"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, July 25, 2020


THE SECOND EDITION of Chris Spivey's Harlem Unbound is officially the first Chaosium title I've gotten my hands on in the leatherette incarnation (well, unless you count two-volume Guide to Glorantha).  

Understand; I am a book nut.  I am an addict.  I have a problem.  Before I came to Tokyo, I had a three-bedroom apartment and two of the bedrooms were just for books.  Collector's editions.  Illustrated editions.  And yeah, a lot of leatherette.  But Japan is a nation that crams half the population of the United States into an area the size of California.  Land is expensive.  Rent is punitive.  Apartments are small.  In my two-bedroom here, I still have a room full of books...but I need to be careful.  90% of what I buy and read is in PDF.  9% are those books that I read in PDF that I knew I needed in paper.  Then you have that 1%.  Books like Harlem Unbound.  For those, you want the best.

I've already reviewed the book and will not repeat that here.  It's not only the best RPG sourcebook book I have read in the last year, but also the most timely.  Harlem gets absolutely everything right; the art, the writing, the tone, the details, the horror.  It somehow manages to be a Lovecraftain tour de force, a critique of the man's less palatable opinions, and a book that encourages us to use roleplaying as a tool of understanding.  I am still mystified how Spivey managed to fit all of that into one basket and then so deftly carry it.  As an author, it makes me jealous as hell.

But let's talk about the leatherette edition.

Like Chaosium's other hardcovers the last few years the print quality is superb, the paper high quality and silky to the touch.  The spine is impeccable and it lays perfectly flat.  It's lighter than it looks and easy to hold curled up in your favorite reading chair.  It simply looks wonderful.  The only possible criticism I could make of the design is that it doesn't have Brennan Reece's ENnie-nominated cover (good luck to both Harlem and Berlin!!!). 

No, sorry.  That was a lie.  I have another criticism.

Because sitting there on the shelf, next to Call of Cthulhu and The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic that leatherette spine looks so much more...regal.  Now I'll have to replace them with leatherette too...

...and the Malleus Monstrorum will be coming out in print down the road...I'll need that in leatherette...and Berlin, of course...

And the shelf next to it?  I can't have the Call of Cthulhu shelf outshining the RuneQuest shelf.  They will need to be replaced too...

You are evil, Chaosium.  You are evil.



Thursday, July 2, 2020


Monstrosity fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in a three-piece suit who resides within all of us. We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings . . . and let me further suggest that it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us, but rather the lack of order which these aberrations seem to imply…
Stephen King, Danse Macabre

WEIGHING IN at a cyclopean 480 pages, divided across two volumes—Vol 1 Monsters of the Mythos and Vol 2 Deities of the Mythos—the second English language edition of Chaosium’s Malleus Monstrorum is a full-color feast for the eyes and the absolutely essential compendium of Lovecraftian deities and denizens for the seventh edition Call of Cthulhu RPG.  Unlike many books of this kind, the Malleus is not merely a Keeper (GM) reference book.  For reasons we will explore below, this is a book every player can enjoy.
To be clear we are reviewing the PDF here.  Because there really is not that much you can say about a collection of monsters in a review (“um...so, okay, it’s like got a lot of monsters and stuff in it...”) we will be digging deep into some of the background of the volume (Now About That Name) and what distinguishes it from the first edition (A Matter of Monsters).  The third section, A Look Within, covers the nitty gritty details.  So pour yourself a brandy, draw a chair up beside the fire, and let us peruse this blasphemous tome of lore together.

PERHAPS THE FIRST OFFICIAL “MONSTER MANUAL” crawled its way out of the shadows in the late 15th century. To be clear, we aren’t talking about the “bestiary” or bestiarum vocabulum here.  That, as a literary tradition, extends at least as far back as Aristotle.  No, this isn’t about catalogues of animals and living creatures or any sort of “fantastic beasts and where to find them.” We mean a monster manual…an instruction manual, if you will, in the art of exterminating abominations.  The honor of originating that sort of tome, gentle reader, probably has to go to Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer.
Now before we deal with Kramer, let us linger a moment on that word, “monster.”  The word comes to us from the Latin monstrum, which indicates a curse, or a warning, from the gods.  A monstrum—a deformity or malformity—makes us aware of the deities’ displeasure.  When your cow gives birth to a two-headed calf, it is the gods telling you something,  This “making aware of” aspect of the word links it to ones like demonstrate or remonstrate.  It signals to us that a monster isn’t just an aberration, but a sign.
File that away.  We are coming back to it in the next section.
Now, for Heinrich Kramer, a calf born with two heads, curdled milk, impotence, failed crops, and other similar monstrum were all signs of the same thing; witches.  Thus in 1487 he authored the first great monster manual, the Malleus Maleficarum.  While this volume of fever-dreams and misogynistic ramblings didn’t technically start the witch trials of the next two centuries—Pope Innocent VIII’s Summis desiderantes affectibus was the technical culprit—the Malleus was clearly the accelerant.  
The “Hammer of the Witches” reads like a modern horror novel, and like a good work of horror fiction it is really about rubbing our faces in our own phobias and complexes than anything else.  For Kramer, the complex clearly was with women.  He could have just as easily called his work the Malleus Maleficorum, with an “o” rather than an “a,” but he intentionally selected the feminine title.  This is in character with the man.  Two years before the Malleus saw publication, Kramer had put Helena Scheuberin, the wife of a wealthy burgher, on trial for witchcraft.  Described as “an independent woman not afraid to speak her mind,” Kramer had been so much more obsessed with her sexuality and toilet habits during the trial than with spells and devil worship that she was acquitted and the Bishop of Innsbruck expelled the clergyman for insanity.  Unable to let go of it, Kramer took his obsession and fear and wrote the book that made him famous.  A guide for hunting witches.
Five centuries later, when author Scott David Aniolowski had assembled a compendium of horrors for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, Frank Heller and German game company Pegasus Spiel suggested a title that referenced Kramer and his “Hammer of the Witches” directly.  That title, Malleus Monstrorum, worked on a surprising number of levels.  
On one hand, Malleus Monstrorum might be the most “on-the-nose” title for an RPG game book of this kind.  “Hammer of the Monsters” pretty much describes the role monsters have played in RPGs since the beginning.  To borrow an old Japanese proverb, they are the nails that stick up, and it is the job of player characters to hammer them down.  This has been tradition since that other alliterative tome, the AD&D Monster Manual.  Never mind that the act of monster hammering in Call of Cthulhu involves a great deal more madness, gibbering, and unspeakable horror than most other RPGs, it still boils down to player characters ridding the world of monsters.    
One the other hand, Malleus Monstrorum is very specifically suited to this particular RPG.  In a game where the player characters are called “Investigators,” a reference to arguably the most famous manual for “Inquisitors” (from the Latin, “one who searches for answers”) was a perfect fit.  That Cthulhu Investigators spend much of their time quite literally hunting witches—or “cultists”—only serves to deepen the parallel.  Further, one cannot read Lovecraft’s descriptions of the orgiastic rites of Cthulhu’s worshippers, or the depiction of witch-cults in pieces like “The Dreams in the Witch House,” without thinking of Kramer’s fevered depictions.  That Lovecraft had read the Malleus is known—“Koenig has all the famous old witchcraft books of the Middle Ages—like the "Malleus Maleficarum", which I'm now borrowing from him” (H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 29 Dec 1934, LWP 396—but from his writings it is very clear that Lovecraft’s notions of witches in general owes much to it.  Kramer’s shadow lies across many of Lovecraft’s pages.

The titular switch from Maleficarum to Monstrorum is a critical distinction, however, and here we come to an essential component of Chaosium’s new 2nd edition. As an exhaustive compendium of Call of Cthulhu horrors, the first edition was without peer.  Part of its tremendous charm was its art direction and illustration; departing from usual approaches, it showed impressions of its horrors captured in woodcuts, sculpture, period posters, etc.  We never saw the monsters, but rather people’s impressions of the monsters.  This is “good Lovecraft,” as Lovecraft understood what it is exactly that makes monsters work;
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown...” 
Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Of the two critical elements distinguishing a Call of Cthulhu monster from one in, say, D&D, the unknown surely must be the first.  Lovecraft jettisoned gothic horrors because they were too familiar; his barely described and largely indescribable terrors horrified because they could not be quantified or categorized.  The art of the first edition was an expression of this principle. 
The second edition accentuates it, however, by moving some of the material stuck in the first edition’s appendices right up front and expanding on it.  The entire first chapter is now about not describing the monsters, or rather, describing them in a way that keeps the unknown front and center.  “The moonlight splashes across its matted fur, the silver lost in inky black patches that might be ichor, might be blood...long and lanky, it lopes towards you, a muzzle vaguely canine, features vaguely human.”  Is it a werewolf?  Is it a ghoul?  Something else?  The crux of the entire first chapter is how to make any of the entries that follow unknowable, using the senses and impressions rather than just announcing “you see a Deep One” and plopping a miniature on the table.
Again, all this was in the appendices of the first edition, but the second edition makes it a priority.  In fact the second volume, which covers the deities of the Mythos, begins in exactly the same way, and explains its reasoning; 
The Cthulhu Mythos is unknowable to humanity. What scraps of information are known are drawn from rare and fragmentary texts, conversations with wizards and witches, and from life-altering exposure. Thus, each entry highlights the often-conflicting data concerning these beings, leaving each Keeper to draw their own conclusions and mold the entities to fit their own concept of the Mythos. What “canon” exists is loose and unreliable. 
This makes the second edition of Malleus a book that even players can enjoy and have on their shelves.  No two Keepers will run monsters the same way, and if they follow the advice in these tomes, it won’t matter really if the players have read the entries.
This brings us the the second critical point concerning the Mythos and its monsters.
Humans filter their perceptions through the world as they understand it. For some who receive a glancing touch of the Mythos, perhaps a fleeting vision or dream, the connection to the entity sending the “message” is unreliable and vague, causing such messages to be misunderstood. The truths held within such communications are mostly lost, with such humans having no genuine appreciation or conception of what took place... (Vol 2, p. 12)
We spoke earlier of monsters as being a “sign” from the gods.  In the ancient world, the monstrous was evidence of the gods’ displeasure.  In the Middle Ages, the monstrous was often evidence of Satan at work.  With the Enlightenment, and the rise of Gothic literature as a direct result, the monstrous in these tales was often evidence that we were wrong; that the new age of Science and Reason was mistaken and that the old medieval world of supernaturalism still held sway.  Lovecraft took the monstrous in a new direction.  In the Mythos, the monstrous is not so much an aberration, but evidence that our very concept of order is an error.  We cannot know the truth, our minds are incapable of grasping it.  The second edition is very aware of this, and this awareness is present on every page.

Now for the details.
Authors Mike Mason and Paul Fricker join original Scott David Aniolowski for the second edition, with cover and interior art by Loïc Muzy.  Volume 1, Monsters of the Mythos is a 218 page PDF, Volume 2, Deities, is 266.  As mentioned both are full color, and the fonts, lay out, and over all style is identical to over 7th edition Call of Cthulhu products.  The editing, clarity of prose, and user-friendliness that Cthulhu has had under the watchful eye (well, probably eyes) of Mike Mason is all evident here.  
Monsters contains more than 15o entries, and after the foreword, consists of a chapter on running and creating monsters (described above), one on creatures of the Mythos, creatures from folklore, and finally beasts (animals).  There is a guide to pronunciation and an extensive index.  Deities starts with another introduction, a lengthy chapter on the unknowable gods of the Mythos, the god’s themselves, then another pronunciation guide and index.
As touched on above, each entry gives a Keeper a spectrum of choices to make in describing and tailoring the monsters.  With gods this often takes the form of avatars and manifestations.  Hastur, for example, is described with separate avatars like the Amber Elder, the Ravening One, and of course the King in Yellow.  Cthulhu appears as B’Moth, Chorazin, and Leviathan.  Monster entries all include alternate names and whatever detail on subspecies or technology is appropriate.  The total effect of all of this is to give Keepers a palette of Mythos beings with which to paint their own campaigns, driving home the point that no two encounters with Shub Niggurath or Yog Sothoth should ever be the same. 
Obviously all entries conform to the style and mechanics  specifics of the 7th edition.
I cannot not say something about the art.  On the whole, I have let it speak for itself by gracing this review with it. Muzy is clearly a singular talent, and his images are jaw-dropping.  As with the RuneQuest Glorantha Bestiary, which also chose to use a single artist, the unity of vision Muzy brings to the project elevates it.  If I was forced to complain, I would probably have to settle on the complaint that there is not an illustration for every entity.  In fact, there are not a lot of illustrations for many entities.  I am not clear if this is a function of not wanting to work poor Loïc to death or a feature of the approach the text itself takes (again the emphasis is on not showing the monsters, making excessive illustration counter-productive).  Regardless, the art feels sparse.  What is there, however, is some of the best we have seen.  Again, ignore my two cents and just gaze upon the covers.  

Let’s not pretend here.  Alongside The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic and the core rulebooks, the new Malleus Monstrorum forms a kind of unholy “must-have” trinity.  Often when I get review copy PDFs I question whether or not I will invest in print copies.  I live in downtown Tokyo.  Bookshelf space is at a premium. But owning the print version of this is not even a question in my mind, nor should it be in yours.  It is, without doubt, the definitive Call of Cthulhu monster guide.  It has absolutely everything you could possibly want from a Cthulhu product; true to Lovecraft with room for Keepers and players to deviate, respect for the fact this is a literary tradition while at the same time bringing 40+ years of Chaosium game design, merciless editing and top shelf production values.  So really there is no point in fighting gravity here.  You want this.  You want the PDF.  You want the hardcovers.  You want the inevitable leatherette editions to come.  This is all a forgone conclusion.  The good news is, the text backs your desires up.  There are monster manuals and then there is the Malleus Monstrorum. 

Kramer might have gotten there first, but Chaosium has perfected the art form.