Paul StJohn Mackintosh

Writing * Poetry * Dark Fiction * Weird * Fantastic * Horror * Fantasy * Science Fiction * Literature

A review of The Boughs Withered (When I Told Them My Dreams), by Maura McHugh

Irish short story and comic book writer and critic Maura McHugh has appeared in so many venues, including horror and weird fiction bastion Black Static and prestige anthologies like Joe S. Pulver’s Cassilda’s Song, that it comes as something of a surprise to learn that this is her first story collection. But so it is, spanning some 15 years of work, with 20 dark and weird tales, 4 of them original to this volume. With a title cheekily adapted from a verse of W.B. Yeats, a cover design by the ever-inspiring Daniele Serra, and the usual high production values of NewCon Press, The Boughs Withered (When I Told Them My Dreams) is an attractive enough package on the outside. What’s it like on the inside?

I’m glad to be able to report that The Boughs Withered is refreshingly diverse, varied in tone, diction, setting and even genre niche, and more imaginatively rich and highly coloured than many contemporary debut weird and dark fiction collections. There’s a snap to the dialogue and an engaging narrative pulse best captured in stories like “Spooky Girl” and “The Gift of the Sea.” It’s typical of Maura McHugh’s writing that the latter story manages to marry modern post-GFC Ireland with the spirit of Celtic mythology seamlessly. I don’t know if this is some kind of Flann O’Brien Irish gift to speak in many tongues, but it certainly makes for some highly enjoyable reading. The author commands a whole gamut of styles, and hardly ever leaves you feeling that her wordplay is wasted or overwrought. The settings also range from the Russia of legend to modern New York, with Ireland taking a leading but by no means an exclusive role, and some of that ranging afield has clearly been pivotal to her development as a writer, as she explains in her Afterword. She may write to “intuit the overlooked people who have been silenced,” but this is by no means her only concern. One of her most Irish historical stories, “Home,” is also one where cosmic horror slips into the picture, as it does in “The Diet.” Then again, at least one other story, “The Hanging Tree,” is “almost not supernatural at all” – but still very unsettling.

I don’t know what kind of expectations you might come to this book with, but chances are you’ll find them transcended. There’s infinite enough variety in it to upset anyone’s preconceptions. You’ll be spooked, but you’ll also be thoroughly entertained. That’s a far more important thing than is sometimes realized, and far rarer too. Maura McHugh brings it off in style. The Boughs Withered is a book you’re likely to come back to again and again just for the sheer pleasure of reading it. Now how uncommon, and how important, is that?

A review of The Ballet of Dr Caligari and Madder Mysteries, by Reggie Oliver

Reggie Oliver has become an institution in modern British horror, producing volume after volume of finely crafted stories in the best tradition of weird fiction and ghost stories. Thanks to him, any reader who enjoys tales of this kind has a hugely enlarged bill of fare to sample – this is his eighth collection, containing thirteen stories. It’s produced to the usual superlative standard of Tartarus Press collectible editions, although for anyone who can’t afford the very high, but completely justified, hardback price, there are equally high-quality ebook copies in various formats available from Tartarus, as well as paperback. So how mad, and how mysterious, is it?

A couple of the stories here are straight recreations or completions of the work of M.R. James. “ The Game of Bear ” completes an unfinished story by James in exactly the kind of manner a Jamesian fan could expect, with a suitably ghastly conclusion. “The Devil’s Funeral” is a historical ghost story in the epistolary style mastered by James, concerning an appropriately folklorish local tradition and a haunted clergyman. If you come to Reggie Oliver’s work looking for such pleasures, you’ll find them in plenty. Jamesian antiquarian ghost stories are only part of his range, though. There are other stories here with a strong antiquarian and historical dimension – “A Donkey at the Mysteries,” “The Endless Corridor,” “The Vampyre Trap,” “Lady with a Rose” – but they are mostly either framed in a much more contemporary context, or have a very different take on the narrative. “The Vampyre Trap,” for example, is more of a historical detective mystery than a ghost story, though with a strong gothic dimension. And the historical and scholarly trappings are often more in the spirit of that other great British master of the weird tale, Robert Aickman, with all the appropriately surreal and psychologically ambiguous flavour. “The Ballet of Dr Caligari” itself, with its disturbing evocation of a demonically influential stage piece, or “The Final Stage,” a nightmare dream journey through fragments of identity in masks and mirrors, smack of quintessential Aickman. Reggie Oliver is far beyond just a follower of the Jamesian tradition. He does have many styles and registers, from the genially satirical to the historical pastiche, but of all the dark and weird tales I’ve read, at least one of his stories sticks in my mind as one of the few that has genuinely scared and disturbed me, and in this jaded age, that’s saying something.

The classic English ghost story, then is very much alive in Reggie Oliver’s hands. It’s also far beyond what it appears to be on the surface, even if those surface aspects will be the chief attraction for many readers. A supremely enjoyable volume, from a writer who seems to go from strength to strength.

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Paranoia and the Genesis of Fascism

Reflections after reading Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism does a great job of anatomizing fascism, without fully explaining why it is the way it is. He spotlights fascism’s “mobilizing passions” – often too incoherent and anti-rational to be called ideas – as the chief anatomical markers that distinguish it: a sense of overwhelming, unprecedented crisis; group primacy beyond any individual right; perceived victimhood; dread of group contamination and decline; communal purification and reintegration, usually forcible; personal authority of male leaders; veneration of the leader’s instincts above reason; veneration of violence and volition for their own sake; and a Darwinian entitlement to dominate and crush others. He stresses consistently that actual fascism is not an ideology but a phenomenon more like a disease that afflicts ailing democracies. What ideas and ideologies fascism does develop along the way are usually there as attempts to emulate more coherent creeds like Marxism, and are usually ridiculous monuments to fascist anti-intellectualism. But if fascism doesn’t have a coherent ideology, it does have a character, characterized by those symptoms already listed above.

I think there’s a lot to be gained by attempting to deduce what forms fascism’s character. Paxton has done most of the work already on the formative influences, with way more depth than I can claim to, but there are elements, to my mind, that exceed his explanatory models – for instance, the adulation of violence for its own sake, and the sickening brutality of fully realized and radicalized fascism. Plus if we look more closely at the genesis of fascism, we may also be more able to pick it out when it doesn’t exhibit some of the superficial symptoms that we expect from our preconceptions. It’s not always about paramilitary thugs in uniform. (Paxton points out that – contrary to later fascist myth – both Mussolini and Hitler accidentally achieved some of the key moments of their careers in conventional respectable morning wear.) That kind of extrapolation may require a lot of speculation and argument rather than demonstration. The facts aren’t always to hand, especially for the here and now, and I’m going to resort to inference to bridge the gaps. Perhaps that’s too much of a reach for the conscientious historian compelled to back up all conclusions with firm data. All the same, I think it’s a reach worth taking, not least to get a handle on the present fascist phenomena that are busy shaping history right now.

To my mind, one of the most valuable guides to help explain the genesis of fascism is the pathology of paranoia. You can map the pathology of paranoia onto the formative conditions of fascism, point by point. Feelings of powerlessness and victimization, low social status and unstable social environment, a sense of helplessness at the mercy of external forces, persecutory delusions and false beliefs, over-suspicious hypervigilance, conspiracy theories: it’s all there. What’s more, paranoia on the individual level and fascism on the group level arise in the same social and economic conditions and from the same causes. It’s almost enough to characterize paranoia as a sociological rather than a psychological phenomenon. Plus, those prone to fascism in politics are that much more likely to be mentally unstable and manipulable as individuals – again, for the same reasons. For the would-be demagogue, that seems like a great guide for seeking out – or creating – the most extreme fascist support base. Sound like anyone you know?

Social and economic dislocation may go partway towards explaining the genesis of both paranoia and fascism, but they don’t explain everything, least of all the primacy given to the group that is one of the most glaring symptoms of fascism. Why this emphasis on the group, “superior to every right, whether individual or universal,” as Paxton puts it? He gives one purely pragmatic explanation: the justification of crushing any resistance or alternative centre of power facing a mass movement. But in my opinion, there’s more that underlies the emphasis on the group, stemming from the common roots of fascism and paranoia.

Group strength and solidarity is the basis for individual security and identity. At least, that’s how many groups, and many individuals, feel. Outside the abstract customary or rational structures of law and institutions, it’s the Us that supports and protects the vulnerable and often undifferentiated Me. Group strength and group uniformity are practically one and the same, to this way of thinking. The group’s identity is what constitutes and identifies the group in the first place; therefore, the stronger the group is, the more it will project and affirm its identity. (Conversely, some insecure souls may start to identify diversity and divisions within the group as signs of weakness and decay.) Especially insecure and fragile individual identities are going to seek validation and stability by overcompensatory assertion of the group identity. A paranoid group, or a group composed of individuals driven into paranoia, is likely to have exactly the same collective pathology as paranoia on the individual level.

Absent an actual, direct, real external threat to a group, but with a constant stressful sense of threat and debility, how is a group likely to respond? It’ll try to double down on cohesion, unity, and reinforcement of its identifying qualities as a group, however mythical or arbitrary those are. Common identity, cohesion is the only strength the group has. Almost always this is going to be through backward-looking atavism and a reversion to what are seen as earlier communal norms, in the face of the kind of incoherent complexities that appear to threaten and contaminate the group. Male-worship and machismo is one obvious example, often in overreaction to the economic powerlessness and loss of self-respect that fosters individual and collective paranoia. Haunted by fears of social, political and personal impotence, the fascist naturally overcompensates by idealizing machismo. Overcompensatory reinforcement of the primacy and authority of the group also ups the stakes for commitment to the universality and the supremacy of the group and its values. The more the group is exalted as the totem of all strength and security, the more the counter-claims, or even the existence, of any other group is an existential threat to be fought with all the fervour that stems from fear. For any sufficiently insecure group, the mere existence of other groups is a threat, whether it’s domestic minorities or external nationalities. They are an inherent contradiction that a group in its panic atavistic rush back to its mythical founding simplicity cannot abide.

What about the emphasis on violence and the will? I’m mentioning that now because they seem to me to be very much connected with this urge for a simpler, stronger, purer life that signifies the confused, anxious, incoherent paranoid personality casting around for sources of stability and self-reinforcement. Confusion and fear go hand in hand in fostering this mentality. Ignorance and poor education are natural progenitors of paranoia and fascism, because when you genuinely don’t know and/or can’t understand the forces shaping your life, you’re that much more likely to be afraid of them and to feel helpless in the face of them. You’re also that much more likely to seek simple, usually violent solutions when dealing with them. Partly it’s the release of rage and frustration, the urge to smash what thwarts you that you don’t understand. Partly it’s an attempt to redeem and pay back the felt humiliation of past life without pay, job, social security, pride and self-esteem, whatever. For anyone feeling persecuted, helpless and humiliated, violence is the natural response, especially in a situation where rational solutions no longer appear to work. It’s also the most alluring option for those to whom violence comes naturally. Fascist movements may get a boost from action-hungry groups already habituated to violence, hooked on violence and the adrenalin rush, like Hannah Arendt’s post-WWI “Front Generation,” but most unstable social environments are likely to throw these up anyway. This may have a nasty suggestive corollary in praxis, and in Karl Marx’s dictum that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” In any event, once you feel threatened, you react violently. And fascism, like paranoia, depends on the principle that difference, unfamiliarity, contradiction, separateness, are not just threats, but the threat.

Projection and overcompensation come easy to anyone unschooled in reflection, objective thinking and self-analysis. That pretty much fits both the paranoid individual and the fascist group. Umberto Eco and many others have commented on the absolute antipathy of fascism to intellectual analysis: contemptuous anti-intellectualism masking desperate vulnerability to any truth test. It’s also likely to produce the kind of self-destructive death spiral Paxton has identified in terminal-stage fascism in Germany and Italy, where insanity piles on insanity as the reality principle is left ever farther behind. It also explains the kinds of fantastic megalomania cited by Hannah Arendt, where totalitarian leaders apparently acted in deliberate defiance of the facts, just to demonstrate that they could. Fascism is the Big Lie that paranoia’s little lie has grown into. There’s hardly any need to quote Joseph Goebbels on this, but as a tribute to his rare candour: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” Truth is surely the greatest enemy of every populist government currently in office. No wonder they’re so anti-media.

I hope this helps allay a few fears and hesitations about dealing with fascists in the public sphere. Public will? Public insanity. Popular choice? Popular delusion and the madness of crowds. Why should you be at the mercy of behaviour and attitudes in politics that would be instant grounds for incarceration for a private individual? These people are sick – literally. No one defends the right of a delusional paranoiac to act out their paranoid delusions to the harm of others. No one has a right to expect anyone else to abide by their lie. Yet unscrupulous individuals and power groups have the tools to identify and mobilize masses by driving them mad. “Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule,” said Nietzsche. He probably meant more than literal, clinical insanity – but nonetheless, here is the actual clinical thing itself, acting en masse in politics, and being whipped up and into the polls by leaders and manipulators equally mad with the same affliction. You can see why Orwell declared that: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” And why he represented the state creed of Oceania as the same self-delusional solipsism that any paranoid is locked into.

Regardless of how far the rights of the individual or the group to deny reality extend in the political sphere, we know very well what happens in the social or legal sphere. Delusional psychopaths get certified as criminally insane and locked up. Delusional groups like the Heaven’s Gate cult, the People’s Gate cult or the Branch Davidians slaughter themselves, or others, or both, if the legal and medical authorities can’t shut them down first. In the political sphere, we have institutions and constitutions designed to protect us from such outbreaks. Are we to defer to the will of the lunatics if they do take over the asylum? Democracy depends on rational choice; it is premised on the people being rational actors. Any standard of legal autonomy, responsibility and accountability depends on that. It also provides a handy litmus test for the defenders of democracy: the moment you start to spread lies and deny reality, stoke fears and foster insanity, you cease to be a democrat and become a demagogue. And you lose all democratic legitimacy. Trump, Putin, Farage, Johnson, Orban, Salvini – they all qualify. They tick just about every box in Paxton’s list, even the violence box for some. Absolute adherence to the truth may be a high bar for any modern politician to meet, but it’s a minimally sufficient and necessary standard of democratic legitimacy. If you distort reality, you represent, not rational actors, but the insane.

Political norms like the will of the people as a corollary to individual liberty depend on sanity and rationality at the individual level: how come no one sees fit to apply that test at the public level, where insanity and irrationality can do far more harm? We certainly shouldn’t hesitate to act against collective insanity when we do see it, because that’s exactly what fascism is.

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A review of Sing Your Sadness Deep, by Laura Mauro

Laura Mauro’s first collection delivers on the promise that has netted her a British Fantasy Award and a Shirley Jackson Award finalist placing, and its quality is so consistently high that I’m sure more awards must be on the way. The thirteen stories herein are at least that good, spanning her career from her first appearance in Undertow Publications’ Shadows & Tall Trees 4 in 2012 to date, in a book produced to Undertow’s usual superlative standards.

There’s an awful lot of toxic family dysfunction in this collection. Philip Larkin fans will be very glad to have “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” confirmed in spades. Not just mum and dad, but epileptic sister, bizarre homesquatting homunculus, birdboned acephalic foetus, foggy revenant father, guilty bloodstained mother, fish-skinned foundling, wooden changeling sibling, angelic adoptee, painsucking grandpa. Look at the cover illustration, so well suited to the contents, with the girl-child peering from behind the door at the fox-faced (mother?) figure in Jane Austen dress, scissors threateningly poised. That’s how distorted, surreal and mutagenic relations and relationships are in these tales. Almost always here the strangeness blossoms from the cracks and fault lines between people.

As that might suggest, the story premises here are resolutely weird, and very seldom what you’d expect. There’s a welcome diversity of setting and background, as well as of inspiration and narrative trope. Laura Mauro is a British weird fiction writer, but she doesn’t let that constrain her in the slightest. Story settings range far and wide, from suburbia to Siberia, Utah to Oulu, Brighton to Bothnia, the Isle of Wight to Ireland, Sussex to Sicily – all rendered in a spare, sinuous prose that weaves its way through the intricacies of the stories without pausing for self-indulgent ornamentation. I would be very interested to see where she goes from here, but I’m confident that it will be broader and even better – as far as that’s possible. British weird fiction is fertile indeed if it’s producing first growths like this bouquet of porcelain flowers of pain. Highly recommended.

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A review of The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan

With a writer like Caitlín R. Kiernan, a title like The Very Best of is begging a lot. Where’s the ferociously parodic, deconstructive urban fantasy she writes under her Kathleen Tierney nom de guerre? Where’s the Delta Green-flavoured Lovecraftian technothrillers like Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters? Where’s her comic contribution to the Sandman mythos? In any collection from such an author, there’s always bound to be, not only favourite stories, but entire sub-genres missed out. I want to put in this quote to illustrate the point, because it’s the kind of thing you so rarely get to include in a review: “Brown University’s John Hay Library has established the Caitlín R. Kiernan Papers, spanning her full career thus far and including juvenilia, consisting of twenty-three linear feet of manuscript materials, including correspondence, journals, manuscripts, and publications, circa 1970-2017, in print, electronic, and web-based formats.” Count ‘em: twenty-three linear feet. It’s a brave editor or publisher who would dare try to encapsulate every facet of an author so various, and so prolific.

What this compilation does demonstrate is that Caitlín R. Kiernan is producing the very best of contemporary dark and weird fiction, regardless of whether or not that typifies her whole range. She not only has written more than nine-tenths of her contemporaries, she has also written substantially better than nine-tenths of them. She casually throws off metaphor and imagery in passing that would make any other writer’s career. Kiernan has a word horde as rich as Smaug’s, and a voice as mesmeric.

Part of her mastery of different genres and sub-genres is her unerring ear for the idioms, idiolects, speech communities, buzzwords, shibboleths, jargon, psychobabble, technobabble, Mythobabble of each side alley and cul-de-sac of imaginative literature. Her debt to 1890s decadent literature might have helped tune her ear for distinct prosodies, but even when it’s fully on view, as in “La Peau Verte,” it isn’t anything like as overblown and cloying as Angela Carter or Poppy Z. Brite. Kiernan’s frame of stylistic reference isn’t anything like that narrow, and she doesn’t wallow in overwrought prose like many self-declared decadent authors. She tosses in quotations and references from the whole gamut of literature that you’d ache to see more often in genre fiction, yet she keeps a sinew and thrust in her writing that nails all the glitter and sparkle of her stylistic brilliance firmly to the underlying contours of her narrative. Sometimes her more experimental pieces do tax the reader’s patience – I’m no fan of the unparagraphed construction of “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” for instance – but such excesses are rare, and generally tempered by a propulsive impetus, let alone a turn of phrase, that makes her fables unputdownable. “Houses under the Sea,” does dip into the deep waters of her best-known single work, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, but that doesn’t render this collection any less a partial glimpse at best. And there’s that word again.

Kiernan has gone on record in the past to state that she’s “getting tired of telling people that I’m not a ‘horror’ writer. I’m getting tired of them not listening, or not believing.” It’s true that miscegenation and body horror are recurrent themes – steampunk prostheses, flesh sculptures, alien distortion/transcendence of normal humanity – frequently embodied in or espoused by mutated former lovers. Yet she typifies horror as “an emotion, and no one emotion will ever characterize my fiction.” She’s also said that “story bores me. Which is why critics complain it’s the weakest aspect of my work.” I don’t see any lack of story in these stories, though. I also suspect that Kiernan wouldn’t have been able to keep readers’ attention across such a huge volume of work unless she was able to keep them engaged through extended narratives with more than just jewelled individual sentences. She shares that characteristic gift of a really good short story writer of tieing off a section or a passage with a line that hooks you and leaves you gasping, aching to see what comes next. And if she has any uniformity of tonal range or register, it’s one that carries superbly well across genre after genre, from the folk horror of “A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills,” to the superb occult noir of “The Maltese Unicorn.” Not only would what she pulls off in that one story alone make another writer’s entire career, I’ve actually seen it happen.

In their introduction to The Weird, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer write that Kiernan has “become perhaps the best weird writer of her generation.” There’s only two parts to that statement I’d  question: Only weird? And perhaps? Weird fiction as a genre, if it is a genre, should be grateful to be able to lay even partial or intermittent claim to her. Caitlín R. Kiernan is the fulfilment of every weird fiction pundit’s dream of a transgressive, inclusive, brutally contemporary author who brings all the territory’s sub-genres bang up to date while ditching their historical baggage – yet she effortlessly transcends such categories and limitations, just as she effortlessly transcends every genre she’s cared to touch down in. Even after successive World Fantasy Awards and Bram Stoker Awards, she’s still a writer who can’t be honoured and recognized enough. Words fail me. But they rarely if ever fail her.

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A review of This House of Wounds, by Georgina Bruce

This first collection from Georgina Bruce, published by Michael Kelly’s weird emporium par excellence Undertow Publications, gathers 16 short stories, including the British Fantasy Award-winning story “White Rabbit,” which comes at the tail end of the book. This House of Wounds provides Georgina Bruce with the grounding in print she deserves to complement her presence in the British fantasy and weird fiction scene. It also consolidates Undertow’s standing as the go-to house for the modern weird renaissance, because if you have authors like this on your list, you absolutely epitomize the cutting edge of the field.

This House of Wounds is simply a gorgeous book, with ravishing cover art by Catrin Welz-Stein to complement the contents. Fairy-tale motifs abound – Red Queens, sorcerous crows, Princess Beasts, Woods Kings – yet they’re frequently jump-cut past the reader in fragmented, discontinuous, subjective glimpses, like a mystic marriage of Angela Carter with J.G. Ballard. And the beauty and glitter is frequently the sparkle of streams of blood or the shine of polished bone – the wounds are there, laid bare and held open by retractors for probing and examination. This absolutely is not horror per se, but it touches on horror territory persistently. As the author has said, “I don’t think it’s possible to write about reality without encountering horror imagery and themes,” and if the collection ever touches on the British tradition of fey whimsy, it’s with an ironic, lacerating, mirror-sharded claw.

With many of the stories running at ten pages or less in the 179-page Kindle edition, there’s almost a suggestion of prose poetry, as though Rimbaud had ingested a bizarre infusion of Poe, or Kafka had taken a whiff of some Nineties Decadent opiate. That’s not just a matter of concision and density either. Georgina Bruce’s prose frequently rises to glittering pinnacles of decorative baroque flourish, without breaking off from the solid architecture underneath. “Deep and slick and fast and moving in a fluid dance, a flow of her body through trees, a flick of coal glowing within her thighs, a ribbon of flame rising and fluttering.” It’s anything but pedestrian.

For such a short and strongly characterized book, though, there’s nonetheless a great deal of variety. There’s dystopian science fiction à la Philip K. Dick (“Wake Up, Phil”), psychological horror (“The Art Lovers”), and a diversity of style from stream of consciousness to straightforward narrative. This is almost always going to be the case in a first collection, but there’s a uniformity of achievement and skill that balances the variety of styles and treatments. Georgina Bruce has gathered many points of departure in this book that she could set out from to map out different areas of her range, and it’s going to be fascinating to see which and how many she explores. For the reader, it’s going to be a fascinating and rewarding journey.

This House of Wounds is simply a must-have. You can digest it at one sitting, yet you’ll find yourself coming back to it again and again. Buy it; read it: you won’t be disappointed.

 

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My Lovecraft eZine review of Ramsey Campbell’s The Way of the Worm

The Way of the Worm

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My review of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha on RPGnet

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha

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My review of the Delta Green Handler’s Guide on RPGnet

Delta Green Handler’s Guide

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My article on revisionist Lovecraftian fiction in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Revising Lovecraft: The Mutant Mythos

 

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