Review of Cirsova #5

Steve DuBois posted an excellent review of our Eldritch Earth issue; I suggest you go and read it.

He brings up a few interesting points:

“I have found cause for gripe about a lot of fiction that’s labelled ‘Lovecraftian’—the biggest being that it is not particularly Lovecraftian at all. To a large extent, ‘Lovecraftian’ falls into the same rut as Steampunk, only instead of gluing gears to everything, it’s tentacles.” [editor’s note; this was quoted from my intro to the issue]

This begs the question:  what IS Lovecraftian fiction?  For me, the defining characteristic is a cosmic horror born of the sudden realization that humanity is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain; indeed, that from a universal perspective, we’re not even insects.  Lovecraft posits that entities exist whose motives are not exactly malevolent, but so far beyond our understanding that to even encounter them is a sanity-shattering experience.

Bluntly, I don’t know that this leaves much room for the heroic.  I don’t think Lovecraft’s stories would have been improved if Randolph Carter had been handed an SMG and he’d started mowing down shoggoths.  New Pulp is a celebration of human ability and potential.  Lovecraft’s message is “your abilities are irrelevant in a cosmic context, and you are potentially something’s dinner.”  I don’t think, in short, that heroic fiction can be made Lovecraftian by gluing some tentacles to it.

In many ways, yes, the stories in the issue weren’t Lovecraftian in either the modern or the traditional sense. To an extent, you could accuse some of the stories of “gluing tentacles” to heroic fantasy and calling it “Lovecraftian” and not be too terribly far off from the truth. However, one of the reasons why I was willing to pursue this direction and showcase it in Cirsova is because so much in the current field of “Lovecraftian” fiction is either a deconstruction of Lovecraft and his themes through identitarian lenses on one end and modern pastiches of detectives with guns vs. Cthulhu on the other end. I looked at the project as a reconstruction of Burroughsian (though in practice Howardian) heroic tropes and, in the case of Misha Burnett’s and S.H. Mansouri’s stories, a reconstruction of the identity-based horror.

The stories work least well when they try to transplant Robert E. Howard to the Triassic, with brawny iron-age heroes mowing down scads of enemy henchmen and advancing towards boss fights.  Additionally, the whole Eldritch Earth concept is still in an early stage developmentally, and as with other such experiments (notably Baen’s Grantville) there are times when the authors involved seem to be proceeding from fundamentally incompatible concepts of how the story’s world works.  I can just about buy that humanity was designed as a slave race by Mind Flayers, but what’s up with all these other late-Pleistocene mammals popping up all over the place?  The horses?  The dogs?  The tapirs?  Or even Cretaceous critters such as birds, for that matter?  These aren’t story-killers, but they’re anti-atmospheric and destructive of reader immersion, and the Eldritch Earth stories will become more fun for readers once the authorial community leaves the tropes of iron-age Earth behind.

This is an interesting critique, in part because he goes on to praise Sky Hernstrom as “unmistakably right as an author of New Pulp”, but also because he is right that in the early phases of this shared universe, there is some conflict of what everyone’s vision is. I did not impose an editorial hand to maintain a consistent sense of world-building, as I didn’t feel that was my job. In those cases, such as The First American and Beyond the Great Divide where there was conflicting information about the nature of the Slagborn or the stories that included but gave very different impressions of Deodanth, I decided to let the stories stand on their own rather than try to pick which story was canon and demand the other authors try to shape theirs to better fit that canon.

I do hope that the Eldritch Earth project has some life left in it, because I think it has produced some spectacular early tales. We have a new Darla tale in our current issue and will have a brand-new tale of the Plateau of Leng from Cirsova regular Donald J. Uitvlugt later this year.

This is absolutely the sort of feedback that we’re looking for when we say “Hey leave us a review!” I mean, yeah, a couple lines and some stars on Amazon helps us a ton, too, but this is excellent, actionable stuff that lets us know what we’re doing right, where we can improve, and what direction we should take the magazine in the future.


Cirsova #5 Free All This Week!

We’ve been running a promotion on twitter, where for every 100 retweets, we’ll make a back issue of Cirsova free.

We’re making #5 free first, because it contains both The First American (Schuyler Hernstrom) and Beyond the Great Divide (S.H. Mansouri), which are finalists for the Planetary Awards and the Ursa Major Awards respectively.

So, download the issue, read those stories, and go vote!

“Beyond the Great Divide” by S.H. Mansouri an Ursa Major Award Finalist

“Beyond the Great Divide”, S.H. Mansouri’s Slagborn tale from our Eldritch Earth issue, is a finalist for the 2017 Ursa Major Awards in the Best Short Fiction category!

The Ursa Major Award is given out in numerous categories for (often SFF) works pertaining to Anthropomorphic non-human characters. In the case of Beyond the Great Divide, that would be our human-hating insectoid/land-crab-men, the Slagborn, who populate some of the more inhospitable regions of the Eldritch Earth.

Anyone can vote!

All you need to do is register to be sent a voter token in your email.


Review: Whispers From the Abyss

Sometimes life gets crazy and you don’t manage to juggle all of the things that you thought you could take on, but that’s really no excuse. I’m long overdue for reviews of 01Publishing’s Whispers From the Abyss series. I’ve made a few tweets about these, but that’s nothing compared to the actual reviews they deserve, considering the fact that the awesome Kat Rocha actually sent me physical copies to read.

It’s also not easy to review anthologies of flash fiction because there are SO MANY STORIES TO TALK ABOUT! So, rather than take on the daunting task of reviewing the hundreds of stories, I’ll say that the average quality and selection of these pieces is incredible. That’s not to say that I thought all of the stories were good or that I enjoyed them all, but there were some really great ones, some pretty good ones, and the bad ones were only a page or so.

I know it doesn’t sound like much on the face of it, but those who know me as someone who loathes “Lovecraftian” (fingerquotes) fiction understands what it means that I should have any praise at all for such an anthology, much less the high praise for it I’m now struggling to articulate.

I think where this anthology best succeeds is in finding short horror stories that seek to tonally match Lovecraft and others’ short weird fiction and horror rather than fill its pages with Mythos gobbledygook.

They’re worth checking out, and you can find them on Amazon.

ARPG-Con DCC Session Report (Pt. 2, Evening)

The second DCC session I was in on Saturday at ARPG Con was a run through the level 0 module The Arwich Grinder.

Unlike other DCC modules I’ve played, this one was rather story and role-play heavy, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all!

We had three players and were allowed 6 characters.

The Arwich Grinder is a bit of a fun-house module that is bigger on building atmosphere than instant kill traps. A local family is your typical Lovecraft villain family: reclusive and prolifically inbred with a penchant for the occult. But they’ve got some good will in the town because during a famine they provided everyone in the town with foodstuffs. Well, it turns out they were breeding meat-men; a couple meat-men got out, including one who had the bonnet of “Bessie”(the one young pretty member of the family) in its hand before collapsing dead in the middle of the tavern.

There were a few things that were odd about this session:

  • We were playing as about 10% of the town’s populace, going to check in on the Curwen family to see if everything was all right, in turn-of-the-century America, but none of us had any fire-arms with us. This made it a bit hard to suspend disbelief.
  • It was always a strong point of discussion among the players about meta-gaming vs. roleplaying. While we always opted for the latter, it was funny, because we were all “The obvious solution would be to burn their house down, but we’re here to check on our neighbors and we’re convinced that they need to be rescued from something”.
  • While we “Lost Characters”, they didn’t die—in wargamer parlance, they “successfully exited the map”.

Even for DCC, we had pretty impressive manpower, but we used our resources wisely, treating our characters as the normal townfolk that they were trying to do a normal townfolk thing in the face of otherworldly horror.

  • The meat-man eating pig-slop and brandishing a human rib-cage? The poor retarded lad had to be put down, he was a danger to the community and our neighbors the Curwens!
  • The crazy lady locked in the upstairs? When she came running and shrieking at us, we subdued her, talked her down, put her on a cart and had a few characters drag her back to town for medical treatment.
  • The giant invisible baby in the attic? The characters who saw it were convinced it was a ghost, those who didn’t didn’t believe them or decided it was best not to muck with; we were there to save the Curwens!
  • The crazy old man downstairs? He’s hungry and senile and not a problem; we gave him some food and were all “We’ll come back for you.”
  • In the under-area we run into one of the Curwen couples. “Horrible stuff’s been goin’ on! We’re here to rescue you!” Husband attacks, gets killed because there are still a dozen of us after a few folks went back with the crazy lady. We subdue the wife, because it’s not gentlemanly to kill one of the ladies you’re trying to save. She tells us what’s going on, that the chanting we hear is the patriarch with Bessie and “he’s gonna fix it”. A few characters escort the wife into a room where she’ll be locked up for a minute; we’ll come back for her once we know Bessie’s safe.
  • Patriarch is gonna sacrifice Bessie, tossing her into a pit of boiling mud; a couple folks grab Bessie while we D’Onofrio the Patriarch.
  • Another Curwen couple shows up; we knock out the husband but were unable to apprehend the wife and toddler.
  • We continue sending Curwens back to town in waves, having “rescued” them. Our best characters stay to mop up and look for survivors. Characters going “off-the-map” run into the Constable and tell him they need to send a rider or telegraph to the city, get out the state militia, somebody who actually has guns.
  • We kill a couple of out-of-town cousins who didn’t believe that we’d solved the problem by not letting them summon a tentacle monster and calling up the militia.
  • While we’re unable to find the one woman who escaped or her child, we consider it a job well done that we saved most everybody, our neighborly duty was fulfilled, and G-Men could handle the rest. Also, it seemed like a good time to pack up and move out of New England.

Maybe this was an “easy” module? Or maybe we just “did it right”? The GM was impressed with our run, saying she’d never seen anyone play it the way we had; usually folks would either burn down the house, kill everybody inside, or mess with the giant invisible baby and get killed. I liked it, though, because even though it wasn’t hack & slash, the story emerged from the setting and things we could interact with; nothing felt forced. The GM rolled with our ideas of sending “rescued survivors” back with PCs for medical attention or to jail. The module had a story, but it was non-linear and could’ve played out any number of ways. For us, it played out with no PC casualties, minimal NPC death, and no eldritch horror “fixing” the problem. Ironically, had we NOT investigated, other than at the cost of Bessie’s life, the problem would’ve fixed itself.

It was a great Halloween horror module, even if it wasn’t a particularly good “Funnel”. I don’t think any of our characters would become Level 1 Adventurers following the escapade, but given that no one died, it’s probably the closest you could get to a “flawless victory” in a level 0 module.

Still, I’d like to see this with guns. “Giant nekkid deaf-mutes are shamblin’ into town? A bonnie lass may be in danger? Let me fetch the match-lock from me mantle…”

Interview With Jon Del Arroz, Jeffro on Geek Gab, and Cirsova Line Art

Not long after our interview with Chris Lansdown, we also spoke with Jon Del Arroz about Cirsova’s background as an RPG setting and the types of stories Cirsova publishes and is looking for.  You can read it here.

Also over the weekend, Jeffro Johnson, one of our regular columnists and the author of the bestselling Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, was on Geek Gab.

Finally, I took a minute to snap the line-art that Ben Rodriguez sent for our Eldritch Earth cover.

Line Art photo.png

Should I have put this up on the chopping block? Probably, but I wanted to actually own an original piece of Cirsova artwork, at least for a little while.

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