Category Archives: Nerdgasm

I’m a science fiction, fantasy, and horror nerd; I like books, movies, games, and conventions. These are entries where I talk about my nerdy interests.

Living in a Post-Monstrous Age

I had a blast at FogCon, as I usually do. The panels I attended were all fascinating, the people were great, &c. I was a little miffed that the bio I wrote for myself on the website didn’t manage to make it into the printed program, but I’ve learned to live with small disappointments like that. I also enjoyed hanging out with other writers and talking craft and projects with them. That’s always worthwhile.

The panel I was on, “Cuddly Horrors from Outer Space”, went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and as a result I felt a bit out of my depth at times. I was far more prepared to discuss cosmic horrors and Lovecraftian critters and how making them cute is, in a sense, defying the nihilistic culture we live in, so when we veered into social commentary about Dracula and similar creatures of imagination, I was a bit surprised. And although I felt I didn’t have much to contribute to that particular part of the conversation, I enjoyed it.

The more I think about it, the more I think we live in a culture with more “defanged” monsters than actual scary ones: monsters which are cute and cuddly, rather than horrific and scary. It’s far easier to buy a plush Cthulhu than a monstrous statue of him, for example; and cartoon images of vampires and werewolves abound, to the point where they show up on Sesame Street as the Count and Stephanie Myers writes about glittering vampires playing baseball in the sun.

The “Disneyfication” of horrifying cultural tropes came up as well. Many of the folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were cautionary tales for children (and some were meant for adults), and some were just plain scary for the sake of being scary, but Disney transformed the original Snow White into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As a result, the original horrific element of that story is lost in a whirlwind of singing birdies. Of course, as time has gone on we’ve seen reimaginings of, say, the “Princess” trope, where the definition of a Disney princess has gone from the meek and helpless Snow White to the nearly (but not quite) feminist characters found in Frozen. I think more work needs to be done with these tropes, but I am heartened by what we’ve seen so far (yes, there are feminist retellings of these fairy tales but on the whole they’re meant for adults and not for children).

We also talked about humanizing monsters, making them sympathetic, and about exploring the human side of them. We see this in works such as Frankenstein, where in the novel the creature is meant to be sympathized with and Frankenstein himself is the weak and pathetic character who runs screaming from what he’s created and refusing to take responsibility for it. Seeing our own reflections in these monsters helps us, I think, reflect on our own humanity.

Of course, we also have shows such as Hannibal and Dexter, which invite the audience to see serial killers as sympathetic creatures in spite of their terrible crimes. This brought the conversation, in a roundabout way, to a discussion of our current political climate, in which we “normalize” monstrous people such as Nazis and fascists and find coverage of them in The New York Times, while the forces of good, such as the antifa movement and Black Lives Matter are rendered monstrous.

We talked also a wee bit about “humanizing” zombies, though I am pretty sure we agreed that the point of a zombie is that it is a creature that has lost all dredges of humanity entirely; and thus the moment you start to humanize them, make them sympathetic, then by definition they cease to be zombies. I can’t think of any exceptions to this off the top of my head. Even novels like Scott G. Browne’s Breathers, which is told from the point of view of the zombie, doesn’t really have any zombies in it.

I don’t know for sure. Am I moving the goalposts here, redefining what it means to be a zombie as I discuss the concept? There are plenty of iterations of the vampire motif, so why not so with zombies?

On the whole, then, I think we live in a post-monstrous age, where the supernatural creatures are no longer scary and the monstrous within isn’t examined anymore. While zombies might represent the faceless evils of racism and consumer culture, it’s still pretty easy to find plush zombies in the stores and online through ThinkGeek. Even Sadako and Samara, the yurei that feature so terrifyingly in The Grudge and The Ring so supernaturally, were recently pitted against each other in a more comedic film (in much the same vein as Freddy Vs. Jason).

Are there monstrous beings anymore? Can we be frightened by vampires and werewolves and Cthulhu anymore? Is it even possible? Or can we still find horror within, reflected by media overgeneralizations of cultural forces?

I’m going to have to think about this some more.

 

Ia! Ftaghn! Cosmic Nihilism and the Cuteification of Cthulhu

Cthulhu

Time was, Cthulhu, the monstrous entity pictured to the left, was the most frightening thing imaginable. Not only was he a giant creature at least a mile in height, who lay dead yet somehow still dreaming in his sunken city of R’yleh, somewhere in the Atlantic… Not only could his dreams affect people in the waking world and control cults and sects throughout millennia… Not only could he rise up at any time and scour the Earth and lay it to waste… No, he’s just a harbinger of even worse things to come! He’s a priest of the old gods, entities that make Cthulhu himself look like a child’s plaything.

Yes, Cthulhu was, at one time, the most frightening thing imaginable for certain groups of people.

On Sunday at WesterCon I attended a panel entitled “Cosmic Horror in the Mainstream Media”. It was an interesting panel which, as is pretty much always the case when the term “cosmic horror” comes up, focused primarily H. P. Lovecraft and his influence not just on the horror genre but on culture at large. There was some debate about what the term “cosmic horror” means, and the panel agreed that it had to do with giant monsters, sanity-blasting, ancient magics, hidden knowledge, and so on.

I disagree.

To me, “cosmic horror” means a genre of horror entertainment which emphasizes the fact that nothing benevolent exists out there. It’s about nihilism, about the nothingness in the universe that doesn’t care a single whit about human beings. Sure, Cthulhu might incite a few cultists with his dead/not-dead dream state, but, really, Cthulhu probably doesn’t give a damn about human beings at all, aside from how tasty we might be.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Cosmic horror, to me, also implies “deepness”: Lovecraft’s horrors (and Lovecraft is still, for all his flaws, the undisputed master of cosmic horror) exist in deep space, in deep time, and in deep consciousness. It’s the intentional seeking out of these entities and cosmic nothingness and universal indifference that drives the poor Lovecraftian characters mad. What happens when you see Hastur and Azathoth palling around with each other at the chaotic miasma which is at the center of the cosmos? You lose all your sanity, that’s what.

But I think this sort of horror goes beyond just the Lovecraftian. While one might be hard-pressed to find examples in popular, mainstream culture, it’s definitely out there. I offered up AMC’s The Walking Dead as an example of this sort of nihilistic horror; and while even I have to admit this is a bit of a stretch, the cosmic nothingness, the idea that nothing benevolent exists, is still part of that show’s milieu.

This cosmic nihilism, I think, has always been with us. Some of the Greek philosophers expounded on it, but I think the ball really got rolling with Nietzsche in the 19th century. It began to pick up speed during the First World War, picked up some more momentum with the Second, and, during the Cold War, it ran rampant all over everything. I grew up in the 80s, and I remember the existential horror of knowing that Reagan or Khruschev could at any moment decide that they’d had enough and would press that red button.

So what do you do when you’re faced with this kind of horror? You can embrace it and write more Lovecraftian-style horror, or even apply some of that nihilism to your own horror or science fiction (Alien is cosmic horror whether you like it or not). You can also ignore it.

But you can also “cuteify” it. Indeed, a whole industry has grown up around making plush Cthulhu toys, silly songs about the Mythos, and so on. This is aplushcthulhu way of coping with Cthulhu and the empty, uncaring cosmos that he represents.

I personally have nothing against a cute Cthulhu. Heck, we have a plush Cthluhu that we put atop our Christmas tree every year. Plush Cthulhu is fun, goofy, and a neat way of coming to terms with the nihilism existential horror that is our daily existence.

I do know, though, that the cuteification of Cthulhu causes some problems for some people. That’s fine and understandable. They don’t like their cosmic, nihilistic, existential horror messed with.

So, the takeaway here is that cuteifying a horror is one way of coping with it. In my own fiction, I often take a comedic approach to Hastur, Cthulhu, Azathoth, and others. Does this mean that I’m also participating in the cuteification of Cthulhu?

I’ll leave the answer to that as an exercise for the reader.

[A-Z] D is for D&D

DnDPH Yesterday’s post about kobolds made me think about my old Dungeons and Dragons days. I used to play a lot of D&D. I mean a lot. I played a little in junior high and high school, but I really became addicted in college. My friends and I would play for hours on end, several days a week. When I lived with my friend Matt, he and I spent hours and hours discussing the philosophy of gaming, its mechanics, its dynamics, and so on. I even took a quarter off from college in my sophomore year to play even more D&D (well, that and to refresh my brain that had become stale on too much… well, whatever it was I was studying at the time). In short, I really loved the game.

While immersed in D&D, I discovered that I really enjoyed being the Dungeon Master (DM), the guy who created the settings that the players would explore and interact with, and who would create the storylines and plots that drove each game session. During college — and for many years after college — D&D and other role-playing games — was where most of my creative energies were focused. I didn’t do a lot of writing in those days. I created wizards and dragons and empires and desperate moral dilemmas for my players to muddle through. There was a time when I considered those years “lost” in terms of my creativity, since so much time I spent playing and DMing I could have spent writing. However, it was recently pointed out to me that those creative energies were not wasted after all; I provided thoughtful and challenging entertainment for dozens of players over the years. When I moved on to running Live Action Role Playing games, the scope of the sessions expanded from five or six to several dozen at a time. Creating storylines and plots that so many people could get involved in and enjoy was challenging and plenty of fun, but exhausting.

These days, I don’t run nearly as many games as I used to. Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for me to run two separate campaigns at the same time, one session per campaign per week (yes, that’s two or more gaming sessions of six to seven hours each per week). Nowadays, because all of us players have lives and jobs and families that demand attention, the gaming sessions are much more sparse, with weeks or even months between individual sessions.

I used to bemoan those years when my creativity could have gone into my writing. These days, though, I’m pretty grateful for those years. I made a lot of great friends. I learned a lot about storytelling. And so even though I’ve moved on from Dungeons and Dragons (I play Pathfinder now), I’ll always be grateful to that game and all its myriad editions, and to the time I spent with it, and to the people I shared it with.

Edited to add: I don’t know how I could have failed to mention this, but I actually met my wife during a Dungeons and Dragons game. So that’s pretty cool too.

Con Report: FogCon 2015

This past weekend, Jennifer and I went to FogCon, a small science fiction and fantasy convention based in Walnut Creek. It was fun — a LOT of fun — but now I am suffering the post-convention blues. Big time. Sigh. Maybe a quick blog post about the con will help me recover.

For one thing, the is probably the first convention in a long time where I haven’t participated in the writers’ workshop. For one thing, I just didn’t get to the application process on time; and, for another thing, I feel pretty sure that I’ve gotten as much out of these workshops as I am going to get.

The highlight of Friday (day one), was a reading which featured my friend Andrea Stewart, who read from her upcoming novel Loose Changeling (which will be available on April 1 from Amazon — check out the Changeling Wars website). Andrea is a fantastic writer. You should definitely check her out and buy her stories and books.

Saturday morning I attended a panel called “The Road”, which was essentially about road stories in science fiction and fantasy, and variations of the theme. It was interesting, and I came away with plenty of ideas for various stories. During the panel, I noted one fellow who had hearing aids that were wired to purple discs that were attached to the sides of his head. I was fascinated by these, but I didn’t have the chance at that panel to ask him about them.

I did meet up with him in the lobby later that day, though. We were headed in opposite directions, but I (probably quite rudely) stopped him and said, “I’m interested in those purple discs attached to the sides of your head. What are they?”

“Oh, they’re cochlear implants,” he said, which I found interesting because I always thought that cochlear implants were internal, not external. We chatted about this for a few minutes, then he looked down at my name badge.

“Wait,” he said. “Richard Crawford?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Richard SCOTT Crawford?”

I looked at him askance. How did this guy know me, and how did he know my middle name? Maybe he was a fan of my writing, though I didn’t think I had any fans outside my circle of friends.

But then he showed me his name badge, and I was delighted to see it was Aahz, a friend of mine from college (though I originally knew him as [REDACTED]). We hadn’t seen each other for almost thirty years, and meeting him at the con seemed pretty random. He introduced me to his primary partner, and we had a fun conversation, though we didn’t really get a chance to catch up with each other until Sunday at lunch. Turns out he’s learning how to be a square dance caller, something which I found really interesting; there’s a host of things to know about square dancing, as it turns out; in addition to the basic moves of square dancing I learned in 8th grade at Lawrence Academy, there are something like 100+ moves that each dancer must memorize and execute on the spot the moment it is called out. And the caller has to pay attention to the music, its beats and its melodies and nuances, and call out the most appropriate move. I hadn’t thought there was so much complexity to it.

Sunday afternoon (Jennifer wasn’t able to make it to the con on that day), I went and attended another reading, this time featuring Sunil Patel and Effie Seiberg. Both of them are very talented writers, and I really want to spend money and buy things that they’ve written.

All in all, a great con. I’m looking forward to going back next year.

Oh, and there were guests! Catherynne Valente and Kim Stanley Robinson. And the ghost of Joanna Russ. All of them worthy guests, although I wish I’d gotten a chance to meet up with Ms. Valente to have her sign my copy of The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland. It’s a great book. I recommend it.

Gaming! Huzzah!

Over the past weekend, I ran two Pathfinder games (Pathfinder, in case you’re not familiar with it, is basically version 3.75 of Dungeons and Dragons). I had such a blast that I’ve decided I want to do it again, but on a larger scale. So, I’m starting a new campaign, beginning with a single adventure on Sunday, July 21, at 2:00 p.m., at our house. Characters would begin at 6th level, and the style would be very heavy role-playing with not much in the way of combat or treasure-hunting. Newcomers are more than welcome. The time is flexible, but the date really isn’t.

Anyone interested? Let me know in the comments, or email me.

 

2013: A resolution or two

Merry second day of Christmas! As you know, Christmas is a twelve-day holiday, starting on December 25 and running through Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, which is on January 6.

Now for a couple of notes about Doctor Who:

  • First, I mostly enjoyed this year’s Christmas special, “The Snowmen”, though I was a bit disappointed with the resolution of the main storyline. On the other hand, I’m very impressed and intrigued by the new companion, Clara. I think she’ll make a fine addition to the show.
  • Second, I really want someone in the UK to send me a letter in March, primarily because the Royal Mail is beginning to issue these. Sure we in the US got classic movie monster stamps and Marvel superhero stamps, but Doctor Who!

Yes, I’m a fan. Yes, I’m aware that Doctor Who is a children’s show. Don’t judge me.


I don’t normally make New Years’ resolution. Why set myself up for failure? Last year I tried with a mere couple of resolutions, and while I did well with the second one, I didn’t do so well on the first. But I think I’m going to try again, just in case I’m able to refocus properly this coming year. After all, I’m turning 45 on my birthday (which just happens to be New Years Eve, so you have less than a week to buy me presents), which, being a nice multiple of five, seems like the perfect time to refocus.

So here are my two resolutions for 2013:

  1. Take better care of myself. Meaning, of course, eating better, exercising, all that stuff. I figure this means taking care of myself emotionally and spiritually as well as physically.
  2. Go easy on myself. That is to say, be forgiving of myself when I screw up. And screw up I will. I’m human, after all. Plus, I tend to have high expectations for myself, and when I don’t meet those expectations, the kobolds start knocking on my door. This resolution means not paying attention to them when they come calling.

I figure I’ll also take the opportunity this year to set some new goals and challenges for myself. I’ve already set a couple of writing goals: to complete the second and perhaps third drafts of Code Monkey!, and to finish up and publish The Winds of Patwin County, a novel in the form of several interwoven short stories, by November. I have other plans in mind. We’ll see if I get to them.

So those are my resolutions and goals for this year. I put them out there in public for the sake of accountability. If some of you will take note of them and help me remember them, I’d be mighty grateful.


One last bit of Doctor Who: Here’s the trailer for the upcoming second half of Series 7:

My first thought when I saw the Cybermen in this trailer was, “Oh Lord, not the Cybermen again.” Then I remembered that this coming year’s Cybermen episode is written by Neil Gaiman. So it will be really interesting to see what he does with them.

 

 

‘Tis the season for Holidailies

 

Zombie Play Date?

Jennifer and I have a plethora of zombie games: we’ve got Zombie Fluxx, Zombies!!!, Humans!!!, Last Night on Earth, and Munchkin Zombies. Who’s interested in coming over for a zombie-themed play day?

 

Various Updates

I keep forgetting that I have this blog. Well, no, it’s not that I forget about it; it’s more like, in this world of Twitter and Facebook, it’s much easier to just post 140 characters and forget about it. Blogging seems like so much more work.

So here’s some updates.

First, before I get to the writing updates, here’s an important one: I’m changing domains. I’ve had mossroot.com for over ten years and I’ll feel sad to leave it behind, but underpope.com seems so much more appropriate since I’m “Underpope” everywhere else on the Intertubes. A domain that reflects that just seemed natural. It’s all about growing the brand, you know? So go and change your links, your bookmarks, your feedreaders, etc.

Plus, this clever old-time photograph of the monkey at the typewriter seemed very appropriate for me. After all, it’s a monkey! And it’s typing! How friggin’ cute is that! And since my very own personal slogan is “Code monkey by day, word monkey by night”, the image could not be more fitting.

And now for some writing updates:

Code Monkey! Originally I had planned for this novel to just be a throwaway project for National Novel Writing Month. I had fun writing it, and fun putting it on line, chapter by chapter, for my friends to read. But then enough people (that is, more than one) suggested I actually push forward with it because it apparently has some potential. So I’m in the process of heavily editing it for possible submission to somewhere in the future. And I’m talking some serious edits. I swear, on some pages there is more red ink than black. (This is the reason I took down the original novel online. I could no longer stand the thought of people reading the original crap version.)

Also, My short story, “A Most Heinous Man”, which was published in Issue 33 of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, will be published in their second “Best of Horror” anthology. I don’t have a publication date for it yet, but I will be sure to update here once I find out.
My short story “Night of the Frozen Elf” (available in a slightly typo-ridden version here) will be collected in a new anthology, The Undead that Saved Christmas. You can probably guess from the title that it’s a collection of Christmas-themed zombie stories. All proceeds from this anthology will go to support the Hugs Foster Family Agency. It’s a good cause, so when the book becomes available, please go and buy many, many copies.
And, finally, if you’re thinking about contributing to my speculative fiction webzine, Daikaijuzine, we’re now open for submissions again. It’s a great ‘zine, with great content, if I do say so myself. Check it out and spread the word.

For now, that’s about it. In the future, I plan to actually post more actual content. But, then, I always say that, don’t I?

More Zombie Stuff

Today, of course, was the 70th birthday of filmmaker George Romero. Romero is responsible for a number of films, such as The Dark Half, the original version of The Crazies (a remake of which is soon to be released), Martin, and plenty of others. What the world really remembers him for, and probably always will, is his Living Dead series of films: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and the upcoming Survival of the Dead. (It’s worth noting that each of these films has been remade at least once, usually with inferior results, though Zach Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead is arguably a quality film on its own merits). Night of the Living Dead was the first film to feature the modern zombie: the shuffling, moaning, flesh eating corpse that in large numbers poses a significant threat to civilization; and even though the word “zombie” did not show up in any of Romero’s Living Dead films (the creatures are more technically ghouls than zombies), they’re the perennial classics of the genre.

What’s funny, though, is that even though Romero pioneered the genre, and just about everyone, when asked to name the most influential zombie film will name Night of the Living Dead, the version of the undead zombie which has permeated pop culture is very different from Romero’s undead. The modern pop culture zombie shuffles about just like Romero’s did, but also cracks open human skulls to munch on human brains. The brain-munching seems to have its origin in The Return of the Living Dead (directed by Dan O’Bannon) and its sequels. Note that Romero had nothing to do with these films. In these films, zombies walk, munch brains (“Because,” one zombie explains, “being dead hurts”, and eating brains soothes that pain), and can even talk (“Send more cops”, says one zombie at one point). But you can’t kill them just by decapitating them as you can with Romero-style zombies; if you cut the arm off of a O’Bannon zombie, and now the zombie still comes after you as does its separated arm. Cut off its head, and the head keeps biting and the body keeps shambling. The only way to kill an O’Bannon zombie is to incinerate it completely, although the ash still contains the chemical that set it into motion in the first place.

So, anyway, the modern pop culture zombie seems to be an amalgamation of the two breeds of zombie: they shuffle (Romero), moan (Romero + O’Bannon), eat brains (O’Bannon), and can be killed by decapitation (Romero). They’re not articulate, but they can moan after “Brraaaaiiiinnnnssss”.

I’ve already shared with you my theories about the zombie apocalypse (in “It’s All About the Zombies“); now you’ve been subjected to my theory about the origin of the modern pop culture zombie. I don’t claim to be the font of all zombe lore, but I may end up getting there at some point.