The conclusion is open-ended and unsatisfying.

To What Green Altar is Dixon's introductory tale, a less satisfying but interesting take on Cthugha, the Tunguska Event, and the Vatican. Unfortunately, the Mythos knowledge possessed by the Church doesn't seem to figure in the other stories.

Impossible Object, more a science fiction tale, is awesome. Peel fights a battle of perception in his native Australia, trying to grapple with a device nobody can truly perceive, much less comprehend. The ending is an awesome cliffhanger, leaving you wondering if the entire universe might implode…

Until you read False Containment, so the universe clearly did not end. It unfortunately saps some of the strength of Impossible Object, but False Containment is so strong that it's easy to forgive. Featuring time travel, body horror, and a gibbering monstrosity that cannot be contained by time or space. False Containment is one of the few stories in this collection that isn't afraid to drive home the insane horror of the Mythos.

Resurgence features two shoggoths gone wild, the inevitable conclusion of a monstrosity that eats everything. Resurgence isn't afraid to escalate tensions to an international level, forcing Peel to sacrifice himself to save his beloved continent…

Until, that is, the events in Weapon Grade. Dixon brings Peel into another mission, this one featuring another dimension and more shoggoths. It's interesting but not as powerful as the other short stories – it feels more like an excuse to keep Peel alive (he's cured of his ailment by the end of it) than anything else.

The title work, The Spiraling Worm, is a filthy, disturbing foray into the heart of the Congo jungle. Dixon, Peel, and Figgs are together again, and the circumstances are unsparingly brutal. This is a story that's not for the faint of heart. It features a suitably climactic showdown between helicopter gunships, Nyarlathotep, and an elder artifact. Unfortunately, the bizarre mask and its rotting cult steal the show. The conclusion is actually a beginning, as Dixon and Peel join forces to launch a secret organization dedicated to eradicating the Mythos…

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's been done already: Delta Green, wherein government agents with little infrastructure support wage a secret war against the Mythos. Chaosium has never quite fully embraced the enormously popular modern take on the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, publishing its own brand of "Cthulhu Now" supplements. In fact, some of the stories in Spiraling Worm were originally meant to be part of Delta Green, but presumably they weren't able to get the rights from Pagan Publishing.

It seems as if the authors are intent on building their own, parallel, government-against-the-mythos series by connecting to Tim Curran's Hive. Which isn't a bad thing. But with the resurgence of Delta Green, I wonder if DG fans will be forced to choose.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Quick, what movie features Britain in turmoil, three young children growing up under the tutelage of a sorceress, invocations of ancient demons and wizards, curse spells, and a modern school of magic that's not what it appears to be? Nope, it's not Harry Potter…it's Bedknobs and Broomsticks!

It's the beginning of World War II and Miss Price (Angela Lansbury, looking suitably spinsterish) has been saddled with three British war orphans: Charlie (Ian Weighill), Carrie (Cindy O'Callaghan) and Paul Rawlins (Roy Snart). Although she prefers to keep to herself, Price has no choice but to take them under her wing, at least until a more proper home can be found for them. As it turns out, Miss Price is a witch, a witch who hopes to help the British war effort if only she can master the final level of her training and thereby learn the spell "substitutiary locomotion."

The three orphans eventually stumble upon her secret. In an unlikely series of deals and skullduggery, Price bargains with the orphans to keep her secret in exchange for some magic, a bed knob that transforms any bed into a dimension-traveling device. Soon after, Price discovers that her tutoring via post from the mysterious Professor Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson), headmaster of the College of Witchcraft, has come to an abrupt end. Using the bed knob, Price and the three children track down Browne, who is in fact a con man that doesn't know much about magic at all.

Thus begins a quest to find the elusive substitutiary spell, first via double-dealings with a bookseller who has the other half of a mysterious spellbook, and then to an animated world of talking animals in pursuit of an amulet with the magic words inscribed upon it. Along the way, the motley band will face down the King of the Beasts, a razor-wielding thug, and of machinegun-toting Nazis.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks shows its age, both in its narrative speed and its approach to mature themes. The musical numbers often meander, with the characters speaking their lines and dance routines that are far too aggressive for the two older protagonists. There are a few misogynistic references (met with a frown by Miss Price) and…well, it's all very British, as it should be. The movie also isn't afraid to threaten the children with real harm, be it from a charging lion or a Nazi wielding a machinegun. Bad people in this movie are really bad, and there's a refreshing honesty about the whole thing.

By the time film gets around to its climax, young children will likely be bored. But what a glorious climax it is, complete with unrealistically numerous legions of animated suits of armor arrayed against the Nazis, who are there to "teach Britain a lesson." Although at times jingoistic, Bedknobs aims high and rarely sugarcoats the harsh realities of war.

This is as much a war film as it is a flight of fantasy, and in that regard Bedknobs and Broomsticks has some important lessons to teach young children. And in that regard, Miss Price and friends could teach Harry Potter a thing or two.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

When I discovered a movie was being made about The Men Who Stare at Goats I was excited, until I realized it was a comedic work of fiction. Thing is, The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't funny.

Oh, it's darkly humorous as the author, Jon Ronson, attempts to get to the truth while keeping a straight face. But it's not funny, and the conclusion Ronson reaches by the end of the book, after tracking the noble origins of a twisted, sadistic form of psychological warfare, is a punch in the face. So why was it made into a comedy?

Fortunately, comedy is too broad a stroke for the movie. It's actually a gonzo buddy journalism movie, where the actors play everything utterly straight. The humor is in what isn't said.

For example: When Ewan McGregor's journalist character Bob Wilton, he of Obi-Wan fame, asks "What's a Jedi?" nobody so much as snickers. Unfortunately the audience didn't seem to get it either: only my wife and I were laughing.

Wilton is on a mission to prove to his wife that he's more of a man than the one-armed editor who steals her from him. See? One armed men are funny!

Partnering with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a Special Forces psi-ops soldier, the two travel around Iraq on a mysterious mission. Just about every eccentric Ronson encountered in his book is collapsed into two characters in the film, Cassady and Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), Cassady's mentor.

And that's pretty much where The Men Who Stares at Goats loses its way…literally, as the two characters repeatedly get lost in the desert. Eventually, they end up at a secret base where more than just goat staring takes place.

The film is faithful to its source in surprising ways, from the Today show broadcast of Barney music used in torturing prisoners to a picture-for-picture reproduction of the First Earth Battalion manual (here titled the New Earth Army). The problem is that following Ronson/Wilton's journey to its logical conclusion should end with court marshals, public outrage, and an official inquiry. The strength and weakness of The Men Who Stare at Goats is that it unflinchingly deals with this problem…it's just that the solution is patently ridiculous. The film drives right off the cliff into a wish fulfillment fantasy that saps the strength of the rest of the movie.

The film ends with a sucker punch (SPOILER). Wilton publishes the truth, and instead of outrage, the world just laughs. The moral is that mass media turned the awful true story into a comedy…just like a comedic buddy movie did to a certain book you might have read.

Too bleak to be funny, too lighthearted to be serious, The Men Who Stares at Goats ends up as a hot mess of hippy idealism smashed together with modern conspiracy. It should have been a documentary.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Happening

There's a lot wrong with The Happening.

At base, The Happening is a nightmarish parable about our crowded society in modern times. We threaten the world, director M. Night Shyamalan seems to say, with our sheer numbers. On the other hand, being completely isolated isn't the solution either, creating a suspicious, isolationist attitude that leads to a self-destructive spiral.

But The Happening is mostly about watching people commit suicide in terrible ways. This ranges from terrible echoes of 9/11, when workmen jump from a building to their death, to the cartoonishly absurd, when a zookeeper taunts a lion and it tears his arm off. Anyone who watches the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet knows that big cats go for the neck first.

Anyway, The Happening's premise is spooky: what if something in the wind made people commit suicide in the most immediate and awful way possible? Where would you go? What would you do?

Night has all the elements of a good horror story: the aforementioned disaster, the strained relationship between Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his distant wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and even an innocent little girl (Ashlyn Sanchez) thrown in for good measure.

The Happening should be a great horror film. It's spooky. The premise that a gust of wind could bring about a fatal, nightmarish end lends an ominous shadow to the events. We can expect plenty of drama, morally ambiguous choices, and desperate survival tactics as our protagonists flee for their lives from an alien foe.

Actually, I was just describing Spielberg's War of the Worlds, which took the same premise and made a creepy, nuanced film about parents, children, and the distance between them. The two films have a lot in common: the insidious enemy that pops up out of nowhere, the little girl in distress, the long journey against all odds to a haven that might already have been destroyed.

The Happening follows the same script but fails miserably on almost all counts. Oh, Night's got the scary part down. But what carries a film like this is the emotional heft of characters brought to the brink. Wahlberg does a workman-like job of trying to be clever and sarcastic, but the script forces him to spew mouthfuls of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook at a rapid fire pace that he can't keep up. Deschanel, never a strong actress to begin with, is comedically awful. There isn't the slightest romantic tension between her and Wahlberg. And the little girl? She barely says a word.

The list of what's wrong goes on and on: citizens leave New York in an orderly fashion without snarling any mass transit; victims go to inordinate and improbable lengths to kill themselves; a father abandons his only child in a vain quest to find his wife; nobody seems to think traveling with a gas mask might be a good idea except two old ladies sitting at home.

They're the smart ones.

EXPO - Magic of the White City

Like so many other viewers, I came round to viewing EXPO – The Magic of the White City ("EXPO") because I read The Devil in the White City (The White City) first. Sort of. Actually, my wife read The White City years after I did and, her curiosity piqued, rented the DVD.

EXPO is about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, an exposition of such majesty, scope, corruption, and expense that it is a feat unparalleled in America today. The closest we have to the Fair is Disney World, a lineage most explicitly drawn in The White City; Walt Disney's father, Elias, was a construction worker on some of the buildings at the fair.

EXPO is narrated by Gene Wilder. I'm admit to a bias – I'm a big fan of Young Frankenstein and he's the only "celebrity sighting" I've ever encountered in real life. Wilder's getting on in age (the DVD was produced in 2005), so there's now a bit of a whistle to his speech. Still, his lilting voice has enough emotion and wry humor to make his narration enjoyable. And there is a lot of narration.

We tend to think of previous American centuries as quaintly backward, where such modern notions as political correctness and global unity didn't exist. And while EXPO is careful to point out that American culture still had its own foibles and intolerance endemic to the time, the World's Fair put all those to shame. It was a global unification of wealth, prosperity, and cultural exchange in a way that's inconceivable in today's contentious world. We can learn a lot from the Chicago World's Fair.

EXPO uses old maps and photographs to detail events at the fair whenever possible, with few computer graphics or animation. There are occasional shots of live actors, none whom particularly add anything of value to the narrative. In fact, it's clear that the producers felt that the medium was a little dry, because there are copious live action shots of a belly dancer interspersed with discussion of the Midway.

Minor quibbles aside, EXPO works overtime to try to encompass the grandeur of such a huge undertaking without losing sight of the details. As a result, it necessarily glosses over some pieces (rampant corruption, the aforementioned Devil himself who is the subject of The White City book) and emphasizes others (global diversity, architecture, and the first appearances of American staples). That's okay though; EXPO is a huge undertaking with such a sweepingly broad subject that it's better served as a companion piece to a book. Like The Devil in the White City.

What's of interest to gamers is the White City itself. It brought together vastly different groups from around the world, including popular entertainers, royalty, and indigenous peoples. Role-playing games set in this era are often constrained by political norms, but the 1893 World's Fair is an exception to the rule. Just about anyone from anywhere could be justified as being in Chicago during the Fair's existence.

If this seems like the perfect setting for a mystery adventure, Peter Nepstad agrees. He produced the text-based interactive fiction 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. Featuring over 30 hours of gameplay and employing over 500 archival photographs, Nepstad's exhaustive research brings to life dozens of interactive characters. Nepstad's game provides plenty of material for Game Masters who want to use the Fair as a setting for their own campaigns. It's the closest thing to being there.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Titus Crow, Volume 1: The Burrowers Beneath; The Transition of Titus Crow

Titus Crow's adventures are a lot like the role-playing game exploits of player characters: they start out believable enough, but as the power creep and leveling sets in, the character's achievements and enemies seem to grow exponentially.

There are a few things that modern Cthulhu fans should be wary of when reading Lumley's foray into the Cthulhu Mythos. According to Lumley:

* Mythos beings can be repelled quite handily with "star stones." These are made with tiny chips of the original soap stone elder signs. That's right, they're mass-produced "extract of Elder Sign." And they work against shoggoths.

* The Tikkoun Elixir is actually holy water, which also works against the Mythos.

* There is a globe-spanning organization of psychics known as the Wilmarth Foundation. This Foundation has men in every level of government and business, and marshals their resources in times of great need, like when battling the Mythos. They also keep the Mythos hidden to prevent worldwide panic.

All of this is told to the reader after the fact in The Burrowers Beneath. In the tradition of Lovecraft, the stories are all from journals and letters of those who were there, shifting from character to character to build a story around giant psychic killer worms known as Chthonians. Mind you, they're just minions of the larger Cthulhu Cycle Deities (who are, irritatingly, referred to as the CCD).

Lumley seems intent on explaining everything in Lovecraft's fiction and providing a logical framework behind it all. This is great for a role-playing game but makes for boring reading. But when Lumley writes an action scene, such as when DeMarginy (the Watson to Crow's Holmes) is attacked directly by a Chthonian, it's absorbing. Unfortunately, there's so little action that the rest of the tale becomes a dry retelling, sometimes bordering on parody.

Did you know that there are dinosaurs swimming in Loch Ness? Lumley drops that and other nuggets matter-of-factly throughout the narrative – and it has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than to perhaps explain that the Wilmarth Foundation, with its uber-psychics, knows everything there is to know about the world.

By the time we get to the second part of the book, The Transition of Titus Crow, Lumley just gives up. Crow experiences every pulp trope, from the love of a green-haired "girl-goddess" to riding a lisping dragon, to replacing his shattered body with cybernetics manufactured by robots, to time traveling in an extradimensional clock. Crow, it turns out, is both the descendant of the Elder Gods and a cyborg. It's like a Rifts game in prose.

But the most unforgivable of all is that Transition is told in fragments. A terrible attack on the Wilmarth Foundation means its records have been lost, so we are left with a story that has been pieced together. Where the pieces are missing, Lumley uses ellipses. A lot. Reading the book becomes painful… whenever Lumley doesn’t feel like filling in the blanks…he uses ellipses…until you get just fragments like…ENERGY RAY…INTERDIMENSIONAL TRAVEL…OH MY GOD MY EYES ARE BLEEDING…

There's a particular standout scene where Crow, confused and lost in a prehistoric era, engages in a battle of survival with a pterosaur and a giant crab. It's good stuff, but doesn't make up for the sheer insanity of what can only be described as lazy writing. We get it: the fragments of what happened to Crow are hard to piece together. But since this is, ya know, a WORK OF FICTION, it would be nice if the narrator made a token effort to craft a full story for the reader rather than transcribe the bits and pieces literally. And for that only Lumley can be held accountable.

In terms of characterization, Crow is a bit of a cipher. De Marigny has most of the personality, and even he tends to bluster through the book with very British exclamations of surprise and horror. The characters are rarely in actual danger and their stiff upper lip attitude becomes so overbearing that they begin to feel invincible even in the face of the mind-blasting insanity that is the *cough* CCD.

Worth reading to provide a foundation for Titus Crow and as a template for a role-playing game universe where the player characters actually have a chance against a Lovecraftian menace. If you can stick with it, the next book in the series gets much better.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

State of Play

State of Play has received much attention for its spin on the plight of today's newspapers. The story pairs up a veteran journalist (Cal McAfferey, played by Russell Crowe with an odd accent) with a newbie blogger (Della Frye, played by Rachel McAdams). The plot is technically about the death of Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) who just happens to be working for Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) who just happens to be a former roommate of Cal. It seems there's something rotten in the state department, or in this case the private military company they hire: PointCorp, an analog for Blackwater.

State of Play has two different agendas, one more overt than the other. At its heart, the movie postulates what would happen if the U.S. military had largely surrendered its operations to freelance military operations that are not accountable to the American people. This is no theory. In fact, Blackwater received so much negative publicity that it changed its name to Xe. The supposed hue and cry that would be raised by this revelation didn't amount to much, deflating the entire premise of State of Play.

The other main theme is the tension between supposed cub reporters who only blog on the web and real journalists who aren't afraid to pick up the phone or make a deal. Frye is a foil to make Cal look smart. At no point do we see Frye actually blog or the consequences of her blogging, besides reporting on something Cal felt was private. Or to put it another way: bloggers are self-serving, unethical morons who don't know how to report the facts. The movie feels decidedly lopsided in favor of beat reporters. Oh sure, there's tension and drama and a few surprises along the way. But Frye is completely unnecessary.

In the background is the looming threat of the newspaper being closed, but these occasional reminders (falling from the foul mouth of Helen Mirren, no less) feel forced. To assume one breaking story would save the newspaper is to fundamentally misunderstand the downfall of the newspaper industry.

State of Play was based on a 2003 BBC serial of the same name. And that's the problem. Too long and creaky in places, it feels like a movie drawn from subject matter that's six years out of date.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Let's get a couple of things straight: Surrogates is not a bad movie. It is not anything like Gamer, and yet Rotten Tomatoes has a spread of under 10 points between the two. This is a crying shame. With Gamer and Surrogates coming out within months of each other, it's almost like Hollywood wanted desperately to make a Second Life movie but realized too late that Second Life is no longer cool.

Surrogates has a lot in common with I, Robot and yes, Gamer. Implausibly, the world is dominated by remote-controlled robots, a parallel to Internet avatars. Thanks to these robots, known as surrogates, crime is unheard of and the dream of a utopian society beckons. Of course, not everyone is okay with the status quo, including a radical group known as the Dreads. The Dreads are the underclass, people who don't believe in a robot-filled reality. Everyone else has become shut-ins, hiding in their bedrooms in their pajamas, living life through perpetually beautiful twenty-something robots.

FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate a pair of murders in which the operators died too. There's just one problem: there are safeguards to protect operators from being harmed by the death of their surrogates. If word got out that surrogates were not immortal, the social fabric of modern society would fall apart.

On screen, the surrogates are disturbingly perfect. Their teeth is pearly white, their eyes without any hint of veins, their stubble-free skin cheeks are as rosy as a newborn's. The robots (and thus, the actors portraying them) only move their heads when they talk, even when angry. Sights and sounds are softly muted. Until the real world hits and Greer is forced to come out of his shell.

Willis' skill playing a sad sack and a scruffy loner are on full display here. Surrogates is as much about the increasing isolation of technology as it is about the wreckage of a marriage. As the stakes get higher, the movie becomes about the broken relationship between a husband and wife who were disconnected from each other long before surrogates were invented.

If along the way it happens to involve some amazing special effects and a lot of cool action sequences, that's not such a bad thing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Cybergypsies

Back when Indra Sinha was addicted to Shades, I was a kid sneaking into college computer labs to play Ivory Towers. We were both playing Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). In fact, Ivory Tower players loathed Shades players with a passion, who were a bloodthirsty, violent lot – they came to Ivory Towers in waves when Shades was down and slaughtered everyone in sight with unbridled glee. It didn't give me a good impression of Shades.

That's not the impression Sinha gives in his book, The Cybergypsies. Sinha gives an aura of mystical wonder and beauty to a game in which stealing your opponents' weapon was commonplace--as if combat between medieval knights was all about wresting away your opponents' blade. It comes off as ridiculous as it sounds, but Sinha elevates it to poetic levels.

Cybergypsies isn't really about MUDding though. It's about Sinha's sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden, exemplified by the poor of Bhopal who were poisoned in an industrial disaster. Working in advertising, Sinha is in the unique position of trying to translate real-life suffering into everyday media. He finds the bizarre online reflection of the real world's struggles in Vortex, a role-playing MUSH.

In Vortex, like many MUSHs, the current players set the tone. And Vortex's tone is a decadent, anything-goes free love vibe that has a dark side. Cannibalism, baby sacrifice – you name it, the Vortex denizens have done it, reveling in their freedom to role-play anything and everything.

Somewhere in this contrast between MUDding and MUSHing, real-life oppression and cyber-decadence, Sinha struggles to save his marriage. Which is a bit odd, because Sinha makes almost no mention of his children. Speaking as someone who has a very active two-year-old, there's no way I can stay on the computer for more than a few minutes without him tugging on my arm. Sinha either seriously neglected them or intentionally removed them from the narrative; whatever the case, it's a glaring omission from his story of a family life brought to the brink by cyber-addiction.

The other problem is that Sinha is extremely well educated and enjoys demonstrating his knowledge in various allusions to disparate texts, often in other languages. Cybergypsies makes you feel dumb.

Sinha doesn't seem to have a point. Shades rises and falls. Vortex's appeal fades. Sinha raises awareness of global suffering through his advertising. He may even help a hacker access a nuclear plant, although it's never clear exactly what happened. And we can only guess that he saved his marriage…Sinha just ends the book without any resolution.

The author is a brilliant writer. But this book is a stream-of-consciousness journal made up of at least three other books, each which deserved its own focus. Readers looking for a parable on cyber-addiction, for a dialogue about human rights grievances, or for the wild and wooly history of the Internet will only get tantalizing glimpses.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Take Homeward Bound's tale of three pets drawn together on an epic journey across America, mix in Toy Story's winking sense of irony at the faux world of toys, shroud it in the artificially-created world of The Truman Show and you've got Bolt.

Bolt (John Travolta) is a clueless acting dog who truly loves his "person," Penny (Miley Cyrus). In the movies, Bolt is a superhero, but Bolt doesn't quite grasp that he's actually in a movie. When audiences begin to tire of Bolt's heroics, the network decides to throw in a twist and separate Penny from Bolt. Distraught and determined, Bolt escapes the studio in a quest to rescue Penny from Hollywood.

Along the way, he meets a street savvy cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and a chubby fanboy gerbil named Rhino (Mark Walton). Rhino's a lot like Kung Fu Panda's Po – overweight, hopelessly consumed by fandom, and relentlessly optimistic. Mittens, on the other hand, is the Bones equivalent; a beaten down cynic who thinks Bolt is completely insane.

Bolt is at its best during the film-within-a-film sequences; the motorcycle chase scene is just as thrilling as the one in Terminator Salvation. The catch is that though it's not real, the violence takes place on screen. In other words, does it really matter if CGI actors are pretending to be CGI dead? Helicopters explode, motorcycles flip, and bad guys don't get back up. In that regard, Bolt's pretty violent.

Where Michael J. Fox voice perfectly embodied Chance in Homeward Bound as a young pup, Travolta's throaty whisper seems an odd choice for Bolt, who's at least as clueless as Chance. He does a great job, but occasionally you can hear the weariness and maturity in his voice.

Occasionally, the movie glosses over its own moral arc; although it's critical for Bolt to reunite with his person and Mittens still nurses her own emotional wounds over the loss of her family, Rhino leaves his old lady without nary a look back. It's never mentioned that she might miss him.

But those are minor quibbles. Overall, Bolt's an entertaining, fast-moving action picture. It's just not on par with Toy Story as a parable that younger kids can enjoy.

The Men Who Stare At Goats

This book isn't funny.

Mind you, Ronson knows exactly what he's doing by presenting the book as "hilarious" – it starts out completely absurd, with the high-minded hippy ideals of a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran presented to a beleaguered military under siege. Jim Channon, seeking solace in the emerging human potential movement in California, struck a chord with the top brass, and the repercussions are still felt today.

But instead of being used as a positive force for peace, the military twisted it into a force of evil. Ronson ties it all together: September 11, Heaven's Gate, sticky foam, Abu-Grahib, Waco, Art Bell, Projects STARGATE, MKULTRA, and ARTICHOKE, and yes, Barney. Goat-staring is the least of our worries.

The thread running throughout all these seemingly disconnected blips in history is that they are a new form of psychological warfare that is innocuous, ruthless, and entirely effective. The Men Who Stare at Goats would be just another conspiracy-laden anti-government diatribe if it wasn't for the fact that Ronson always takes the next step as an investigative reporter. He finds people to back up the wild claims, interviews them, and often challenges their wild theories.

The sad thing is, very few of these shadowy contacts hide their past. Almost unilaterally, Ronson calls them all out by name and they step forward, sharing a story that sheds a disconcerting light on America's human rights record. Where is the vigorous conversation, the protests, the discord over these revelations? The facts are right here before us – even photographic evidence -- but we laugh about Barney being used to torture prisoners and we shake our heads at the poor, misguided psychics. But outrage? There's no outrage. We save our vitriol for partisan debates in our own government.

Eric Olson, son of Frank Olson, a military scientist who died under mysterious circumstances while working on MKULTRA, sums it up best:

"The old story is so much fun, why would anyone want to replace it with a story that's not fun. You see…this is no longer a happy, feel-good story…People have been brainwashed by fiction…so brainwashed by the Tom Clancy thing, they think, 'We know this stuff. We know the CIA does this.' Actually, we know nothing of this. There's no case of this, and all this fictional stuff is like an immunization against reality. It makes people think they know things that they don't know and it enables them to have a kind of superficial quasi-sophistication and cynicism which is just a thin layer beyond which they're not cynical at all."

Have you heard? There's a movie based on this book coming out starring George Clooney.

It's a comedy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Dear Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor,

We appreciate your recent attempt to create a movie that would appeal to gamers by naming it after us. Really, we do. But now that we've stopped throwing up from all the motion sickness and our pupils have finally refocused from the flash cuts, we thought you might appreciate some tips to help you farm XP faster.

Stop with the static: Seriously guys. Stop it. Apparently in your version of the future all video games have terrible reception. We have lag, we have crashes, we have all kinds of problems, but the one problem we do not have is static. That's because our video games are not television screens. You'll also notice that our television do not have static either, and haven't had static for about a decade since they invented this thing called cable. Look it up.

Speaking of Kable: Cable is the name of a time-traveling cyborg in the Marvel Universe. Kable is the name somebody thinks gamers think is cool. Nobody thinks Kable is cool. Nobody believes Kable is the best killer in the gaming universe. You didn't even use 133t speak, so…fail.

Making Michael C. Hall an evil genius is…a stroke of genius. Go Dexter!

Stop with the red/blue colors: Ludacris is cool and all, but even his cyber cred is sorely tested by a blurry 3-D image on screen.

The teabagging gag was funny.

Your jump cuts suck: We notice when you replace rapid jump cuts with actual fight choreography. It's the movie equivalent of shouting and pointing, "LOOK! A KITTY!" every time a fight starts. You just look stupid and we feel embarrassed for you.

Dancing convicts are hilarious. Dancing to a Frank Sinatra song is vaguely creepy. But still hilarious.

Why is there still lag in the future? Bad guys can control other human beings by changing their brain cells into [INSERT STUPID MADE UP NAME] but we haven't solved lag? Is this future made of stupid?

Evil Villain Tip #58: Next time around, you might want to consider not making the guy who holds your deepest, darkest secret an international broadcast superstar.

Don't insult us: No offense, but portraying the gaming universe as nothing but "deviants and murderers" doesn't really make us want to watch your movie. Yes, the Internet has a dark side. But since you called the movie "Gamer" and not "All Gamers Are Disgusting Fat Perverted Slobs Who Watch Porn All Day," we'll assume you actually want us to buy a ticket. Please consider this the next time you name a movie after us.

And finally…

Thank you for killing John Leguizamo: That's not a tip. But thank you.

We hope that these tips prove useful the next time you level up as directors and writers. Incidentally, multiclassing as both might not be such a good idea.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Unholy Dimensions

There's no flowery introduction by anyone to Unholy Dimensions explaining what a major contributing force Jeffrey Thomas is to the Cthulhu Mythos. It just starts immediately with a short story set in Punktown, a seething planet of decay and corruption in a sci-fi universe where there are holograms, ray guns, and aliens. This review contains spoilers!

Thomas' science fiction tales are not his strongest. My reaction to this sudden and jarring juxtaposition in THE BONES OF THE OLD ONES wasn't favorable. It features Hound of Tindalos, a private eye who dabbles in sorcery, a creepy kid, and Yog-Sothoth. Although Thomas deftly handled the tension between the protagonist and his former friend, I wasn't impressed with the setting because I hadn't yet bought into the idea of sci-fi Cthulhu. By the second story, with the same protagonist in the same universe, I was hooked. John Bell, a Mythos hunter archetype that would make any Delta Green gamer proud, takes on a weird conglomerate being led by Nyarlathotep in THE AVATARS OF THE OLD ONES. This story is told from the view of a third party and love interest, H'anna, which helps preserve the sense of horror when a conglomerate of deformed Mythos minions are activated. THE YOUNG OF THE OLD ONES is the last of the Punktown trilogy in this volume. It features an Elder Thing and Horrors from Beyond. It is also something of a tragic love story, a theme that will continue throughout Thomas' work.

Thomas returns to the science fiction genre with THE SERVITORS, a star-crossed tale of two beings who really, really hate their bosses. When they finally meet, it turns out their worlds are far more different than either might have dreamed. THE HOUSE ON THE PLAIN reads like the trailer to a science fiction horror movie…because the perfectly preserved house is on an otherwise barren and inhospitable planet.

I'm not a fan of Thomas' poetry. THE ICE SHIP, ASCENDING TO HELL, and YOO HOO, CTHULHU are clever enough but relatively uninspired.

Thomas enjoys dabbling in the relationships between his characters, building on romantic tension to further accentuate the horror. I MARRIED A SHOGGOTH is both the most disturbing of the lovelorn tales, despite the clever name. Thomas plays on the Lovecraft-style of the narrator narrating something he obviously survived. Here, he sets out to show that there are some fates worse than death. It's a parable about getting exactly what you want, even when what you want involves turning a Shoggoth into your own personal plaything. In SERVILE Thomas deftly interweaves romantic tension in a love triangle that features the Dreamlands and a Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua. You'll never look at a pair of dentures the same way again. THROUGH OBSCURE GLASS is another love story about a man tasked with guarding against a Dreamlands' intrusion by Gugs and the woman who loves him. CELLS is another sad love story between a mad scientist and his wife as they desperately try to cheat death through misbegotten science. In LOST SOUL, Thomas shows that there are worse things than a Mythos sorcerer as he explores an obsessive, incestuous love triangle. The ickiest story of the bunch. The collection ends with another love story, THE CELLAR GOD, combining Tcho-Tchos with Moonbeasts in a tragic tale of secret romance. THE FOURTH UTTERANCE is perhaps the best story of the lot. It features an exchange between a lonely woman, a sorcerer who summoned something terrible, and the answering machine between them. The Mythos is only hinted at, but that makes the story all the more disturbing.

In THE DOOM IN THE ROOM, Thomas parodies Lovecraft's writing style by filling the three pages with flower text and a narrator who madly types the story even while a Mythos beast advances on him. He must type very, very fast… Lovecraft is parodied again in the super short WRITING ON THE WALL, a cartoon-like representation of the typical Lovecraft explorer deciphering his own doom.

RED GLASS establishes another theme: that when you look into the Abyss, the Abyss looks back. Narrating in first person, the protagonist is drawn to a house full of mental illness and secret portal behind its peeling walls. Thomas is also an expert at prolonged suffering. BOOKWORM is a short tale but the ending sticks with you as we glimpse the last desperate moments of a too-curious thief succumbing to the Mythos. THE BOARDED WINDOW builds slowly, exploring parallel dimensions and how each side views the other as strange and horrible. THE FACE OF BAPHOMET provides an alternative twist to the Templars, Baphomet, and Shub-Niggurath. The initiation ritual and main character would complement the Templars as described in Unseen Masters nicely. WHAT WASHES ASHORE follows a conflicted female protagonist who is fond of seashells, a hobby that will ultimately consume her in the outskirts of a forgotten town.

Thomas enjoys spotlighting the war against the Mythos, including the terrible cost it exacts on the mortals who dare fight back. OUT OF THE BELLY OF SHEOL is told like a biblical tale, featuring a prophet, the insides of Cthulhu, and a war between the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones. CONGLOMERATE, told from the perspective of a security guard working at Monumental Life Insurance Corporation, features Nyarlathotep in one of his many guises as the CEO of a massive, sinister corporate entity. Good stuff for Keepers looking to expand Stephen Alzis' holdings. Two sorcerers and brothers of Cthugha and Cthulhu go to war in CORPSE CANDLES, baffling the police. Building on the war between Mythos and Man, THE THIRD EYE is a sad little tale of a broken detective, his frightened son, and the burden of occult knowledge of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. PAZUZU'S CHILDREN takes place during the first Iraq War. It ends with a fitting Twilight Zone-esque scream.

There are a few layout problems. Pages 193 and 248 feature just a few words and a whole lot of blank space. The artwork is blurry, abstract, and not particularly scary, serving only to interrupt the story. Thomas' text is evocative enough without these distractions.

But overall Unholy Dimensions demonstrates Jeffrey Thomas' amazing talent to tell an approachable Mythos tale that is both entertaining and creepy. A must read for Delta Green and Cthulhutech gamers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Thanks to a string of successful comic book movie hits, directors are finally showing some respect for their original source material. In the past, it was clear that the director's vision eclipsed any fan interest, which resulted in the Batman series kicked off by Tim Burton eventually circling the toilet bowl before being flushed by Joel Schumacher. The tide has reversed, with fanboys-turned-directors like Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Guillermo del Toro showing an almost slavish devotion to the source material. Zack Snyder can now add his name to that list.

Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality where the threat of weapons of mass destruction looms large, thanks in part to superheroes who range in sanction from government agents to violent outlaws. They are gods among men, these superheroes, but they are also deeply flawed human beings. Watchmen is their story.

There's remarkably little superhero-action in Watchmen. When you strip away all the distractions like the altered timeline and the murder mystery, it becomes clear that Watchmen is actually a character study. The film ping-pongs between each character's backstory, slowly peeling back each layer until we get to the conclusion: that people do terrible things for good reasons. Unfortunately, some characters are fleshed out more than others.

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the Question-like stand-in, is the most interesting character, an anti-hero filled with the rage of moral absolutism, right at home in a repressive society. He also provides noir-style narrative throughout Watchmen.

Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), who has an uncanny resemblance to a young Chevy Chase, is basically an alternative Batman in search of a cause. He's largely a cipher here, cast primarily as the potential love interest of Silk Spectre.

Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) provides the emotional center of the film but unfortunately doesn't do much for women's rights – she comes off as emotionally conflicted and petulant.

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a Punisher analogue whose death at the beginning of the film provides much of the movie's structure, is also a relative unknown. His nickname is derived from his sociopathic detachment, killing with glee. Unfortunately, he just comes off as a murderous thug.

Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is perfect as a mildly contemptuous superhuman, more alien and powerful than Superman. His mere existence can cause nations to go to war. Unfortunately, the film struggles with defining the limits of his powers – I half expected Manhattan to change time and space (like Superman did in the 1978 film) to "fix" things.

Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), perhaps the most important character in the film, is inexplicably both the most brilliant man on earth and a supreme martial artist. There's nothing in Ozymandias' background to explain why this is. His complete lack of development compared to the other characters is where Watchmen stumbles.

Watchmen is a really interesting take on superheroes. Unfortunately, it is no longer revolutionary as it might have been, because the 80s comic laid the framework for serious superhero comics that came later, which in turn spawned serious superhero movies like The Dark Knight. In other words, Watchmen might have been a genre-shaking film ten years ago. It's less successful as an entertaining film today. It's a museum replica of comic book history, faithful to its medium and appreciated more as a reference than a movie experience.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Last Rites of the Black Guard

Last Rites of the Black Guard is a d20 Modern ghost-hunting adventure, produced by 12 to Midnight, for low-level characters. It includes suggestions for adjusting to higher-level campaigns, a bookmarked PDF, and a printer-friendly version. The scenario also features rules from the OGL Horror ritual system. The 12 to Midnight website also offers free downloads of cool extras such as audio recordings of ghosts, pre-filled initiative cards, and more. Please note: this review contains spoilers!

If you’re familiar with the Karotechia in Delta Green, you know that it is led by a triumvirate of Nazis on their last legs: the ancient Olaf Bitterich, the artificially sustained Gunter Frank, and the immortal Reinhard Galt. Advancing the Delta Green timeline thus causes a bit of a problem, because Bitterich should be dead of old age. The solution: Last Rites of the Black Guard (LRBG).

In LRBG, the investigators visit Rosetta, Texas, home of a dirty little secret: it was once home to a Nazi, Franz Heimglimmer. Though Heimglimmer is dead, his legacy lives on in his secret acolytes, who are both trying to rob him of his power and keep him from returning to life. The investigators start out visiting the home of Lisa Gray and her two children, Marissa (7) and Matthew (6). Marissa is in contact with the spirit of Aimee Resnick, a little girl who was murdered at the hands of Heimglimmer. Matthew is protected by the spirit of a Rabbi, but that doesn’t stop glowing atmospheric balls of energy and poltergeists from terrorizing their home.

LRBG has difficulty structuring the plot such that the events flow from one to another. In my experience, players crave clear paths – it helps move the game along, gives them hints to their next clue, and ensures that the game master is appropriately prepared. Because LRBC is largely freeform, it's possible for players to skip whole swaths of the game…like skipping the haunted house to visit Heimglimmer’s home.

The free downloads are awesome, including audio clips of the various spirits speaking and photos of each of the main characters. These really add to the horror, which is why it’s all the more important that don't skip it by going to visit Heimglimmer’s home immediately.

LRBG assumes the characters will conduct a séance, which isn’t necessarily something every group will try. Instead, I had our resident psychic character possessed by Aimee’s spirit and let him role-play out the answers with the other characters. Only after enough clues were gathered about what happened to the spirits did I reveal that there was once a Nazi living next door.

LRBG then moves to the second part of the scenario, which is essentially a death trap. There’s reference to a gold tooth that’s part of the next installment in the series (as far as I know, there’s never been a sequel). Then the investigators find a secret door down into the basement…or they would, if it were on the map. There appears to be only one set of maps, labeled as handouts which are presumably for both the players and game master. This means that secret doors aren’t labeled on the map, and one of those secret doors is critical to finding the finale. The map of the Gray house, conversely, has several rooms labeled “Jeana” – we figured out that this was supposed to be Lisa and the name must have been changed.

Once the investigators find their way down to the secret door, it locks behind them and they are engaged in a fight for their lives with a Risen of Osiris, an undead monster. Since I adopted this monster to a Delta Green setting, I changed it to a Screaming Crawler. The effect is the same: the investigators have to slog it out in a toe-to-toe fight. My players were unhappy about this, expecting to uncover some plot-device to destroy it. The monster has no other purpose than as a guardian, which surprised my players, who expected it to be the Nazi himself (more about him later).

Once the investigators defeat the monster, two undercover cultists arrive to finish the job. When one of the cultists dies, the spirit of Heimglimmer appears (he’s also responsible for locking the characters into the chamber) and absorbs his soul. The other cultist flees, screaming “you’ve doomed us all!” I wasn’t content to just let the scenario end like that, so I had the police, already spooked from the swirling spirit activity around Heimglimmer’s home, fire on whomever ran out the front door waving a pistol.

It turns out that the characters’ actions have led to the resurrection of Heimglimmer and we get to see his return in a cut scene. In other words, the investigators have managed to unearth a great evil. This didn’t make my players happy, who felt like they were being manipulated all along.

It bears mentioning that one of the Nazi cultists has a Jewish-sounding name. For a scenario that spends a significant amount of space dedicated to respecting the Holocaust legacy, it seems peculiar that it would casually cast a Jewish person as a Neo-Nazi without explanation.

Overall, my players really enjoyed the first part of the scenario but were frustrated by the second half. The lack of an overall story arc may irk some game masters, who are left with a newly revived Nazi cultist without a plan as to how to proceed. For Delta Green keepers, however, it’s the perfect way to put Dr. Bitterich back in action. I recommend The Painting by Modern Misfits as a follow-up.
For more info: To see a demo of Last Rites of the Black Guard, visit the 12 to Midnight web site.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds is supposedly about Nazi-hunting in World War II, a revenge fantasy where Jewish-American guerillas (or terrorists, as the Nazis point out) are tasked with spreading fear and loathing throughout France. Led by the rustic Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds have but one task: to each collect 100 Nazi scalps. Please note: this review contains spoilers.

One might think, given the title and the trailers, that this is an action film filled with the occasional machinegun dialogue Quentin Tarantino is famous for. It's quite the opposite: a series of measured vignettes in which the tension is ratcheted up to feverish heights, then explodes in quick, messy violence.

The opening scene sets the stage: Han Landa (Christoph Waltz), AKA "The Jew Hunter," does what he does best in France. As such, he is the nemesis of spies and revolutionaries hiding in plain sight. Landa hunts down Shosanna's (Melanie Laurent) family in a terrifying exchange that culminates in the death of her family. Out of mere whim, ego, or simply being true to his hawk-like nature, Landa lets Shosanna escape. Her survival will have grave repercussions for the German war effort.

These two plots, the Basterds and Shosanna's revenge, eventually intertwine when Hitler and his entourage arrive to view a special showing of a Nazi-propaganda film (Stolz der Nation) in Paris. The film stars Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi war hero who singlehandedly killed dozens of enemies from a sniper tower.

Tarantino never just makes a film to tell a story, as evidenced by the obvious digressions from history he takes with Basterds. He films a vibe, an expression -- in doing so, Tarantion comments on the nature of the cinema and our own humanity. And this time, he's aiming his camera at the audience.

You see, this film isn't just about Nazi hunting, or Pitt's funny accent, or the tension between agents who know their social repartee will end in blood; it's about violence in the movies and how we glorify it. And Tarantino is merciless as he judges every person involved with the film guilty:

The producers are guilty: Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) is a simpering suck-up who is far too enamored with the approval of his audience to see how vile his film is.

The actors are guilty: Actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a duplicitous murderer who shoots an unarmed man in cold blood. Zoller, the star of Stolz der Nation, has no stomach to watch his own murders taking place on the big screen but is only too happy to bully a woman with his affections.

Even the projectionist is guilty: Shosanna is so consumed with her revenge that only in killing a man does she finally see his humanity.

But the most guilty of all is the audience in the theater watching Stolz der Nation. They are shot, burned, and blown to bits at the end. That was the goal, of course – to kill as many Nazis as possible, right? It's just a goal that doesn't seem quite so laudable if you happen to be a member of the audience.

From the images of soldiers dying in the Nazi propaganda film to the graphic scenes of Nazis being scalped, Tarantino holds up a mirror. Are you enjoying this, he asks? Because if so…

You're the basterd.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fall of Cthulhu Vol. 3: The Gray Man

The Grey Man is the third volume in the epic story arc that is Boom Studios' Fall of Cthulhu comic series. I discovered Fall of Cthulhu when I was just launching my Delta Green campaign and was hungry for any fiction dealing with the Cthulhu mythos in a modern context. Fall of Cthulhu is all that and more.

The Gray Man continues the story of the odd knife that caused so much havoc in the earlier parts of the series. Our new protagonist is Raymond Dirk, Arkham's sheriff, who is accustomed to strange goings-on. His life is radically changed once he crosses paths with a Brazilian thief named Luci Jenifer Inacio Das Neves (Lucifer for short). A student of Professor Walter McKinley, Lucifer returns to Arkham only to discover he committed suicide.

McKinley had Lucifer steal a cursed knife from an antique collector in Fortaleza in an attempt to keep it away from Cthulhu cultists. It turns out the knife belonged to a very special person: The Gray Man, patron saint of sacrifice. Lucifer and The Gray Man are in a race to get to the knife first.

Dirk is a likable lead character, a man who keeps his cool no matter how strange things get. Lucifer, on the other hand, looms larger than life: she is a master thief and adept sorcerer, capable of concealing herself from the Gray Man and entering the Dreamlands at will.

Speaking of the Dreamlands, The Harlot is back in this series. Although her dialogue is wry as always, the Dreamlands artwork is not up to the same creepy standards of Andrew Ritchie, who oozes weirdness with every frame he draws.

Throughout the storyline, a little girl in a yellow dress makes random appearances. Her origins are somewhat explained in the final volume of Fall of Cthulhu, but the nature of separate installments means that readers new to the series will invariably be confused. My guess is she's an incarnation of Hastur (and his avatar, the King in Yellow).

Gnruk also makes an appearance, but he is not nearly as horribly realized as his debut earlier in the series. A conflict between The Gray Man and Gnruk looks a bit like the two are waltzing together.

At the conclusion, Mickey Rennier, a Cthulhu cultist with a green Mohawk, provides a bit of a deus ex machine to wrap it all up. Rennier feels oddly out of place in a comic that seems so grounded; punk villains went out of style in the eighties.

Lucifer is clearly a favorite character; her abilities as a thief aren't really demonstrated in this comic – her claim to fame is basically grabbing a knife and jumping out a window while failing to avoid The Gray Man AND Gnruk – but it's clear she's being set up for greater things, specifically the comic series Hexed.

The conclusion has a great twist and ends on a surprisingly poignant and bittersweet note. Unlike some of the other volumes in the Fall of Cthulhu, this story largely stands on its own. Overall, this is an excellent entry in the Lovecraft tradition that manages to bring the horror of the Mythos down to a personal level.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

District 9

While searching for alien encounter videos, I discovered a little clip titled "Alive in Jo'burg" on YouTube by Neill Blomkamp. Fortunately for us, Blomkamp's ill-fated Halo movie was delayed, so he went back to his roots with the film that started it all: District 9.

If you've seen Alive in Jo'burg you know much of what's going on in District 9 (this review contains spoilers!). In essence, a giant alien saucer lands on Earth and its citizens are repatriated in Johannesburg. However, the aliens are ugly, uncivilized squid-like monstrosities and thus integration attempts (when they happen at all) go poorly. The movie begins with a battle with a telekinetic mech and ends with riots in the streets.

District 9 adds meat to the bones of this highly original film. The aliens are no longer blurry actors in masks but crustacean-like beasts in fully-realized CGI. The ship and the conflict in Johannesburg is still a major plot point, but it is explored through Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a bigoted but cheerful company man who just happens to be married to the daughter of the head of Multi-National United (MNU). He documents the task of relocating the "prawns" (a racial slur for the aliens) to a concentration camp through video, with frequent asides asking the producer to remove particularly embarrassing shots in editing.

In this tightly scripted film, every detail is important: the fact that the aliens have powerful weapons technology only they can use; that the Nigerians take advantage of the prawns by selling them prostitution (and all that implies) and cans of cat food in exchange for said weapons; and that the Nigerians believe they can acquire the power of a prawn through cannibalism.

Blomkamp quickly achieves a sense of rising dread through documentary-style clips where various experts expound on "what Wikus did." The special effects used in creating the prawn are a critical part of making them utterly alien. This is counterbalanced by a horrifying scene where Wikus destroys prawn eggs by setting them ablaze, comparing the popping sound of the roasting babies to popcorn. As a new parent, when Wikus threatens a young prawn, I flinched. And just like that, I was now on the side of the aliens.

An important but unlikely plot twist brings Wikus around to the alien side of life. Betrayed by his company and his father-in-law, he has no choice but to work with Christopher Johnson, an alien who knows more than he lets on. Together, they unveil the depth of corruption in both the squalid slums of Johannesburg and the clean corporate offices of MNU. No organization or race walks out of this film unscathed.

Combining elements of Alien Nation and Enemy Mine, District 9 adroitly balances political commentary on apartheid with Peter Jackson-ian levels of violence. The movie ends with more questions than answers and the certainty of a sequel. I can't wait!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dark Wisdom

I was chiefly interested in Gary Myers' collection of Lovecraftian-inspired short stories because they all take place in a modern setting. I'm always looking for ideas for my Delta Green campaign and was curious to see how other authors updated the Cthulhu Mythos.

There are two ways an author can modernize Lovecraftian horror. He can borrow elements from Lovecraft and incorporate them into his own work, thereby changing the setting but not the theme. Alternately, he can maintain the narrative style of Lovecraft and apply it to a modern tale. Most authors choose the first option, because it's easier; Lovecraft's archaic voice is difficult to emulate and even more difficult for modern readers to absorb. His protagonists narrate the horror tale after the fact, diminishing any sense of urgency. And the final twist is always blasted with great fanfare; italics, exclamation points, and all.

Myers vacillates between these two options with varying degrees of success. Unlike Lovecraft, he is fond of ending the tale at the moment the protagonist is about to discover his fate. He does mimic Lovecraft's narrative style in "The Nest," wherein a police officer shares in the first person his encounter with a ghoul. It's actually one of the best of the lot, and shows a glimmer of potential that isn't always recognized in the other stories.

In some cases, Myers is just content to create an eerie sense of weirdness. "The Web," in which two boys mess with a Necronomicon web site, plays out more like a bad eighties horror movie.

"Slugs," in which a thief finds a statue of Cthulhu in a sewer, begins what is something of a problem in Cthulhu-mythos authors: massive information downloads. Look, we're all fans of Lovecraft. But it is not necessary to mention every Mythos deity, explain who Cthulhu is, and otherwise lay out the plot like a Saturday morning cartoon. Part of Lovecraft's genius was being perfectly comfortable not explaining anything, and in these very short stories there's not a lot of room for exposition. A thief who just happens to run into a sewer and just happens to find a Cthulhu statue and just happens to be on the run from the police and just happens to know an antiques fence…the whole thing begins to sound like a Tales from the Darkside episode.

"Mother of Serpents" is an oddity as the tone is completely different from the rest of the stories. It's written in the stilted language of an older, more formal time. The ending isn't particularly scary and entirely predictable.

It's not until we get to "Fast Food" that Myers really knocks it out of the park. An office worker is sickened by the food at Belial's (yes, it's called Belial's, complete with a pitchfork logo on a matchbook), a burger joint. Customers obsess over the burgers, become grotesquely fat from gorging on them, and are then led herd-like into the restaurant at night. Despite the cheesy name of the restaurant, this is a clever take on an old mythos beast…and no, it's not tcho-tchos. The imagery at the end stuck with me long afterwards.

Connecting Deep Ones to the Creature of the Black Lagoon is the plot of the "Understudy," a mediocre entry. "The Big Picture" is much more Lovecraftian, about a man obsessed with stereograms (remember when those were popular?). This is a modern twist on a popular Lovecraftian notion of perception beyond space and time, but it's pretty standard fare. Similarly, "Omega" is more like a Lovecraftian tale, with a narrator who provides the big twist at the end. This is another massive Cthulhu Mythos dump that saps the story of its momentum.

"The Mask" is another great entry, expanding on the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign and the Mi-Go war. That's followed by "What Rough Beast," a hitchhiker tale that is both heartbreaking and terrifying.

"From Inner Egypt," like "Omega," provides too much detail and not enough freaky weirdness. Likewise, "Horror Show" ends without any real denouement.

For reasons known only to the publisher, someone allowed Myers to produce black-and-white artwork for this book. This was a mistake. The cover is perfectly evocative, but the interior art is a lesson in bad Photoshop. Two cloned pictures of a pixilated butcher standing in a hallway, meant to represent two cultists at Belial's, nearly ruins the story. As does the full-page picture on page 97 of…boxes. A story about Yig has a picture of a snake; a story about Tsathoggua has a picture of a toad. This book would have been better off without the art.

For modern Cthulhu fans, Myers has some entries worth reading. But the uneven nature of the tales and the terrible art detract from what could otherwise be a solid collection.