Thursday, August 23, 2012

Damnit Zoidberg! That was uncalled for!


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Playing For Tommaso - an excerpt from THE COLD INSIDE

Playing For Tommaso

an excerpt from



Saturday November 5, 1994

The sun was lost behind the crowded Albany skyline but its pale yellow illumination lingered on, radiating between the buildings and through the crowded streets. It was getting cold again, that last bit of autumn before winter. It wouldn’t be long before coats gave way to parkas and sneakers gave way to heavy boots but at least for a few more weekends Adelphos would be able to ride his brother’s bicycle home. He rode fast, slaloming from the sidewalk to the road and back again, racing through the shadows that pooled around the buildings.

Homework and dinner leftovers were waiting for him. Adelphos would finish both off tonight because his Sunday was already booked. His father gave him Saturdays off but Sundays, and every weekday after school, his ass belonged to the family business.

A decade ago Adelphos’ father had bought the WEST ALBANY PAWN AND ANTIQUES from its ailing owner. It wasn’t much to look at, a dingy hole in the wall located in one of Albany’s rougher neighborhoods. Most of the Chavez family thought Camilo was crazy to squander his savings in such a way but Camilo knew better. Right away he started making changes, downplaying the pawnshop aspect of the store and concentrating on old books and antiques. He stocked the shop with merchandise he’d been acquiring for years. Adelphos’ father had always had a nose for antiques; each piece he found he restored as best he could. Bargain-hunters and antique-hounds alike began to notice. Within the first year the store had changed so much that Camilo decided to change the sign as well, his eldest son Tommaso picked a name that the whole family thought was perfect; TRASH AND TREASURES.

TRASH AND TREASURES became the focus of the Chavez family’s life; Camilo worked there from open to close on the weekdays with Adelphos, Tommaso and their mother filled in whenever time allowed. Every weekend Adelphos and his older brother were left in charge while Camilo went out hunting for fresh collectables at garage sales and flea markets.

Over the course of four years the business thrived, eventually expanding to the point where it could afford to move to a better location. TRASH AND TREASURES now occupied a large storefront in one of Albany’s more trafficked shopping plazas. It’s inventory was one part antiques, one part used books, one part old videos and CDs and a little bit of everything else.

Adelphos paused at a busy intersection and waited for the light to change. A cop car slowed as it drove past him but didn’t stop or give him any trouble. Thank Jesus for that, getting patted down once a year was just fine by him. The light changed, he started pedaling again.

Memories of minding the store with Tommaso always made him smile. Most of the time he’d wandered around straightening shelves and keeping watch for the sticky-fingered neighborhood kids. He let his brother man the cash register. Between every customer his nose was buried in a book. Tommaso always loved books, any kind of book; science fiction, comics, horror, true crime, history, even those cheesy romance novels. He would read it and he would read it fast. He could devour one of those thick Stephen King books in two days.

It was one of the benefits of having a genius IQ and that wasn’t just bragging, all the tests and retests made it obvious that Camilo’s oldest son was headed for glory. Adelphos wasn’t jealous, he was proud.

It was growing darker, yellow daylight giving way to purple dusk. Already the moon and Venus were visible, soon the constellations would reveal themselves in all their pale glory. The Big Dipper, Orion the Hunter and all the rest, Tommaso had taught him how to recognize them on a camping trip years ago.

Crossing the street on his brother’s bicycle Adelphos kept a wary eye out for traffic, his goal nearly in sight. He’d dawdled too long at Greg’s but it had been a great game of Dungeons & Dragons and great games always made the group talkative. They would reminisce about past adventures and scenes from books and movies they loved. Sometimes Adelphos found it sad that for Warren, Rich and Drew some of their fondest memories of adolescence were going to be of things that never happened.

High school had been rough on his brother as well. The public school was a disaster area, vandalism was common, fire alarms were pulled almost monthly and the brainy kids were objects of derision and abuse. It had always been hard for Tommaso, his slender build and gentle nature set him aparts, made him a target. As he grew older it only got worse. At first he’d wanted desperately to be accepted but as the years ground on he simply wanted to be left alone.

The Chavez family did what they could, Ramona consoled her oldest son and Camilo tried to teach him how to fight, but Tommaso was no fighter. Complaints were made to the principal and vice principal countless times but both men seemed to view the whole situation as a waste of time. Their only advice was to encourage the boy to stay quiet and keep to himself, to try and blend in.

“Damn.” Adelphos whispered angrily as he pedaled the last few yards. The front gate of the cemetery was already closed. “Too late.” Too late to use his shortcut this week. Straddling his brother’s bicycle he stared through the bars of the tall wrought iron fence.

Slowly, over the course of two years, Adelphos watched his brother wilt away. Tommaso became a wraith-like figure, going to and from school, going to and from work but never looking up, never speaking in complete sentences. Finally, one day he reached his breaking point.

Once news of his brother’s leap from the rooftop of an Albany office building got out there were assemblies, grief councilors and a whole page set-aside in the yearbook but it was all for show. Tommaso’s classmates never really cared about him. He was nothing more to them than a punchline; The skinny spic from the honor roll that thought he could fly.

Adelphos ran his bare hands along the icy metal fenceposts and thought to himself how much he’d like to run into one of those jerks now. He had never been one to walk away from a fight. When he reached high school the year after his brother’s literal and figurative fall, he would see kids getting picked on because they were too meek, too skinny or too smart and he couldn’t stand for it. Six fights in one semester got him expelled from his brother’s old high school. Five more got him kicked out of a different high school a year later.

That was when his father decided to send him to Blessed Heart, to try and ‘Straighten him out’. But all Adelphos found at the fancy school was that rich kids could be even bigger jerks than poor kids could. He could have sat at any table he wanted, the Pretty Boys invited him to join their ranks, and Linda Kaspary invited him to one of her parties. But Adelphos could see how fake their smiles were, he knew he was just a novelty. He found himself gravitating towards the kids they called Smudge, Graveyard, Tubbo, Sadam Jr., and Dick Head.

It was almost night now. The glare of headlights, streetlights and neon signs made the constellations seem pale and washed out. Adelphos started pedaling again, taking the long way. He was opening the store tomorrow, his father would be by during lunch. Maybe they would talk, but probably they wouldn’t. His father didn’t talk that much any more.

The last part of the way home was up a steep hill. Adelphos switched gears on his brother’s bike and pushed hard against the pedals. He remembered his childhood, how he and Tommaso would spend whole summer afternoons on this hill, riding their bikes all the way to the very top and then zooming back down to the bottom again. It had been like having their own private roller coaster.

Halfway there the heat began to build in his muscles. It felt good, it kept him from thinking. He focused on his breathing and before he knew it he was there. The first house at the top of the hill was his home. Gliding into his yard he carefully parked his brother’s bicycle in the garage. His mother’s car wasn’t there, but his father’s car was. A familiar weight settling onto his shoulders Adelphos made his way up the long ramp that lead to his front door.

His father was already in bed. Classical music was drifting in from Tomasso’s room, filling the house. Adelphos recognized it as Brahms. He shouldered out of his backpack and removed the hardcover Dungeons & Dragons books, Tommaso’s books. He’d always been into these kinds of games, it seemed like he had one of every kind on his bookshelves, but he’d never been able to find anyone to play with. Occasionally he would run a game for his younger brother but Adelphos hadn’t never seen the point.

Adelphos stepped into his brother’s room thinking Now I play. Now I play for both of us.

The shelves in his brother’s room were crowded with books, a card table with medical supplies was up against the window. The Brahms was issuing from a state of the art stereo system, a recent Christmas gift. Adelphos put the Dungeons and Dragons books back on the appropriate shelf and sat down on the edge of his brother’s bed. He smiled, “Hey buddy.”

Tomasso’s eyes flickered with recognition at the sight of his brother but there was no way he could get out of the massive wheeled chair to shake his hand, there was no way he could shout a greeting; he couldn’t even crack a smile. The fall had left his every movement a palsied struggle.

“It was a great game tonight. We ran late.” Adelphos continued, “My Ranger made eighth level and we finally raided the Lich’s tomb...”

Monday, August 20, 2012

(Recommended Reads) The Yellow Sign and other stories By Robert W. Chambers (S.T. Joshi Editor)

The Yellow Sign
and other stories
Robert W. Chambers
S.T. Joshi Editor
It begins for me with Hastur

You see years ago, when I was in Junior High, my parents got me TSRs Deities and Demigods as a Christmas present. It was a mythology-based supplement for the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. The book gave you all kinds of information about Norse, Greek and Chinese gods and monsters, but it also had details about certain fantasy writer's mythologies. This was how I learned about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric and his cursed blade Stormbringer and the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft.

Let me tell you something about life changing events- a body doesn't forget his first glimpse of Cthulhu!

It was also in that section of the rules that I spotted the illustration by the great Erol Otus of a giant wormy dinosaur thing,
The book told me that this guy was Cthulhu's half-brother Hastur and if your 12th Level Elven Freemason even so much as whispered his name Hastur might show up and wreak all sorts of mad god havoc.

That idea and image stuck in my mind for some time.

As the years went on I graduated from reading about Lovecraft's strange mythos in gaming supplements to actually reading the stories themselves. Now if you are any kind of horror fan I don't have tot ell you that those were great stories but the thing is Hastur The Unspeakable isn't in any of them.

Hastur is mentioned once in Lovecraft's tale 'The Whisperer In The Darkness'. One time, in one sentence, that's it. In fact here is the very sentence;
"I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections - Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R'lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L'mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum - and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way."

I would later find out that August Derleth, a member of Lovecraft's literary circle, just kind of took that name and ran with it. He made up his own little 'Hastur Mythos' as a part of Lovecraft's mythos. Some might consider this a blasphemy but I don't, it seems like everyone wants to add a new annex to the house that Lovecraft built- even me.

Years later I was working on a story and in it I had a very prissy wizard who when he cursed would take Hastur's name in vein, it got me thinking about the Unspeakable one again. Wouldn't my work be more interesting if I knew more about Hastur?

It was an almost creepy coincidence that I came across a anthology called The Hastur Cycle published by Chaosium Inc. It collected a good number of the stories that explored the Hastur mythology.

The anthology contained two stories by Robert W. Chambers and thanks to the editor's notes I would discover that while Derleth might have been building on Lovecraft's work, Lovecraft had to a certain degree been building on the work of Chambers. Hastur, the Lake of Hali, and the Yellow Sign were all references to Robert W. Chamber's classic anthology of weird fiction The King In Yellow. (Furthermore, the term Hastur itself is taken from the works of Ambrose Bierce- but we are not going to get into that!)

So this is how I came to discover the King In Yellow and the Yellow Sign but we only get two of Robert W. Chamber's stories in The Hastur Cycle. I was intrigued by what I read and wanted more, a quick web search showed me that some of his works, particularly the King In Yellow- themed ones were available online. Still I wanted more.

When I found out that Chaosium was bringing out an anthology that collected all of Robert W. Chambers' weird tales into one volume I was more than a little excited.

Why you ask? Because here was an author coming out of the tail end of the Victorian era who was writing the kind of off the wall material that authors like Thomas Ligotti and Patrick McGrath are doing now. It's one thing to hear the Eagles version of 'Ol 55', it's another thing to hear the original version by Tom Waits.

Enough backstory, let me tell you about the anthology.

Its a thick volume, about 645 pages of small text, its not so small as to give you eyestrain but it is a little intimidating in an English Textbook sort of way. The anthology contains excepts from five of Robert W. Chambers' story collections and the complete text of two of his novel-length works. I will examine each of these seven volumes separately then I will comment on my overall opinion of the collection.

The anthology opens up with an overview of Robert W. Chambers' career by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. It is detailed and helps give us an understanding of why this formerly best selling author is almost unknown today. Then we move into Chambers' most remembered work The King In Yellow. Each of the six stories have an almostTwilight Zone kind of surrealism going for them and several of them are linked by the presence of the blasphemous, chock-fulla-madness play The King In Yellow. The two standouts here are 'The Repairer of Reputations' and 'The Yellow Sign' both have this strange otherworldly quality to them and you are left wondering if the events described really occurred or if the narrator was simply stark raving mad. 'Repairer...' does a particularly good job of this; creating a cast of characters that are as twisted as the world they inhabit. The other stories in this book are all involving and enjoyable but I was left feeling ambivalent about the prose poems included under the title 'The Prophets Paradise'.

In The Maker of Moons there are two novellas, one shares its title with the volume, the second is called a 'Pleasant Evening', both stories worked very well but were occasionally be dragged down by authors penchant for syrupy melodrama. ''The Maker of Moons' almost reminded me of a Lovecraft story in many ways. The story begins with an investigation into something odd but innocuous but this investigation leads to the discovery of a strange conspiracy and nightmarish otherworldly creatures. By the end of the story the protagonists are reduced to horrified observers as insanity erupts around them. The other nice thing about 'The Maker of Moons' is the wry sense of humor revealed in some of the scenes, it makes a nice counterpoint to the stranger elements of the story. (I liked this story so much that I referenced it in 'Shadows of Polaris')

The stories in The Mystery of Choice vacillate between comedy, mystery and horror. The first four stories the main characters are an artist and his sweetheart and they seem to blunder in all kinds of trouble, heck all the needed was a dog and a van and they'd be all set. Yoiks! The remaining tales in 'The Mystery of Choice' I think exemplify the author's weaknesses, when he gets pointless he gets pretty damn pointless. I know I read both 'The White Shadow' and 'The Key To Grief' but I couldn't tell you a darn thing about either of them.

Moving on to In Search of the Unknown we get comedy adventure with a dash of weirdness. The best analogy I can come up with for the flavor of these stories is the style of X-Files more lighthearted episodes. The main character is a zoologist on a quest to find rare and lost species of animals- I guess that makes him a cryptozoologist huh? The novel is very episodic in nature, each section of the book showing the quest for a different creature. Chambers prose is still flawless but the humor tends to vary from clever to painful.
The anthology then gives us an excerpt from The Tracer of Lost Persons. The book itself is another episodic affair about a man that tracks down the lost loves of lonely gentlemen.

Wasn't this a TV series once?

Anyway the chapters shown to us are from a story that hinges on the idea of reincarnation. A nice piece but not as strong as 'The Repairer of Reputations' or 'The Maker of Moons'.

The stories in The Tree of Heaven are a refreshing return to the style of The King in Yellow but while the themes of the previous work seemed to be concerned with madness and mystery, the Tree of Heaven's stories all seem to hinge on love and death. I found 'The Carpet of Belshazzar' to be particularly haunting.

The collection concludes with another of Chamber's fantasy-humor concoctions Police!!! It shows us the further adventures of In Search of the Unknown's bumbling protagonist but I found this tale to be too much of a rehash of what had come before. I don't even think they needed to include this material to give me a full glimpse into the scope of Robert W. Chamber's creativity. For my money they should have just wrapped things up with The Tree of Heaven stories.

That was a bit of a harsh note to conclude on so please don't think that I'm not going to recommend this anthology because I am. There were some really great stories in this anthology and I think that a fan of horror and fantasy can appreciate it as both entertainment and a glimpse into the roots of modern weird fiction.

Rest In Peace Phillis Diller

You were one funny lady and and you will always be the Bride of the Monster from MAD MONSTER PARTY to me...


Comedian Phyllis Diller -- who paved the way for today's female comics -- has died, TMZ has learned.

Sources close to Diller tell us the comedian died at her L.A. home, surrounded by family. She was 95...

for more visit TMZ