The Zen of 360

Currently we are a quarter of the way through the 31st year of my being on this Earth. Since getting married and buying a house 4 years ago, I’ve noticed small indicators that I’m growing up. As Dipper pointed out, I’ve started really stretching my legs and moving into the house. The rooms are starting to take on personality and become indicative of Tkout and my styles. Three weeks ago I went on a spending spree, purchasing hostas, lilies, and canna plants for the house. This coming weekend, I hope to landscape the front bed and finally have a front yard worth looking at for more than two seconds. I’m hoping Phoebe will want to help with the window boxes. Two weekends ago I hosted Easter dinner for my family, and turned the house upside down for a whole three days beforehand, cleaning, hanging pictures on walls, organizing the kitchen counter, etc.

As good as I feel about all of the aforementioned changes, nothing will point out that you’re old faster than playing a video game with a 9 year old. Shit you not.

I’ve played board games with Phoebe. We have sat on couches, her building LEGOs or coloring, while I crochet. I’ve gone to one of the local art museums with Dipper and Phoebe. We’ve played with my pets and her kitty. We’ve curled up and watched horror movies, as well as shows she has wanted me to watch with her. I’ve watched her play video games before. None of this prepared me for the experience I had Friday night. (To be fair, we played Katamari on a previous Friday, but she was coming down with a really bad cold and was more than a little out of it.)

Per our usual ritual, Phoebe and Dipper came over Friday night. This time they brought LEGO Dimensions with them. Phoebe was very excited to introduce me to the newest digital crack.

We ordered dinner and got the game set up. Once dinner was over and we were sat down in front of the XBOX 360, Phoebe proceeded to give me an introduction and tutorial to the game that was not unlike being strapped to the top of the USS Enterprise just as it hits warp speed. Being older and more self-conscious, and also lacking a serious amount of time spent in front of a console in many years, I was wanting to go granny speed. Learn the controls. Check out the characters. Basically get my bearings. Phoe was not having any of that. Before I knew what was going on, I was sucked through a vortex and dumped out into the Wizard of Oz. While I was busy hitting things to get the little LEGO studs as possible, Phoebe was demolishing the sleeping flowers in the Batmobile. Before I knew what was happening, we were watching Batman accost the Scarecrow and accuse him of releasing a hallucinogen, thereby producing. The cutscene ended, I smashed a few things, and before I could collect the studs, I was in the middle of a boss battle with the Wicked Witch.

Wicked Witch? More like WTF! This change of activity was born of her intense boredom at my attempt to collect every single stud available. Over the course of the next 2 hours, I was convinced I was going to lose my shit and wind up in a straitjacket. Even though I was having a ton of fun, I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing to save my life. Phoebe had already played that level before, so she knew every trick and battle, and she was eager to show it all off. The need for a straitjacket went both ways – Phoebe was going nuts because I was constantly off doing something counter productive to her goal of getting to the next level. (This I admit fully, freely, and with total shame.)

This past weekend, I spent time by myself playing the same level. It took fucking forever. I was after every stud, every secret corner, and switched characters to see what they could do. I enjoyed my run through, but there was something missing.

Today while walking back from lunch, I was thinking about gaming with Phoebe Friday. I was looking ahead two weeks to our next Friday together, and thinking about playing the game together. About how ready I would be. How I wouldn’t force her to have to wait for my slow ass to catch up. I realized what was missing. You see, adulting means that your priorities change. I was focused on getting studs for upgrades later, and for completing as much of the level as I could. I wanted to be sure-footed with my characters and their vehicles. I was thinking ahead to the packs I needed to purchase in order to interact with some of the content, and wondering how the experience would change if I were to switch up the characters. I was overthinking how to reach the highest heights, and what would happen if I met an obstacle I couldn’t overcome.

Phoebe was burdened by none of those things. She approached the game with a balls-to-the-wall excitement. A need to explore and experience. An almost palpable urge to see and do as much as she could. To her, there were no obstacles. If she couldn’t break it, build it, climb it, or go around it, she switched characters and tactics until she figured it out. Each time, she went at the problem fearlessly and joyously. 

More than anything, I can’t wait to play LEGO Dimensions with Phoebe again. To willingly strap myself to the top of the USS Enterprise and wait for her to hit warp speed. Being a stodgy completist can wait for when I’m playing the game on my own. What I want is a slice of reckless abandon. To run balls-to-the-wall into the digitized sunset with no idea where I’m going, how I’m getting there, or even what I’m doing. Which, considering how slowly I play the game and the amount of bullshit adulting I need to do between then and now, won’t be that hard. All I lack is a small, bright-eyed, golden-haired pilot.

 

 

 

Hi. My name is Holly Ann, and I’m addicted…

…to LEGO Dimensions.

Addicted, as in, TAKE ALL OF MY MONEY. RIGHT. NOW.

I can’t begin to describe how intensely awesome this game is. Or how purchasing the parts for it feels like selling your soul. Phoebe and Dipper brought it to my house Friday for Family Friday, and I was hooked. Bad. Like a junkie looking for a fix.

First things first. Just what is LEGO Dimensions, and who cares? LEGO Dimensions is a video game originally released in 2015. The plot is super simple. Lord Vortech (voiced by Gary Oldman) and his robot henchman X-PO (voiced by Joel McHale) are searching for Foundation Elements. With these 12 Elements connected, they can basically take over the universe. The 12 Elements are artifacts from different universes (which are different fandoms), such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Frodo’s One Ring, etc. In a bid to keep the universes from falling under single rule, all of the Elements were scattered.

Everything would have gone according to Lord Vortech’s plan, except Robin, Frodo, and Metalbeard are sucked into a vortex with the Elements. Their friends Batman, Gandalf, and Wyldstyle willingly jump into the vortex to save their friends. They fall out of the vortex on Vorton, where they need to rebuild the generator that allows them to travel to different universes, saving their friends, collecting keystones, and saving the Foundation Elements.

That’s only scratching the surface of the game. The worlds they travel in are varied and hilarious, as are the heroes they work with. There is a franchise for absolutely everyone. Gremlins. The A-Team. Retro Ghostbusters. Modern Ghostbusters. Knight Rider. Jurassic World. The Simpsons. Mission:Impossible. Doctor Who. Back to the Future. Midway Arcade. The Lord of the Rings. That’s listing about half of the franchises included. Other franchises are being added, The Goonies, Beetlejuice, and Teen Titans Go! being the ones I’m looking forward to purchasing. Meh on Power Puff Girls. Although the idea of seeing Stripe tear through their pastel world is very very enticing! Just look at the picture below. The Joker, Stripe, Gizmo, and Harley in Gotham. Don you just know that’s going to be a wild party?!

When I said that this game was ridiculously expensive, I wasn’t kidding! There are several levels of add-ons that can be purchased. I’m going to go into a little detail about each level, starting with the least expensive and ending with the grandaddy. The least expensive are the Fun Packs. They retail for around $11.99 and are usual one character and a vehicle of some sort. Excalibur Batman and the Bionic Steed from The Lego Batman Movie are just one example. As you purchase updates for the vehicle (Bionic Steed in this example), you can also rearrange the LEGO configuration to resemble the new form. My favorite is Crabmeat from Sonic, which turns his airplane into a giant rideable crab. It’s also worth noting that vehicles aren’t character-specific. I absolutely LOVE running Stripe around Middle Earth on Shelob.

Next up are Team Packs. These feature 2 characters and 2 vehicles from a
franchise and will run you about $24.00. I’ve alluded to it several times, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t feature it here. My favorite team pack is from Gremlins. Gizmo and his RC racer are cute, there’s no denying that. But I absolutely love Stripe!

As with any videogame, the characters have certain catchphrases that they use. I can’t get enough of Stripe’s incessant babble. Sometimes as he’s tearing around you hear “Gizmo caca!” straight from the movie. Other times he merely grumbles to himself and laughs. If you leave him standing too long, he pulls out a bucket of popcorn and starts eating. Start moving again, and he discards the empty bucket.

If you want more levels, you can purchase a Level Pack. For around $30 you get a character, two vehicles, and then more levels for the game. For the adults who are playing LEGO Dimensions, there is Mission:Impossible, The Simpsons, Midway Arcade, and Doctor Who. Those aren’t the only Level Packs by a long shot, but they seem to be aimed for the older set. Midway Arcade comes with a stereotypical 80s gamer LEGO piece, the Spy Hunter car, and an arcade machine. This Level Pack promises over 20 classic arcade games.

Currently there are three Story Packs that you can purchase. Story Packs allow you to play through an entire movie. The three current packs are Ghostbusters (2016), The LEGO Batman Movie, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. What you get in each pack varies a little. The LEGO Batman Movie gives you Batgirl and Robin as playable characters, as well as a vehicle and a new LEGO piece to add to the game pad, which looks like the inside of the Batcave. Fantastic Beasts… gives you Newt Scamander as a playable character, Niffler as a playable character, and the Magical Congress of the United States is the game pad add-on. Ghostbusters (2016) features the Chinese restaurant facade where the girls have their office, Abby Yates and the Ecto vehicle. I don’t know if this is true for the other story packs, but finishing the Ghostbusters (2016) story unlocks the other Ghostbusters. When selecting Abby, it’s possible to play as Holtzman, Erin, or Patty. For $40, I think this pack is a pretty good deal. Even if you don’t use the facades on the game pad, they’re still neat to have, and playing through a whole movie instead of a few levels is definitely a plus.

Before you can play though, you need the basics. That’s where the Starter Pack comes in handy. The game is available for XBOX 360, XBOX One, Wii U, PS3, and PS4. No matter what platform you choose, you are looking at around $65.00-$80.00 for the starter pack. Let’s be honest, that’s a pretty competitive price when you consider that most games debut in the $50-$60 range. With the Starter Pack you get the three main playable characters of the game, Batman, Gandalf, and Wyldstyle. Also included is the Batmobile. You also get the game pad (where you place the LEGO pieces to introduce characters and vehicles), the game disc, and a LEGO build of the Vorton vortex, which matches what you see in the game. Basically, you get everything that you see to the left.  

the most expensive packs are almost laughable at this point. They’re called Polybags. As the name suggests, it’s literally a plastic bag. With one figure. But it’s exclusive and therefore expensive. The only place you can really get ahold of them is ebay or amazon.com, and you will pay out the ass. The two characters are Green Arrow and Supergirl. The prices are outrageous. I’ve seen $129.00 for both, $65.00 for Supergirl alone, $35.00 for Green Arrow. It’s literally all over the place based on who is selling and when you check. Green Arrow was apparently a GameStop exclusive when you purchased any pack on Black Friday of 2016.

When I first started purchasing additional content for this game, I nearly shit from the amount of money. Of course, I started purchasing after all the Easter sales had come and gone. The buy one get one free, the half off. Those types of sales. To the best of my ability, I’ve followed Dipper’s recommendations and purchased lots or discounted items off ebay. I also just snagged a plastic snapcase for the figures and their vehicles. In part so I can bring them over when I visit Phoebe and Dipper, and in part because my cat is an asshole. She recently figured out that there was interesting stuff to knock over on my desk and shelves. LEGO is known for small pieces, and quite frankly, I don’t want to lose any.

The main reason I’m not as upset about the prices is that most LEGO sets go for
about $15.00 as a base price anyway. I purchased the Ghost Rider and Hobgoblin set for myself, and it set me back $20.00, and it doesn’t do anything but get assembled and sit. Granted, it’s absolutely insanely cool, but that’s all it does. Because I intend to take it out of the box and build it, it won’t even maintain a collector’s value. Speaking frankly, I don’t give a damn. The set is great, reminds me of Dipper, is horror themed (c’mon, a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle from Hell?!) and makes me happy. The same is to be said of LEGO Dimensions. The pieces are a blast to put together, the game itself is a riot, and the content is varied enough that it appeals to a variety of audiences.

 

Writer’s Notes:

Please forgive my lack of links in this post. With so many buying options from stores like Target, GameStop, and Walmart to online retailers ebay and amazon, it didn’t seem worth it to tag the packs. Not to mention the many varieties available.

Information on the voice actors for the series can be found here. In some cases, recordings from the movie or TV series the lines came from was used. For others, other voice talent was hired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When God is All Too Human

I was given the opportunity to read a review copy of Mark Alan Miller’s book, Clive Barker’s Next Testament. I assure you, the title is correct. You see, Mark Alan Miller took a concept he and Clive Barker had tossed around and made it first into graphic novel format, now in novel.

The core idea is very simple. What if the God of the Old Testament came back? Add to that, what if He were a sociopathic bully who found his creations vile? I was hooked on the core idea for the novel before I was even offered to review it for this site since it ran closely with some of my own theological questions. Namely, why is the God from the Old Testament is the bad cop to Jesus’ good cop in the New Testament? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking in a fiction book for religious answers, but I thought it would be interesting to see what Mark Alan Miller and Clive Barker had to say on the subject.

The story starts out with Julian, who is rich, entitled, and a total egotistical asshole, searching the desert for that important missing “something”. What he finds is a pyramid buried in the sand. Inside the pyramid is Wick, or God of the Old Testament. Wick is shaped like a man, but colored wildly all over his body, hence his name The Father of Colors. Julian takes Wick back to his home and teaches him about life in the modern age. Not to mention spends a good deal of time exploring the carnal pleasures available to a human who has the divine at his disposal. At first Wick is a very willing student, but he very quickly decides that he wants to see some of these people for himself. At this point he demands Julian throw a dinner party and invite his friends.

The dinner party guest is a true rogue’s gallery. The only people there who are not selfish, rich, and all around terrible people are Tristan and Elspeth. Tristan is Julian’s mostly-estranged son, and Elspeth is his fiancee. After meeting the attendees and spending some time humiliating them publicly, Wick decides he’s had enough. What started out as a weird social gathering quickly turns into a bloodbath. I have to admit that as bad as it sounds, the dinner party is pretty funny. The insults Wick delivers and they way they are taken by the recipients is pure gold. When the murder begins, nobody is worth saving, except Tristan and Elspeth.

Tristan and Elspeth escape the dinner party and go on the lam. Although they believe in Wick’s divinity, they don’t know what else to do. They want to be as far away as possible, and as quickly as possible. Terrified out of their minds, they begin a cross-country drive hoping to find shelter and safety on the East Coast. During their journey they see many indicators of Wick’s wrath, including but certainly not limited to every plane falling out of the sky, and the entire world communications network being wiped out. No phones. No internet. No radio. No TV. All gone in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, Wick searches for his new Rome, where he can rule and be worshiped and adored by his loving creations. Unfortunately, Wick finds neither new Rome nor loving creations. Everywhere he goes, people are obsessed with the restoration of their technology, as well as their own self-interest. The more Wick sees, the more he decides the world just isn’t worth his time. While speaking to a crowd, a young red-haired woman named Shauna distinguishes herself, setting Julian’s world tumbling even further. Julian wants to keep Wick to himself, but faces fierce competition from Shauna. She’s smarter, more adventurous, and not self-centered like Julian. Wick takes to her immediately.

As for the rest of the story, you’ll just have to read it yourself and see what happens. Truth be told, I’m not even done with the book, but I wanted to get some thoughts down while they were still fresh.

In the spirit of giving a totally honest review, I’m going to admit that there are parts of the book that I found deeply disturbing. It’s really awkward to read about God having a frivolous sexual relationship. I wasn’t sure what to think of that, as I’m not used to viewing God in that light.

Whereas I could understand that Wick would want to kill everyone at the dinner party, the seemingly endless massacres that followed didn’t make sense. I couldn’t see a justification for murder on such a scale. For instance, at one point, Wick gets pissed and just unmakes an entire crowd of people. GONE. Because they annoyed him with what I can only describe as their humanity.

The other issue I had was the fact that I believe God is omniscient, so therefore he wouldn’t have to search for new Rome, or wonder what the world was like. Then I remembered he had been trapped in the pyramid by the other two members of the Holy Trinity. Which bothered me as well, because I always thought the Trinity was in harmony.

Last night I was reading Clive Barker’s Next Testament and really digging into the text. I surmised from the introduction pieces at the front of the book that I was missing something crucial. Instead of seeing Next Testament for the satire it was, I was butting heads with the text over my own theological beliefs. Searching for some context, I looked for articles or reviews online. I found Ron McKenzie’s blog Thoughts and Scribbles and read his post NEXT TESTAMENT: The Gospel According to Mark Alan Miller. It tells the story of how Clive Barker and Mark Alan Miller came up with the whole idea, how it stemmed from a human canvas project Barker was working on. How he painted Miller’s body and when he stepped back and saw his work, he realized he had birthed Wick. From there, Barker and Miller came up with the story. Of course, this is in the introduction to the book as well. But additional insights from Miller accompanied this story. I was intrigued and kept reading. Then, it hit me.

I’ve always heard it said that we are created in God’s image. What happens if God is created in our image? If the divine more closely resembles humanity?

It was like a stick of dynamite went off between my ears.

I was bothered by the concept of Wick because he was too human. All of the restraint I expected from God was gone. Watching Wick not only ignore the 10 Commandments, but seemingly do his level best to go against them at every turn blew my mind. What I hate the most about the human race is what I hate about Wick. The wanton destruction of lives. The petty annoyances that turn into full-blown carnage. The hubris and the self-centered attitude. It upset me to see a God that embodies the worst traits of the human race, with seemingly none of the good.

Now, it’s like reading the book with totally new eyes. The revelation that what I hated most about Wick happens to be what I hate most about the human race, the arrogance, the wanton murder sprees, has allowed me to enjoy the book as the satire that it most certainly is.

If you have thick skin religiously, or are open to different interpretations, I highly suggest Clive Barker’s Next Testament. It’s at times humorous, sad, and difficult to read. It holds up a mirror to humanity that is all too uncomfortable sometimes. If you can withstand the tide of emotions, I highly recommend picking up Clive Barker’s Next Testament.

A Living Legend

Today’s post is a bit of a walk down memory lane for me, and a celebration of the charmed life of talented actor Tim Curry. Today the celebrated English actor turns 71, and it seems only fitting to take a look at his career highlights.

I was a fan of Tim Curry as an actor long before I could put a name to a face. Or a voice for that matter. A quick search on IMDB.com shows that his career stretches all the way back to 1968, which is impressive for any actor or actress. When you consider the sheer variety of roles he’s played, it’s even more staggering.

My first encounter didn’t occur until 1992, with the release of FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Curry plays Hexxus, the pollution monster trying to take over and destroy a beautiful rainforest. (Curry worked with memorable talent such as Robin Williams, Samantha MathisChristian Slater, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, and Tone Loc.) Curry takes on many forms as Hexxus, including toxic slime and the badass skeleton-tar creature pictured. Kudos to the animators, who captured Curry’s dramatic movements for this part.

My next encounters weren’t much more grownup. He appeared in several animated series that I used to watch as a kid growing up in the 90s. I confess that I only know this because I am perusing his IMDB.com page so that I can get the years and titles of his performances correct.

I was in high school when I first saw the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s IT on VHS. (I think we borrowed it from the library or rented it. Does that date me, or what?!) Even then, seeing Curry was more of a coincidence than anything else. As a teenybopper, I had a raging crush on Jonathan Brandis, who plays the young Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Loser’s Club. Even so, Curry stole absolutely every scene in which he appeared. His presence was so commanding that he stole even the scenes where he wasn’t present, just based on the anticipation of his appearance.

If I had to choose his most iconic role, I would choose Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He was terrifying. Unpredictable. Nasty. Even when he was in his clown-guise, you could still feel the horror lurking just behind his eyes.

A close runner-up for me is Cardinal Richelieu in 1993’s The Three Musketeers. He’s slimy, devious, and downright scary as the Cardinal attempting to undermine a king and secure an alliance with an enemy country.

However, when most people think of Curry, they no doubt think of his first major movie role, Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He first portrayed the flamboyant and outrageous character in a London stage production of the same name. Curry absolutely steals the show in every scene as he struts around with complete confidence in his lingerie and heels getup. And that’s to say nothing of his facial expressions! Curry is one of the most
expressive actors in the business.

While doing research for this post, I came across news that in 2012 Curry had suffered a massive stroke. He has been confined to a wheelchair and his speech has been affected, but from what I can tell the incident has not affected his spirit in the least. He is still as determined as ever, going so far as to star in the 2016 production, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.

If you are somehow not already a fan of Tim Curry, then I suggest you watch the following movies to become better acquainted. (And yes – there are some kid’s films in there, because his voice-over acting is superb.)

Over his long career, Curry has played these and many other roles. What was your favorite movie?

 

A Strong Finish

Disclaimer: I pride myself on being an honest reviewer. In that vein, I’d like you to know before reading this review that I had the pleasure of copy editing the piece before publication. As a copy editor, I didn’t change anything in the story, just made sure the events were consistent with the first two books, and sussed out any spelling or grammar errors. I neither made nor proposed any other changes to this story.

 

Having given you my disclaimer, let’s get into the fun part! Afternoon is the third book of The Daylight Cycle. Initially Kody Boye wasn’t sure he wanted to release it, because he wondered how it would stack up against the other two books. He was looking for another pair of eyes, and I volunteered. Afternoon picks up where the previous two books left off, and serves to tie in two seemingly unrelated storylines in a believable and exciting way. Rose, from First Light, meets up with Dakota and his crew of survivors from Sunrise. They band together with other survivors they have come across and on the surface everything seems safe, or as safe as it can be given that they’re living during the zombie apocalypse. They spend their time fortifying their space, scavenging for supplies in the surrounding houses and shops, and getting used to life after the fall of civilization.

Everything is going well until the survivors run into trouble during a supply run. One of their members is taken down by a vicious pack of zombies. Of the three that survive, one is scratched. What’s worse is that the injured survivor is Erik, Jamie’s childhood best friend. It’s just a small scratch and doesn’t even break the skin, but nobody knows whether or not it will cause infection. Jamie is desperate to believe that Erik will be ok since there was no blood. Dakota and Steve, as much as they’d like to hold onto hope, are skeptical. Jamie’s hope is put to the test as Erik’s health begins to spiral. Fevered, bedridden, and incredibly miserable, nobody can deny he’s sick. But the signs of infection aren’t presenting themselves quickly enough. Is it the zombie virus, or something else?

Steve and Rose manage to repair a radio enough they they can make contact with other survivors, if there are any left alive. As luck would have it, they manage to contact a college in Boise, Idaho whose science department is still laboring away at curing the disease. The decision is made to take Erik to the university, because his condition isn’t getting any better. Erik also feels a sense of duty – if he can be any help in curing the disease for others, than he wants to do what he can.

I’m going to be the first to tell you that I’m hoping Kody doesn’t stop with a trilogy. I understand authors want to expand, create new worlds and characters, etc. To that end, I’d be happy with a short story collection down the road sometime. I’m not quite ready to be done with Steve, Dakota, Jamie, Rose, and the other survivors.

Not to mention Kody has given the zombie apocalypse a wild spin that I’m craving more of – the plant walkers. You read that right. They’re dried up prune-looking zombies that smell like fruit, and undoubtedly dead, but maintain a small amount of intelligence and seem to abhor the zombies. It’s a concept I’ve never come across before, and I have to admit that I’m super curious. I’m anxious to see if the plant walkers are the gentle shepherds they seem to be, or if they’re something more sinister in disguise.

I found Afternoon to be a great way of tying the first two books together. It was great to catch up with Rose and several other survivors and see what they’d been up to while Dakota and his friends were traipsing across the country. I blew through Afternoon, despite editing it for spelling and grammar, because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Particularly when the group was at the university watching the doctor perform tests on Erik. I was tense the entire time, waiting to see what would become of Erik. Whether he’d be a glorified guinea pig in a dead world, or whether he’d be the answer to their plight.

Whether or not Kody decides to continue with this series down the road, or if this is the last book he’ll write with these characters, I’m 100% on board. The same goes for any other series he writes or has written. Kody has the ability to create characters who are realistic and varied. Some of the characters may more closely resemble the asshole sitting next to you in the cube farm than they do Mother Theresa, but regardless, they’re realistic. As are the relationships between the characters. Whether friends, partners, siblings, or strangers, Kody deftly navigates the different interactions without weighing down or taking away from the action.

Do yourself a favor and go pick up The Daylight Cycle, because each book only gets better!

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Since I am generally more of a horror fan than anything else, I admit that I miss out on great works by authors in other genres. Some months ago, there was a call for reviewers for an upcoming book by Scott Oden. I had never heard of him before, but Adrian Chamberlin (whose work I am extremely fond of) gave me the head’s up. I read the brief summary of the book and was immediately intrigued by the little I read about A Gathering of Ravens.

I responded to the call for reviewers, and was placed on the list. When the book arrived, I was extremely impressed. A Gathering of Ravens is a solid book, clocking in at 336 pages, and I found that there was nothing I would have cut out of the book. On the contrary, I would have added more to it in the form of a series, but that’s me being selfish. I didn’t want A Gathering of Ravens to end!

My apologies upfront, I will not be getting very in-depth with the plot summary. Oden packs many surprises and twists into his story, and I don’t want to deprive any readers of the joy of discovering those twists for themselves. The story begins with a young monk travelling to a monastery, guided and protected by a great warrior. They shelter for the night in a cave, coming face to face with a fierce skraelinger. (Fantasy fans might be more familiar with the term “orc”.) The skraelinger is none too happy to have anyone in his cave, even for a night. He allows them to stay, with the understanding that they will be gone come morning. When morning comes, things are not as cut and dry as they had seemed the night before, and the real journey begins.

As the reader continues, it is revealed that the story really belongs to Grimnir, the skraelinger. His quest for vengeance overtakes any other storylines and becomes the driving force of the story. His brother was murdered many years ago, and Grimnir had sworn to avenge him. Not only will Grimnir go to great lengths to make good on his oath, but everyone around him will be drawn into his quest, whether willingly or not.

A Gathering of Ravens is an amazing book. I was really upset when it ended, because there is, as yet, no announcement of it becoming a series. Oden is masterful in deceiving his audience. I was pleased to see the main character shift to Grimnir who is not likeable in a traditional sense, but has his own honor and code that he lives by. I have to admit that Oden threw me for a loop. At first he seemed to deal disrespectfully with the young monk’s Christian faith, but as I continued, I realized that much of what he wrote mirrors history. It’s no secret that the Crusades were a less than holy undertaking, no matter what they were intended to be. Oden also weaves in a deep respect for nature worship, and eventually shows that the two can co-exist and that a belief in both is no conflict. Don’t misunderstand me – Oden is in no way preachy. However, he is deft in terms of weaving the character’s various faiths and superstitions together. If anything, it adds to the three-dimensionality of the characters. They become all the more real because they are complicated, unpredictable, and a mesh of their various influences and cultures.

Oden is a master world builder as well. There are many places where it is difficult to tell if the events are real or fake. The locations in the story vary, from the very real England, to the mythical Yggdrasil, or World Tree. It doesn’t matter where the characters are, the setting always seems real.

The supporting characters are also well written and complex. There are no superfluous characters, and all of them are more than just a vehicle to move the plot along. Oden also manages to drop hints about the character’s pasts and influences, so that the reader seamlessly gets a feel for who they are without being tossed out of the action of the book for a “backstory session”.

Overall I am very impressed with Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens. It’s an amazing work of fantasy with a very real touch of both humanity and the weight of history. While reading it, I lost many hours of sleep because I didn’t want to put the book down. Oden has populated his strange world with witches, monsters, Vikings, warriors, cowards, and everything in between. It’s safe to say he’s gained another fan after writing this book!

A Strong Start for an Amazing Series

I recently read Kody Boye’s First Light, and I absolutely loved it. It’s book one of The Daylight Cycle series. (I’m currently reading book two – and whoa! Does he amp up the scares!) The central characters, Rose and Lyra, are flatmates in England. It’s Lyra’s home country, and Rose’s adopted country. They are typical college best friends, and their third flatmate Mary is the overly dramatic third musketeer.

The zombie takeover is well underway when First Light begins, although nobody knows that quite yet. The news stations are using words like “riot” and “civil unrest” to describe the outbreaks of violence in major cities. Rose and Lyra are worried that their proximity to an airport will cause them to encounter the violent protestors. Only a few pages into the book, Mary stumbles into the flat bawling her eyes out and bleeding. Apparently her on-again off-again boyfriend not only proposed, but proceeded to bite her. The girls hear a terrifying screech from the hallway while they are trying to calm down their hysterical friend. Moments later her boyfriend throws himself against the door and claws his way in. For Lyra, Rose, and Mary it’s a battle to the death. And it’s only the beginning.

As the story progresses, the girls find themselves in a variety of situations that they had no way to be prepared for. Including floating on a boat that neither of them knows how to sail, and fleeing from a country that’s using deadly force on anyone looking for asylum. Neither of the girls can really blame the country, because by then they know it’s a virus that spreads through bites and scratches.

First Light is an amazing book, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what exactly about the book is my favorite. Kody’s apocalypse is all too real. The freshly dead run, the long dead shamble. And the girls are forced to survive by whatever means they can.

I also really love how Kody portrays the friendship between Rose and Lyra. They’re incredibly real. They argue over what the best course of action is, and where they will be safest. They wind up eventually talking out their points of view, and though they have their rough moments, they are always fiercely loyal to each other. They are strong in their own ways, but also show their weaknesses.

The end of First Light finds Rose and Lyra making a choice that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Rose doesn’t believe they are safe in their current location, despite fortifications. Lyra, however, doesn’t believe that they are any safer outside the walls. The decision is a heavy one, and could possibly split them apart for the rest of their lives.

First Light is an amazing read from start to finish, and showcases Kody’s unique writing style. I recommend this book (and series!) to anyone looking for a solid story with relatable characters, realistic situations, and a helluva scary zombie element! (If you like what you read, I’d also recommend checking out his other books. He writes more than just horror!)

 

 

Got coulrophobia?

I was wondering what to do on this blog in honor of April Fool’s Day. I’m not much into pulling pranks, and I don’t want to deviate too far from my usual fare. (Not that I’d probably be able to, considering I pretty much breathe horror, sci-fi, and the generally absurd.) Historically, April Fool’s Day has either been really aggravating or really boring. I hate being suckered by false celebrity death news, and my friends and I have never been much for pulling pranks. Most pranks seem mean. I guess humor is in the eye of the beholder.

In this same vein, I started thinking about what else is polarizing in terms of humor. The first thing that came to mind was clowns. There’s actually a clinical term for fear of clowns. Coulrophobia. Sounds terminal, doesn’t it? My uncle hates clowns. He was the person that introduced me to Killer Klowns from Outer Space when I was younger. While I don’t necessarily find them funny, I’m not afraid of them. At least not clinically anyway. Circus clowns are alright, not necessarily funny but not scary either. Renaissance Fair clowns, on the other hand, are downright horrifying. I hate the ones that walk around on stilts and don’t say anything. They just leer at you from their height.

Being that it’s April Fool’s Day, let’s take a look at some clown representation in books and movies. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but more a sampling. If you think of any others or just want to join the discussion, feel free to comment at the end of this post!

BOOKS


  • Stephen King’s IT
    – The Loser’s Club of Derry, Maine is terrorized by Pennywise the Dancing Clown. While initally that doesn’t sound like much of a crisis, it turns out that Pennywise is actually a monster straight out of space who capitalizes on children’s fears. When the children grow up they are drawn back to Derry because Pennywise is on the rampage again. They must band together to defeat their old nemesis before it takes the lives of more children.
  • Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes – A carnival arrives mysteriously after midnight the week before Halloween. With it comes death and terror, and it’s up to two friends to fight the dark carnival.

MOVIES AND TV

  • Stephen King’s IT – The 1990 tv mini-series introduced viewers to Pennywise and the Loser’s Club. This project showcased Tim Curry in one of his best roles – as Pennywise himself. The mini-series couldn’t possibly hope to encompass the entire book, but it made sure to get the point across and was suitably creepy. (I’m super excited for the remake, which stars Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame!)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes – This is an adaptation of the book by the same name. I confess that I haven’t seen this in years, but I do remember thinking it was absolutely creepy when I was a kid.
  • Clown – This movie is both sad and terrifying. Two loving parents have booked a clown for their son’s clown-themed birthday party. When the clown is overbooked, it’s up to Kent to find a replacement clown for his son. He’s in luck, as the house he’s getting ready to put up on the market has an old clown suit in a trunk that just happens to fit him perfectly. The only problem is that once he puts it on he can’t remove it, and he starts to change. As it turns out, the origins of the clown are not so innocent, and Kent and his family are dragged into the reality of the Cloyne, an ancient demon.
  • Killer Klowns from Outer Space – This 1988 classic features aliens that come to Earth in a big circus tent. They look like clowns, but not the kind you’d ever want to meet. They set about capturing people and turning them into big light-bulb shaped cotton candy, which they then eat with a straw. Sort of like outer space spiders. A group of teenagers attempt to stop the Klown’s mayhem.
  • American Horror Story (Freakshow) – Twisty the Clown has always wanted to make children laugh. Some of the carnies don’t take favorably to the attention he’s paid by the children and families visiting the traveling freakshow. They start an awful rumor which tears Twisty’s world apart. He is a figure both terrifying and sad, and well worth watching the otherwise mediocre season just to see.
  • DC’s The Joker – The Joker has been interpreted in a variety of ways by not only several actors, but also several authors and artists in the comic book world. In each iteration, he has the typical colorful hair and white makeup. The extent to which he uses humor deviates based on who is doing the interpretation, but in every version he is the clown.
  • DC’s Harley Quinn – When doing brief research into the archetype of the clown, or fool, I found out that in theater it was used as a foil for the archetype of the harlequin. The harlequin was sly, stealthy, devious, and devilish. The perfect opposite of the bumbling clown. Originally introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, she quickly won over fans and has made her way into the comics, movies, and DC Comics merchandise line. Although her costume has changed over the years, a part of the harlequin is always included in her design.

Honorable Mention

  • The Cabin in the Woods – A group of teenagers heads up to a cabin for a weekend of sex, drinking, and general youth. Very quickly their weekend is derailed and they are left fighting for their lives. Two of the group, Marty and Dana, find themselves in a vault that houses horrors from the old world. A veritable stable of nightmares. Wouldn’t you know that one of them is a clown? As far as I can tell, it’s a nod to Pennywise, wearing the same garish colors and shock of red hair.
  • Frumpy the Clown – This series of comics from Judd Winick features a normal suburban family who happens to live with a disgruntled clown named Frumpy. Frumpy smokes cigarettes, drinks coffee, and advocates anarchy. The children love him. The parents are largely unsure.
  • Funcom’s The Park – I recently devoted an entire post to this Secret World spin-off game. It takes place in a haunted amusement park after dark. Clown imagery, while not necessarily frequent, is extremely effective and terrifying when put to use. I highly recommend playing this game in pitch dark with headphones.
  • Frightworld – My local haunted house features five themed houses. Almost every year they feature a clown house, which is done up in garish blacklight paint and features distorted carnival imagery and mocking clown actors.

 

 

 

 

As stated previously, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means. Just a sampling from TV, movies, and books. If there’s anything else you’d like to add, drop by the comments section!

Shit-Your-Pants Terrifying

Awhile back Dipper gifted me a copy of Funcom’s The Park. It’s a spin-off of their game The Secret World (which is not a topic for this post, but I strongly urge you to give it a whirl!) I’ve recently gotten back into videogames, and yesterday morning Dipper asked me to give it a go when I got home. I was going to write this last night, but after finishing The Park, I just needed to lay down and decompress. There are two main reasons why I needed to decompress. The first is that I get motion sick when playing first person shooter games. This game is also in the first person, but I quickly learned how to move the character so that I didn’t get motion sickness. The second reason is that I have never been scared so thoroughly by a video game, and rarely to this degree by a movie.

In order to take full advantage of the experience, I shut all the lights off in my basement. I dragged the futon over next to me so that Zelda could hang out with me while I gamed. I even put on my headphones. Dipper told me that it was an all-encompassing experience and suggested the headphones. The game begins with a woman standing in the parking lot of a beat to hell looking amusement park called Atlantic Island Park. That’s the only playable character, and her name is Lorraine. She’s looking for her son Callum who has gone missing. She gains entrance to the park and commences to search for him in almost pitch-black conditions.

At the beginning of the game there is a disclaimer, about the game messing with lights, sounds, and visuals. When I read it I chuckled. It seemed ambitious but not unsurprising because The Park is styled as a first-person psychological horror adventure game. Not only was Funcom most decidedly NOT fucking with the gamers, but it drastically failed to prepare the gamer for the sheer terror of it all. Lorraine has no weapons, and doesn’t even get a flashlight until she’s almost done searching the park. In fact, the only thing she can do is call for her son Callum. While this seems useless it’s actually a navigational tool. For each section of the park she has several various phrases that she calls out, and when she does a few things happen. Sometimes Callum will respond and you’ll know where to go based on where the sound is coming from. Oh and be prepared, he’s a creepy little fuck. It’s literally like following Gage Creed in Pet Sematary. Half the time I was temped to leave his possessed-sounding ass behind. Or the screen will slightly warp like looking through a fish eye. This either tells you to go in a certain direction or leads you to something to interact with in the park. If you’d rather navigate this solely on sound, go ahead. You can turn off the visual hints in the menu.

Not so bad, right? Fuck no. Let’s talk about the rides, shall we? The first ride that you go on is The Tunnel of Tales. It’s pretty tame but cool. As you ride through in this swan-shaped boat loudspeakers tell the story of Hansel & Gretel. Shadow displays on the wall highlight key points of the story. If you look around while the story is going on, you’ll notice a few not-so-nice surprises along the way. I wound up actually screaming out loud a few times during this segment. Shit. You. Not.

The other rides are steadily scarier. I can’t even say which one is the scariest. Each ride or attraction had me screaming in real life. I hate roller coasters. I couldn’t stop screaming when Lorraine is riding the rollercoaster. I’ll give you a hint. She’s not alone. By the time I hit the House of Horrors, I was literally crawling from room to room grumbling, “fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fucking hell-fuck-fuck-shit-where-the-fuck-is-he-shit-fuck-omg” the entire time. Things jump out at you, mysterious shadows are there and gone in the blink of an eye, and then there’s Atlantic Island’s Backstory. As you’re looking for Callum there is a paper trail that you follow. The paper trail details the madman that built the park, and a little bit about what he was using it for.

Oh and the chipmunk mascot that’s in the advertising for the game? Yeah. That’s Chad the Chipmunk. The guy who worked as the mascot never took the costume off and basically went totally bugfuck. How do you know? The incident, accident, and death reports you find laying around the park. Even better? He’s one of the creepy motherfuckers sneaking around while you’re trying to find Callum. Sometimes he’s right in your face, other times you barely glimpse the outline and red eyes.

As the game progresses you start to wonder what’s really going on with Lorraine, our main character. Certain areas of the game trigger memories. Lorraine begins talking to herself and trying to rationalize what’s happened in the past or choices she’s made. It all seems pretty forgivable at first. I mean, she’s stuck in this creepy amusement park. She went in when it was still light out but as soon as she goes in it gets dark out? That would be unsettling enough for anyone. Let alone the strange noises and scratching sounds that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere while you’re exploring. Turns out you can’t really trust our Lorraine. She’s a little bugfuck herself, as her conflicting emotions and memories begin to show. Without giving away too much, you also find out that your narrator isn’t quite as reliable because of what she’s gone through. She had a traumatizing childhood and has been medicated for psychiatric problems. These combined with the changing imagery make you start to wonder how much of the game is in her head and how much of it is the evil influence of the amusement park.

I’m going to be completely honest. This game scared me shitless. I’m not being overdramatic when I say that I was screaming pretty much all of the two hours that it took me to go through this game. If you’re good at this type of thing like Dipper, it might take you an hour. I kept wussing out and having trouble going forward. There were a few rides I rode more than once, just to get a closer look at the “extras” that appeared when on the ride. As it turns out, not all of the rides are necessary in order to find Callum, but they do flesh out everyone’s story a little bit more. Also, if you’re a fan of The Secret World, you may recognize some of these locations. The Park takes place about 20 years prior to the Secret World. Oh and the creepy looking motherfucker to the right? The one in rags and a top hat? All out of proportion? Yeah. No fucking clue who he is, though I have my guesses. Not to mention he’s every-fucking-where in this game. But never where you see him coming. More than half the time he sneaks up on you. I was examining something in the Freak Show area and I turned around and he was there. I screamed so loudly Zelda almost fell off the futon beside me!

The park is fantastic. I loved it so much I might play it again soon, just to go through the experience and see what I missed the first time around. The visuals and sounds are terrifying, but I think it’s all the more horrifying in that you don’t have a weapon. Or a flashlight. It’s literally you going through a dark, creepy amusement park at night looking for your kid. By yourself. With nothing to defend yourself and every situation feeling dangerous in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. The closest comparison that I can make is going through a haunted house in real life. You know something is around every corner. But what that thing actually is? And where? Fuck if anyone knows. It’s not like they’ve left you a clue or anything. The Park doesn’t leave you with a nice cut-and-dry ending. It’s enigmatic and very open for debate, and that’s also what makes the game so enjoyable. I have found myself thinking about The Park off and on today at work, thinking through some plot twist or theory. It’s definitely a game that stays with you.

I absolutely recommend this game, but more strongly than that, I recommend you play it the right way. In the dark. Alone. With headphones. Immerse yourself in The Park and you won’t be sorry in the long run, though you’ll be scared out of your mind while you’re playing! And if while you’re playing you happen to feel eyes on your back, it’s probably just Chad the Chipmunk….

 

 

A great addition to an amazing series!

I’ve spent the last few days living in zombified Texas with Rhiannon Frater’s Zombie Hunters Club. I finished the second book in the series (Lost in Texas) in anticipation of reading the third book in the series. I was given an Advanced Reader Copy, and couldn’t wait to start.

While I was reading Journey Across Zombie Texas, Rhiannon released a short story called “Sam Versus the Zombie”, which takes place during the events of the third book. At one point, Sam is separated from the group and he takes shelter in a barn. The short is the story of him fighting for his life during a hellish hailstorm against a very persistent zombie.

Journey Across Zombie Texas is every bit as good as the first two books in the series. In fact, if I had to make a choice, I’m not sure I could give a preference to any of the books over the others. Rhiannon excels at putting her characters in very realistic threatening situations, which makes the reader worry for everyone’s safety. There is no such thing as a safe encounter with a zombie, and sometimes not even with other people.

This third installment finds Josh and the Zombie Hunters Club trying to cross Texas to get to a FEMA camp. The convoy that they had been travelling in has been compromised, and it’s up to Josh and his group to make it on their own. Unfortunately zombies aren’t their only obstacles. Well-meaning adults who don’t quite understand how the zombie apocalypse works inadvertently make their journey more dangerous. Not to mention a familiar and unwelcome face in Chad, the group’s living adversary. As if being doggedly followed by swarms of the living dead weren’t bad enough!

Journey Across Zombie Texas was a difficult book to put down. I started reading it over the weekend, and unfortunately for me, I had to sleep sometime. I didn’t want to put the book down ever, because it was so exciting. Josh and his friends were adept at getting out of most of the situations unharmed, but there were a few that I was positive there were going to be casualties. Despite my love for all things zombie, I’m ashamed to say that I probably wouldn’t have been able to be that level-headed.

The other aspect of the book that I want to point out is how realistic the kids’ reactions to the events were. Some were traumatized, some panicked, others put their heads down and thought things through. The range of emotions and responses was realistic, but also was another way for Rhiannon to show the reader the growth that the characters experienced throughout their journey. The reader can see each character progressing in terms of complexity with each passing page. I am really impressed with the overall result.

I hate to pressure Rhiannon, so I will just say this. I would love for the series to continue. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the adventures of the Zombie Hunters Club. Also, there are a few unanswered questions that I have after finishing the current last book in the series. Although she hasn’t announced anything (to my knowledge) in terms of where she wants to take the series, I would be happy with a book of stories about the characters set in that universe. She’s done that for other series, so I’m holding out hope. Especially if this series becomes as well-read and well-known as it should be.

On that note, you need to read this series. It doesn’t matter if you’re normally a zombie fan or not. It doesn’t matter if Young Adult Literature is your thing or not. If you are a person that enjoys horror, excitement, and great characters, then you need to read The Living Dead Boy series. Trust me. You’ll thank me later!