Coquina shoggoth

Among a bunch of shells of various sizes in our craft supplies I noticed a small piece of rock with tons of embedded mollusk shells. I rhought at first that it might be some kind of coral, but a little Google image searching led me to conclude it is more probably coquina, a kind of limestone consisting mostly of shells. I was initially thinking about using it for a base for a mermaid I was painting but it looked so irregular and gross that I realized it would make a much better Shoggoth. The coiled shells and holes suggested pseudopods and a bubbling chaos of mouths, eyes, and appendages.

The eyes are just beads I glued on and painted, and the mouths are formed from breaks in the shells. I just picked out teeth in white along the edges. The whole thing is washed with maroon, with additional brown washes in deeper crevices, then roughly  drybrushed with pink and white. The “mouths” had more maroon added to deepen their color. The whole thing took barely any time; I wish I had more of the stuff.  It will serve as a small shoggoth or gibbering mouther.

Published in: on June 12, 2017 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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In the dust of this planet / Eugene Thacker


This book has a gained a small measure of notoriety because its cover appeared in a few places in pop culture and because professional moron Glenn Beck singled it out as a destructive force in American culture. However I can’t imagine many people reading this — it is essentially a short work of philosophy that looks at how twentieth and twentieth-first century horror (in fiction, films, and music) might help us comprehend the unthinkable world we now face: the world that might be: the world after human extinction. (I am reminded of the ancient skeptical quip that just as we do not fear the nonexistence we enjoyed before we were conceived or born, we should not fear the nonexistence that follows our death, but Thacker would probably want to say: The individual’s nonexistence is one thing, the nonexistence of humanity, perhaps even of rationality, is another.)

Thacker’s basic idea is subtle and difficult to paraphrase. If I am understanding him (and as someone who studied philosophy pretty extensively, and in particular a lot of nihilism, as well as someone interested in or familiar with most of the writers he uses to illustrate or explore his ideas, I may be among the relative small minority of people who actually comprise his audience) — if I understand this book, the first premise is that we need to distinguish among three “worlds”: the world-for-us, the world-in-itself, and the world-without-us. (For my money this distinction alone was worth the price of reading this short but difficult book.)

Briefly, the world-for-us is the world understood instrumentally*, the world as something for our use as humans; the world in relation to humans. This concept of the world is most fiercely promoted in myth and religion, but it is also how we usually think of the world in our everyday interactions with it. Thacker uses the generic term “World” for this world.

The world-in-itself on the other hand is the world as it exists independently of human concerns and interests, the subject of scientific inquiry perhaps but potentially hostile. Paradoxically our scientific investigations generally convert the world-in-itself to the world-for-us because we normally undertake these investigations to solve some problem or gain some understanding of human problems, however it was the rational, scientific mindset that reveals the possibility of the word-in-itself. But philosophically, at least, we acknowledge that the world-in-itself is not just some human construct or a world made for- or by- us. The Kantian noumena (“thing-in-itself”) is obviously being invoked here, but Thacker is not strictly being Kantian here. For one thing he doesn’t necessarily agree with Kant that we know nothing about the world-in-itself; we in fact have a concept of the world apart from human concerns. Thacker calls the world-in-itself “the Earth”.

Lastly the world-without-us is the world that is, by definition, hidden from us and beyond our reckoning, and its reality is most plain when we think of the world after human extinction. This concept is of fairly recent vintage because it is only in fairly recent times that we’ve had any idea of a world with no humans. In the mythological/religious past, we could only think of the end humans as the end of the world itself. But climate change, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the threat of extinction-level pandemics, the notion of civilization-ending disasters generally: these possibilities evoke the world-without-us. Thacker calls the world-without-us “the Planet,” because when we imagine the world without us we are considering our world “objectively,” as one planet among many, and not merely in-addition to humanity but apart from and independent of humanity. The Planet is not even hostile to us; it is indifferent to us. This indifference is terrifying to us, because it negates the humanocentric world. I should hasten to add that the alienating thing about the world-without-us does not depend entirely on human extinction. The very idea of the multitude of worlds, the near-infinity of time and space, and the possibility of alien intelligences also invoke the world-without-us.

Thacker’s thesis is that modern horror (in film, fiction, and even music) provides a non-philosophical approach to grappling with the Planet, that is to say: the world-without-us. The bulk of the book tries to illustrate this thesis, drawing on everything from black metal music and Hammer films to H.P. Lovecraft and Georges Bataille. Theological and occult writings on magic and demonology are also analyzed as precursors to modern horror. Along the way Thacker uses a variety of philosophers, especially Schopenhauer and Aristotle (!) to explain how the world-without-us can be understood philosophically. Perhaps obviously, Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic horror” very aptly describes the human response to the idea of the world-without-us. Towards the end of the book he suggests a mystical approach to comprehending the world-without-us, using certain “darkness” mystics (Bohme, John of the Cross) to analyze a strange, supposedly anonymous poem that is probably the work of the author himself.

I should finally comment on the utterly strange but effective structure of his book: we are treated to a series of medieval scholastic forms (quaestio, lectio, disputatio) each exploring specific questions or topics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thacker does not settle on a clear conclusion, but there are at least two more books in his “Horror of philosophy” series.

*Thacker doesn’t specifically use Heidegger’s concept of “instrumental rationality” here, but Heidegger certainly applies: The world-for-us is the world for Dasein.

Published in: on July 22, 2015 at 8:57 am  Comments (1)  
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H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque

I’ve been down with a cold for the last couple of days and after forcing myself to go in to work one day, I took day off and binge-read a dissertation on H.L.Lovecraft that a guy I know wrote. It is called H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque. You can buy it at Amazon, and should. (Side note: among the things I learned here is the origin of the term “grotesque”, which traces to “grotto-esque” because the excavations of certain Roman grottoes revealed monstrous, fanciful images no-one had seen in hundreds of years. Such imagery was not limited to grottoes or baths but the term stuck, perhaps because the association with caves or the underground fit the demonic images.)

H.P. Lovecraft has become a sort of pop icon, at least within a sizable subculture of gamers, horror aficionados, and general “geek culture,” although as the author notes he is more frequently referenced or parodied than actually read. In all fairness, there is a considerable part of Lovecraft’s work that is pretty rough going, due to its conservativeness (e.g. his early work and attempts to copy Dunsany) or due to its unapologetic racism and xenophobia (which even Robert E. Howard, himself criticized for bigotry, chastised Lovecraft for!). However Martin focuses on several of Lovecraft’s most famous and acclaimed works (“The call of Cthulhu,” “The whisperer in the darkness,” At the mountains of madness, and a few other key works), and in doing so makes a powerful case to take Lovecraft’s mature work much more seriously than it hitherto has outside of “weird tales” fandom.
Martin argues, quite lucidly, that HPL can be better understood as a trailblazer in the intersection of two literary movements: the grotesque and the modernist. HPL, he demonstrates, uses modernist devices and concerns, with grotesque themes and situations, to create subtle studies on alienation, subjectivity, and the absurd. Indeed the Lovecraftian sense of “cosmic horror” (a phrase I think Martin circumspectly avoids) is understood here as really being a sense of horror at man’s evident place in the universe (or lack thereof). Martin rather convincingly (to me, at least, as a non-scholar regarding literature!) shows that HPL really fits comfortably in with Conrad, Eliot, O’Conner, Faulkner, and other “modernists,” distinguishing himself more by his use of the grotesque rather than more realist or mundane dramas to sketch his vision of the world: alienating because it is indifferent to human concerns and pride; disturbing because subjectivity makes absolute reality impossible to approach; and absurd because logic and science are just as powerless as religion and art in the face of this alienation and subjectivity. HPL’s use of sophisticated literary devices belies his oft-criticized purple prose, and Martin also makes an effort to suggest that HPL uses humor and even self-parody which is lost on many readers.
So overall I think this is an excellent study of HPL, and refreshing in that it mostly avoids the biography that so often passes for criticism and appreciation that passes for interpretation.
Having said all that, this is a doctoral dissertation, and the reader is often reminded of this fact by the repetition of ideas, the exhausting presentation of piece after piece of evidence, pedantic footnotes which some advisor or reader doubtless insist be inserted to clarify or disclaim some statement, and most of all by the jargon of academia. In fact this last part was the most distracting: “connects,” “destabilizes,” “questions,” and similar verbs abound, as I have often found them to in academic literary criticism. Such terms always make me think that either the writer is avoiding taking a clear stance or that they don’t really know exactly what the argument is and these words are meant to say “well this here sort of suggests that, but the logical connection is not clear and I am not positive what the actual conclusion should be.” But then that is the meat and mead of defending a thesis. One must pull back as far into one’s shell as possible or face endless debate from the advisor and readers who must ultimately approve the thing. So I can forgive that.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that I know the author of this work and he sent me a copy to read (though he did not ask for a review or anything in return). I should also mention that I was intensely flattered to be acknowledged among the people who influenced his thinking, though really I knew him long ago, and I doubt I had anything substantive to say about HPL at that time.
I hope that if he ever returns to this topic, perhaps to edit the dissertation into a format that will attract more casual readers, he will expand his examples to draw on more stories, and perhaps give a little more explanation of some of the more jargony terms of literary criticism, for the ideas herein do a great deal to rehabilitate HPL as more than merely a “horror” or “pulp” writer. He might also address some of the more problematic aspects of HPL’s work and views; however I know from correspondence that he intentionally set out to avoid the pitfall of biography and psychologism that besets so many writers on writers.

Published in: on April 2, 2015 at 7:15 pm  Comments (19)  
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Dreamland II: adventures in dreamland

Google’s Little Nemo doodle yesterday reminded me of this post I’ve been sitting on (for a month or so since I mentioned the book Dreamland),  about an adventure in dreamland I ran years ago.

The inspiration was:

All of these combined once led to an adventure in my short-lived GURPS Conan campaign in college.  The set-up was a town or small city where the inhabitants are unhappy, drowsy, and fearful.  In fact everyone within the walls is troubled by nightmares, all night every night.

A great tower overlooks the city — in the original adventure the tower was outside the city but it could just as well be inside.  It is of course the tower of an evil sorcerer who is stealing the dreams of the townsfolk.

In my GURPS Conan campaign, to be honest I don’t recall how things played out, although I remember a final duel with Gaznak where the players had to figure out his weakness just as it happened in the story (if you haven’t read the story yet I won’t spoil it now, go read it…or if you are lazy, just listen to it, there is an audiorecording at the link!)

The adventure could involve besieging the actual tower … but the sorcerer escapes to dreamland.  The party may not even realize this until they find their own dreams assailed.  They will be plagued by nightmares, or robbed of their dreams entirely, and never know a good night’s sleep.  The only way to stop the madness once and for all, of course, is to pursue the sorcerer into the dream realm.  Certain drugs or potions will do the trick.

Adventures in dreamland pretty much open up any possibility.  The characters’ attributes, age, even race, class or levels could be different. You could have characters leave all their possessions behind, or learn to dream them into the dreamland too.  What about hirelings, and companion animals?  Can they be induced to take the drug, or simply dreamed up like your sword or spellbook?  (will the dream version of any of these act the way the real one does? will magic items retain their properties or take on others? will the spells be the same in the dream book? will spells have different effects in dreamland? will the dreamed-up creatures try to escape to the real world, and what will they do to their ‘real’ versions?)

Naturally, everything might be different in dreamland — the culture, landscape, the laws of physics and magic, the gods themselves.  Maybe this is an opportunity to change systems or settings in your campaign.  Maybe it’s an occasional interlude for when the DM is out of ideas, or you have unexpected absences and ‘guest’ players.

Lovecraft’s dreamland stories could obviously provide additional ideas, and so do several of Borge’s fictions and essays.

A GIS for maps of dreamland has some neat results too.

Movies like The Science of Sleep,  the Nightmare on Elm Street series (especially the third film), The Imgainarium of Dr. Parassus, Brazil (OK, maybe every film by Terry Gilliam!), and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
might be helpful too.

If you have any suggestions for books or RPG supplements I should add to the bibliography, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments.

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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HPL’s “commonplace book”

Bruce Sterling’s blog over at has what I think is the complete text of H.P. Lovecraft’s “commonplace book” here.  (It’s more of a notebook of ideas for stories than a traditional ‘commonplace book’ which would have collected quotations and similar.) You won’t find a single ‘tentacle’ in the batch, fwiw.  But you could certainly steal some of the ideas for your own weird gaming.

For the scholars, there’s some annotations here, with sources and where he used some of them.

Published in: on July 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Comments (6)  
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Realms of Crawling Chaos!

One of the prizes I won* in the OPD contest is a print copy of Realms of Crawling Chaos.  I was hoping against hope that I’d get that, because I like Labyrinth Lord a lot, and I like Lovecraft, and although my current game is much more ‘standard fantasy’ than ‘dark fantasy,’ I do like me some dark fantasy.

It came yesterday in the mail and I have only had about an hour to flip though this 61 page tome of awesome but everything I’ve seen so far is pretty damn good.

Nice art, readable text, a complete table of contents for quick reference, lots of neat tables, plenty of new monsters, spells, and character race/classes, and more.  An appendix gives the sources on many if not all of the elements in the book, and the sources are pretty much all HPL stories with a dash of Clark Ashton Smith.  No crummy August Derleth type non-canonical Lovecraftiana, just pure uncut HPL. (Clark Ashton Smith gets a pass because he was HPL’s buddy and has his own weird ideas with nary a tentacled cliché!)

There is a table of d100 random artifact effects, d100 object types, and d100 strange properties for said artifacts.

There are rules for the effects of reading eldritch tomes.

I’m not a fan of psionics but if you’re gonna use them fit in a dark fantasy setting OK.  There are three pages of rules for them that look playable.

A new kind of magic (“Formulae”) that are spells for creating special substances.

And maybe best of all, a four page essay on “Lovecraftian dark fantasy” which really seems to “get it.”  (Hint: it’s not about tentacles and worshiping a pantheon of mythos beings. It is about pessimism and alienation.)

You could buy it as a PDF for less than $5, or get the print version for $17.95, which seems like a very fair price.  It is printed by Lulu, looks good, and is saddle stitched (i.e. folded sheets bound by being stapled in the fold — a very durable format).

I can’t recommend this too strongly to anyone who might want to introduce a few Lovecraftian elements to their game, whether they go full-tilt “Swords against the outer dark” or just want to sneak in some serpent folk or white apes here and there.  On a scale from knobkerry to godentag, this is a skull-crushing tetsubo! (A few illustrations by Erol Otus or Stephan Poag would push this all the way to godentag)

Note that this is not a complete game in itself but a  supplement suitable for use with Labyrinth Lord (original or Advanced Edition) as well for use with any old school version of D&D (B/X and AD&D would be easiest to adapt); I think it would go nicely with LotFP and any “retro-clone.”  It also has some notes for using it with Mutant Future, a Gamma Worldish retroclone.




*The organizers of the OPD contest asked the winners which prizes they wanted, as there were a LOT of prizes donated.  That was pretty damn nice.

Published in: on June 1, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Library book sale score!

I love going to library book sales, both to support libraries, which are chronically underfunded, and to get cheap books.  I usually can spend several hours at a book sale, but since I had somewhere else to go, and I really wanted to get in & out in a few minutes, I focused on the history and sci-fi sections of the sale, since I know more or less what I’m interested in there.  When I have more time I check out he children’s section and the “premium books” (more recent/ type stuff the Friends of the Library feel they can get more than the usual fifty cents or a dollar for — this is where I would usually find RPG books).  In the past I’ve scored all sorts of great books, although I particularly prize books on war gaming/miniatures, RPGs, and solid reference books.   I usually come away with a pile of history books, ranging from the ancient world to modern times, and a few other interesting tidbits.

All hardbacks, except as noted. (more…)

Published in: on May 7, 2010 at 1:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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A little more on Lovecraft & Swords & Sorcery

My post on Lovecraft, S&S, & D&D was pretty popular in terms of visits. Every time I go surfing the blogs and web I notice something I left out or see another great idea regarding Lovecraftian themes in Swords & Sorcery gaming.

This post over at Eiglophian (/Eye-glow-fee-an/) Press is quite good, and must have been on my mind although I didn’t cite it in my previous post on the topic, because that is a blog I visit fairly often. Just yesterday I got around to following the link to G. Benedicto’s other blog, Quantique, and it is seriously awesome. Not exactly the direction I’d go but very imaginative and unique, check it out. (more…)

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 7:32 pm  Comments (3)  
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Lovecraft, Swords & Sorcery, & D&D

In college I stumbled across a book of letters between Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.  I’d heard, I think, that Howard’s Hyboria was connected to the “Cthulhu mythos” (if that term is legitimate) but had no idea the two had so much in common, despite their fierce differences.  Anyway I was often puzzled about the inclusion of the Cthulhu mythos in the first printings of the AD&D Deities & Demigods, and the blanket endorsement of Lovecraft’s work  in the Dungeon Masters Guide.  What does D&D have to do with HPL?  How do a bunch of adventurers (usually loosely modeled on the Fellowship of the Ring) going into dungeons for gold and glory have anything to do with the eldritch terror, cosmic horrors, and existential angst of HPL?  The various monsters that owe something to the aliens of HPL are obvious enough.


Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 2:46 am  Comments (7)  
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