Dragging My Niece to H-E-L-L and Back!

For two years now Dipper has been trying to get me to play The Secret World. I tried it and loved the concept – it’s like playing a horror film or book. Everything is true – the Boogeyman haunts an amusement park with a dark past, Cthulhu knows your helicopter out of the sky, and the world is controlled by a series of secret societies. (Not to mention the other really creepy mythology of the game, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone – until another post, that is.)

I recently started playing in earnest with the release of Secret World Legends, which is a re-vamp of the game. Most of the original missions and storyline are still present, but Funcom tweaked the game. Combat is more streamlined, as is the tutorial process. Having experienced the old game to a degree, I feel able to say with confidence that the new iteration is much more fun for the new gamer. My brother, who has played it since it was in beta, is very much in love with the game. He hasn’t (to my knowledge) come across anything in the new game that he’s displeased with.

In any event, Phoebe watched Dipper play, and wanted to give it a whirl. She hopped on an alternate character that he had created and took off! She loves playing in the Maine-esque Kingsmouth town, which is populated by a haunted ship called the Lady Margaret, zombies, and other weird creatures. As Phoebe progressed through the game she wanted to start running dungeons. My main character is at the maximum level (50) and is able to take her through the first dungeon. In the first dungeon, you and your team are tasked to explore the wreck of the ship The Polaris (which is what gives the dungeon it’s name). As you fight through a series of bosses, you come to realize that the ship was besieged with horrible creatures and…..well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say Phoebe runs that dungeon on a daily basis and still isn’t tired of it yet.

Once she reached the level to do the first of the three H-E-L-L dungeons, she asked to be taken through. We joined up as a private team and entered. I’m a close-range fist weapon fighter (think Wolverine with cotton candy colored hair and teacher clothes) and Phoebe rocks a shotgun – hammer mix. When I say she rocks out, I really mean it. Those readers acquainted with any kind of raid or dungeon run know that sometimes when you’re taking a lower level character around, you’re stuck doing EVERYTHING. Not the case with Phoebe. She’s literally right in the middle of the fray, shooting and smashing her way to glory. (Though her motivation might come as a surprise. You can use in-game tokens to purchase digital pets for your character. As of right now, Dipper’s alt character has almost every pet you can purchase from a vendor, and Phoebe’s character on her own account is quickly gaining in the contest.)

One of the best things about playing video games with Phoebe is listening to her reaction to the content. Secret World Legends is definitely for mature players, though thankfully she skips through most of the cut scenes. In her eagerness to wipe out as many digital enemies as possible, I’m never sure how much of the story line she picks up while playing. However, she is a fast learner in terms of the raid mechanics. The first time I took her through I died while fighting Recursia. Recursia is a big-breasted dominatrix-style succubus who does not die easily. While fighting her, minions are released from a circle around her. If they get to her, she gets stronger. Well, I tasked Phoebe to keep the minions down since they don’t really fight back, they just move inexorably towards their destination. I was more worried about Phoebe than I was my own situation, and I got careless. I died – which in this game means the other players either have to kill the boss they’re battling, or die too. I was freaking out because I was sure she was toast. Much to my surprise, she jumped in with rabid vigor and destroyed Recursia with two swings of her hammer. I didn’t realize I’d died with so little of a window to go. I congratulated her, and she basically told me that she was pissed Recursia had killed me. Phoebe never fails to warm my heart.

She’s also eagle-eyed. There are little tidbits you can collect in all the zones called lore. Lore are little pieces of the mythology and story of the game and it’s inhabitants. Usually I’m pretty good at picking up lore, especially when running a dungeon with Dipper. Even so, Phoebe is extremely thorough and we were able to get two lore I didn’t have before. I have to check later, but I’m reasonably certain that I now have all the lore for the first H-E-L-L dungeon.

If you’re wondering why H-E-L-L is written letter by letter, that’s all Phoebe. For the longest time she wouldn’t say it because she thought it was swearing. Ever the teacher I tried to explain to her that it depended on the use.

Me: “Phoebe, ‘hell’ isn’t a bad word.”

Phoebe: “Yes it is. You just want to hear me say it.” (Her refusal to swear is endearing, and we are all patiently waiting for the innocence to fade and her vocabulary to become more colorful.)

Me:“Well, yes and no. It all depends on how you mean it.”

Phoebe: “Mhm….”

Me: “No, really. If you’re telling someone to go to Hell, it’s totally cursing. If you’re talking about a Hell dungeon, well, Hell is a place on the game map. It’s also a place some people believe in. In which case it’s a proper noun.”

Phoebe: “Mhm….”

There will be no taking Phoebe for a fool. I meant every word of what I told her, but she’s wise beyond her ten years and she had to take some time to think on it. We’ve progressed to the point where she’ll ask to go to the hell dungeon, but it’s more of a whisper. She’s still not totally comfortable saying it.

If you’re wanting to join in the fun, you can download Secret World Legends for free here or through the game client Steam. My previous post  about the game The Park is also a game in this series. There are some in-game purchases, and if you want you can become a monthly Patron, which allows you to teleport around the map at no cost, as well as other benefits.

If you want to find me in-game, send me a message and I’ll tell you who I am. Just don’t expect Phoebe to want to play – she’s web-smart! I’ll never forget the day a random person tried to group with her. Dipper and I were talking and we heard her yell, “Ew! NO. Why would he do that?!” Dipper and I were freaking out wondering what was going on, and when we realized that she didn’t want to group with another player we almost died laughing. The sheer indignation that someone random would actually think she’d accept their invite….it was nearly Victorian in her disdain! I would have given almost anything to have been there in person and not listening over a phone! On a serious note, thank goodness she’s smart about online interactions. While it’s true there are plenty of good people online, I don’t trust everyone’s intentions. (She may not be my niece by blood, but she is by heart and soul, and I’m very protective of her.)

Stay tuned for more news from Secret World and the H-E-L-L dungeons! I’ll be periodically posting our adventures. Especially considering Panda and I now have enough computers at our house for Phoebe to experience her first LAN party!

 

A sequel I couldn’t put down!

In fall 2016 Suzanne Robb released Dead by Midnight, a clever supernatural mystery set in a town where supernatural beings live with otherwise normal citizens. Robb uses humorous snips from reporter Lucy Lane’s articles at the beginning her chapters to introduce readers to the various locations and people in the town. These are very tongue-in-cheek, and absolutely well written. (They are part of what helped to make Lucy one of my personal favorites.)

If you haven’t read Dead by Midnight, I urge you to stop reading this post. You’re going to spoil a great mystery with fantastic characters. Go and purchase the book (available on Kindle and traditional paperback) and start there. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

 

 

Since you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you’ve read book 1, and are now ready for the sequel.

I really envy you!

Reading a book for the first time is a special experience. Even more so when it deals with a really strange murder mystery. In Apocalypse by Midnight, Chief Elliot Jorgensen, Lucy, Zach, and Buddy are trying their best to get back to a normal life after catching the serial killer in book 1. Zach and Lucy are dating, Sheriff Elliott is drinking heavily and trying to avoid any meetings with the mysterious mayor, and Buddy is enjoying life as an undercover house pet.

Bodies start showing up in strange places around town, and it has the mayor worried. These aren’t just any citizens, they’ve all got ties to the elusive and reclusive Private Acres. Elliot and Zach have to find a way to solve the crime without letting tenacious Lucy get too close. Despite her best efforts, Lucy still isn’t in the inner circle of people who know about Fantasy Land, and those who stumble onto the knowledge have a way of meeting a mysterious end. Unfortunately, neither Elliott nor Zach are any good at lying, and Lucy finds her way into the case despite their best efforts.

As if this weren’t enough chaos, Zach’s friend Riley comes back from a trip as an unconventional vampire. He can’t stand rain or molasses, and even though he’s dating the woman of his dreams, he has certain…physical setbacks. Lucky for him Gretel doesn’t seem to mind. What she does mind is Lucy – whose curiosity is mistaken for an interest in hurting Riley. Zach and Riley are trying to get their friendship back on track, but that’s hard to do when Zach realizes goofy Riley may just be the killer.

Gretel’s brother, Hans, works security for Private Acres, but he’s not overly fond of nosy girlfriends, half-assed vampires, or witches. In fact, the only things he seems to care for are his sister, and anything sugary.

As the mystery of the bodies is unraveled, Zach, Elliot, and Lucy find themselves in a race against the clock. This isn’t any regular serial killer mystery – it’s only the beginning of a plot that will cause the apocalypse. As if that weren’t hair-raising enough, just when the group needs each other the most they begin to splinter off into factions, driven by an unnatural paranoia.

I was on the edge of my seat while reading Apocalypse by Midnight, wondering if the group would get it together in time to solve the mystery, or if the apocalypse was all but unavoidable. Not to mention – just what kind of monster leaves such a strange crime scene?! I thought I knew the habits of every kind of monster out there, but Robb has one again created a delightful surprise for the reader.

If you had asked me a couple of years ago if I was into mysteries, I would have told you no. That’s no longer the case. The By Midnight series is, in large part, what has changed my views. I’ve started branching out into other mystery books, even when there is no supernatural element. I can think of no greater compliment for an author than that reading their books has opened up new avenues for the reader. Getting me to turn from supernatural and horror stories is no small feat, but Suzanne Robb has accomplished just that. The mystery elements and plot twists in her story were so satisfying that I didn’t want the story to end, and I am pleased that she is keeping the series open to more titles in the future. (On a side note, if, like me, you can’t get enough of wily Lucy Lane after reading the series, you can follow her adventures in between books at All Things Strange and Unusual.)

 

 

Saccharine Insanity!

I’ve re-written the introduction to this post more than four times. I’m not even sure how to proceed now. You see, I’m not used to dealing with Artificial Intelligence, and to be quite honest, I’m somewhat of an alarmist about it. But more on that later.

Let’s start with Artificial Intelligence – what is it exactly? Google defines it as “the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages”. Which doesn’t sound so bad, and most of the links that come up with the definition have to do with the business benefits of AI.

IndieWire.com put together a great list of the 10 Essential Movies About Artificial Intelligence, which you can read here. They span the cute and fuzzy (a re-telling of Pinocchio’s desire to become a real boy) to the absolutely terrifying (machines taking over and exterminating humanity, or simply using us as batteries. ::shudder::).

The first encounter with AI that I can remember is the Terminator. 1984’s movie Terminator is a scary and cool concept, until you stop to think about the fact that in some ways science is progressing faster than we can process what we’ve discovered. The scene that sticks with me is a barren wasteland of skulls, suddenly being crushed by the machines as they come to kill the last rebellious humans. The idea of a murderous robot masquerading in human skin and coming to kill someone was mind-blowing at the time. Not going to lie – it still is. (In case you’re somehow not familiar with this sci-fi classic, basically humans create an Artificial Intelligence called Skynet. Instead of serving humanity, Skynet decides to annihilate humanity, and begins creating other sentient machines. Terminators are the machines that look like humans, and their sole purpose is to rid the world of humanity. There is a resistance movement, and when the machines are about to lose, they send a Terminator back in time to kill John Connor’s mom. No mother means no son, means no future revolutionary leader. Problem solved, right? Thankfully, not so fast. Kyle sends back a protector for his younger self, and the race to save Sarah Connor – and humanity – is on!)

On the other side of the spectrum, and still in my childhood is Short Circuit. Two years after the first Terminator movie debuted, this movie hit theaters. In this thought-provoking comedy, Number 5 is a military robot that gets electrocuted and suddenly becomes self-aware. Along with self-awareness comes an appreciation for life, and a sense of childlike wonder. Realizing that he’s not with other sentient machines, he escapes, and sets off to figure out his place in the world. Along the way he meets a woman named Stephanie (played by Ally Sheedy), who believes he’s actually an alien. She introduces him to American culture, and helps cement his wish to stay free. The military, however, has other plans. What I didn’t realize at the time is the commentary of the movie on the ethics of AI. Is an artificially intelligent being really it’s own entity? Does it belong to the creator? At what point do we consider something “sentient”?

If you’re wondering just where in the hell I’m going with all of this, well, last week I had my first cognizant brush with AI. I was perusing Facebook and some of my friends were posting inspirational quotes from InspiroBot. InspiroBot is a website that uses AI to generate inspirational quotes. I can’t vouch for the extent to which it’s formulaic or AI, but that’s what it’s calling itself. I was curious, and so I went to InspiroBot.me and gave the random quote generating a try. The screen snippet at the left is the splash page. It attempts to be friendly, but I thought of Terminator more than anything else. In between generating quotes, InspiroBot displays messages that, I think (read: I HOPE) are meant to be funny. They were creepy, more than anything.

“Cut contact with family and friends.”

“Earth is not an alien battlefield.”

“Skynet would never happen in real life.”

Oh shit! Right?! There were more phrases, but those were the ones I took screenshots of because they were the creepiest. It’s probably just coincidence, but I was telling someone about how Skynet-y this site felt, and it displayed the Skynet message. If I said I nearly shit myself it would be an understatement. I actually hopped off the site for a bit.

At first, running through the different memes InspiroBot came up with was pretty funny. For this post, I hopped on over to the site and generated a few quotes.

They ranged from the amusingly truthful to the outright threatening. I think part of what’s so scary about these memes is when they  make sense on a deeper level. Also….who the hell gave it the vocabulary it’s using?! InspiroBot seems to favor “psychopaths”, and you may find as I did, that ruminations on psychopaths come up often.

As much fun as it is to play around with InspiroBot, I keep thinking about AI and what kind of future we are moving ourselves towards. At the risk of sounding like a fossil, I keep going back to Ian Malcom’s warning in Jurassic Park.

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

I don’t doubt that AI will be useful in many professions, and improve people’s lives. But before we create intelligence and sentience, I think we should work on our own humanity.

 

P.S. Shit you not – those three memes are all from InspiroBot. Seriously!

 

 

Voyeurs Wanted!

I have always had a bit of a thing for the macabre, whether it’s creepy old buildings, abandoned cemeteries, or dusty old antique shops. I’m also interested in the history of mental heath care, which at times has more closely resembled torture than treatment.

When Dipper sent me a link to The Order of the Good Death, I was intrigued. Through The Order, Caitlin works to bring a better understand of death to people. She is a proponent of making death a more natural part of our culture again, instead of it being cold and distant. Caitlin believes that if the family has more involvement in the funerary process, it helps the grieving process, and allows us to take an honest look at death and dying. Unfortunately it’s an experience none of us are going to avoid.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is an account of Caitlin’s first experience with death and the way it shaped the woman she would become. She writes about how she became part of the funeral business. When she first starts out, her ideas of a more commercialized, and almost candy-coated funeral home are well-intentioned, but not necessarily practical. As she gains more experience in the field and insight into the ways in which we mourn, she eventually comes to believe the direct opposite. Caitlin becomes an advocate of family involvement, believing that it’s healthier to confront death as a natural part of life. Having experienced three funerals close together a year ago, I can completely understand where she’s coming from. Spending time taking care of the body and preparing it for burial or cremation is a very intimate process.

She also explores different death rituals from other cultures and time periods. Rituals like mummification weren’t just done for the hell of it, but had meaning for the people involved and the community as a whole. Caitlin points out that over the last few decades we as a culture have developed a deep phobia of death, and have driven to make it almost impersonal. She also advocates exploring more than just the standard burial or cremation. There are now other options such as turning your cremated body into the container for a tree seed, or the pros and cons of donating your body to science. She also points out on numerous occasions about the damage done when we turn our backs on the natural process of dying.

While all of this may sound purely clinical, it’s a frank and intimate discussion about death, written by a witty and insightful narrator who has personal experience in the field. She also livens up her narrative by interjecting stories from her own career, be they humorous or sad. It’s well worth looking into both her book and her website.

On her website, under Death Positive, you will find a pledge you can sign if you wish to become part of the Order. It’s not a gimmick or a plea for funding. It’s an 8 point summation of the ideas of Death Positive, and The Order of the Good Death in general. If you’re wondering, yes, I signed the pledge. I agree with Caitlin – death is not something that should be hidden behind closed doors or pushed out of the cultural consciousness. It’s part of the natural balance – we are born, we grow and live and experience, and then we die. Asking questions about death should be encouraged, and we should work as a society to dispel the disinformation surrounding death and it’s processes.

I can’t praise Smoke Gets in Your Eyes enough. Caitlin is a solid writer who, pardon the bad pun, is attempting to breathe new life into our perception of death and dying. She is by no means disrespectful, and clearly has spent time researching her subject to the point of mastery. I am looking forward to her new book, From Here to Eternity, which will be released on October 3, 2017. If you’re interested in hearing her speak, check out the website. There are speaking engagements on the West Coast (which I would give my right thumb to attend!)

I finally found it!

Back when I was in high school, one of my English teachers kept a small bookshelf with different books for us to read if we had nothing to occupy ourselves with. One day I started a book that I didn’t get to finish, but wished I had. I’ve been searching for this particular book off and on for years, but it’s hard to find a book when all you can remember is that the cover was white, and some guy on a plane literally exploded with Ebola. Not exactly the best description to go by!

Surprisingly enough, Dipper recognized the book by my description. He told me I was looking for The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. He also forewarned me that it wasn’t the greatest piece of literature he’d ever read, but if I was that interested that it had stayed with me, I might as well read it.

A couple weeks ago my job took me to a local hospital that isn’t within the usual system I work. One of the unspoken bonuses of working in hospital systems is that most of the gift shops offer a cart of used books for sale. I love used books! On this particular day I was lucky. I found In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, MD, which is about addiction. It’s a relatively thick book and sounds really interesting. I have some small experience with addiction, as my aunt was a very dedicated alcoholic.

The other book was The Hot Zone. At long last, I had found it! Granted, it was a severely beaten copy, but for 50 cents and charity at a hospital, you simply can’t go wrong! I purchased both books, and since it was a Friday, I was able to finish my current read at home and begin The Hot Zone.

The Hot Zone started off pretty confusing, because there was much talk of Marburg as well as Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan. Until reading this book, I don’t believe I was ever fully aware that there were enough strains of Ebola for one to be considered worse than the other. I also had no idea where Marburg fit into the equation. As it turns out, they’re all filoviruses. Filoviruses look stringy under a microscope, and cause hemorrhaging in people and primates. They’re also called “the three sisters” because of how they are related in terms of structure and effect on a living body.

The first part of the book went into the differences in the filoviruses, as well as some information on how they were discovered. I found that extremely interesting, but since I wasn’t expecting it to cover the different viruses, I was lost a few times and had to backtrack. In retrospect, I’m really glad Preston covered the viruses in the beginning, because I also got used to terminology that he would use later. For instance, I had no idea that when sick with a hemorrhagic disease, a body is considered to “crash out” when it is so completely consumed by the virus that it basically collapses, turns to mush, and spreads the virus. Preston also does a really good job of explaining the different levels of clearance when working with viruses. Level 4 is the killer stuff – Ebola, Marburg, Lassa. In other words, the nasty shit.

After this run-through and backstory, The Hot Zone shifts it’s focus to Ebola Reston. This strain was discovered in Reston, Virginia in a building that housed monkeys used in research. I don’t want to ruin the whole book for any potential readers, but I will say this. Once the story hones in on Ebola Reston, it’s easy to see parallels between the story and the 1995 movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr, Kevin Spacey, and Donald Sutherland. (While I’m at it – it’s a super cheeseball movie but one of my favorites. I highly recommend that you watch it!)

There are some parts of The Hot Zone that are really confusing, and I would have preferred if Preston followed a chronological timeline for the viruses in the beginning, rather than skipping around. As someone not terribly familiar with these viruses, it made understanding their origins difficult. However, once Preston switched to Ebola Reston, I found the book much better written and easier to follow. The pace also picked up, making it a page-turner. I appreciate the fact that Preston conducted several interviews with the people involved in the outbreak of Reston, as well as the other filoviruses, because it gave the book an edge. Instead of guessing how people felt or what their motivations were, he had knowledge from the interviews.

Overall I liked The Hot Zone, and it’s spurred me into a serious kick. I have purchased several other books on Ebola, HIV, and other diseases. I am also on a binge for virus-themed movies. Be forewarned – there will be a bit of a sidetrack into the viral for the next few posts!

 

Shame and Forgiveness

Recently the majority of my posts have been geared towards The Mental Health Corner more than they have the horror side of my life. One of the reasons for this is that I find it extremely cathartic to work out my feelings in a blog post. The main reason is that I hope that these posts will help someone who reads them. I think anxiety, depression, and many other mental illnesses are still the realm of myth for many people. They may throw the words around without an understanding of the meaning, or may know someone with a diagnosis, but may not see them in the jaws of their illness.

Last night was rough. Rougher than I’ve known in quite some time. Overall the day wasn’t bad. I went to work (day #34 in a row!) and even made it to see my niece play soccer. I sat field-side with my brother, and we had a great time talking while she played. (If you’re wondering, she rocked it in goal again.) I snagged a few pics with my niece, and she asked how many games I was planning on going to. Dipper answered for me because I was flabbergasted. It never crossed my mind to go to any less than every game I could. After the game, I stopped at a local nursery and purchased a gorgeous morning glory plant and a new watering can. When I got home, I walked Zelda and curled up with Midnight Blue.

It should have been a great day, but all day long I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was worthless. That I didn’t impact anyone around me. The feeling wouldn’t let me be, and around 9pm I lost control. I cried steadily for a few hours. I wound up sending messages to Dipper. At first the messages were affirming. Then the cycle hardcore kicked into gear. I started feeling like I couldn’t express what I meant in a meaningful way, then I was worried I was blathering on. It wound up with me calling Dipper a few times, and him waking up and messaging me. I needed tethering badly, and he assured me that I’m still sister to him, aunt to Phoebe, and wife to Tkout. That the good outweighs the bad. That it’s always worth it. I can’t express how much I needed that. How much I needed to know I mattered. I’d been asking Tkout all day if I was still his wife. If he regrets marrying me. If the hard days give him second thoughts.

The shame usually accompanies a 911 routine with Dipper, but I think last night I was far too exhausted for that. I fell asleep with my eyes burning from the tears and the inner voice telling me if I didn’t get my shit together – and soon – I was going to go well and truly mad.

This morning was tough. I’m writing this from work – Day 35 – and I am so glad it’s the last day of the week. I almost didn’t make it in. I slept poorly and just feel like hiding. I’ve talked to Tkout and Dipper this morning, and they are both going about things like last night never even happened. Tkout told me that’s because these things happen and they both know it.

Today I’m working on the forgiveness aspect of self-care. While I consider myself to be adept at forgiving others, I’m still working on forgiving myself. I’m trying to focus on the fact that these things happen. That I have been worse and haven’t scared anyone off yet. That Tkout, Dipper, and Phoebe have been there through thick and thin. That Tkout and Dipper tell me it’s Ride or Die.

Despite what feels like a colossal setback, I know I am making progress. The anxiety is lying and saying that I’m not getting better. But I know that’s not true. You see, I used to have these 911 attacks multiple times in one day. Let me repeat that. I was having a 5 alarm fire anxiety attack more than once a day. It sucks badly that I broke my streak of not having those kinds of attacks, but I’m thankful it was the first of it’s kind in a long while.

Another part of forgiveness that I’m trying to master is knowing that everyone else moved on. Dipper and Tkout have treated me the same as they have every morning. I’m the only one who seems to still be stuck in the past and worrying over yesterday.

Not Without a Fight

When the dam broke and I was forced to come to terms with the state of my mental health, it caused me to start reevaluating things. One of the positive outcomes was that I gained a backbone. I have always had a smart mouth, but I gained the spine to go with it. Tkout and Dipper assure me that the sparkly Care Bear is still there, I haven’t lost that, and I can outdo Mary Poppins herself on most days. What I don’t do so easily anymore is back into a corner. Nowadays I’m more inclined to stand up for myself. It feels good.

While I was going through my struggles I found I wanted to push people away. Everyone. Almost constantly. I was angry with the people who didn’t (or couldn’t) understand what I was going through and as a result stepped back from me. I felt they abandoned me. The ones who held on but didn’t seem to know how to help? I was angry with them too. The ones that tried to tell me I wasn’t as bad off as I knew I was? I didn’t want to explain it to them. I wanted them gone. Before I knew it, I had whittled my circle down and was in danger of getting rid of the few people who remained.

Tkout and Dipper tried to convince me not to continue pushing people away. At times they weren’t even immune to the purge, but they held on. For them it was different though, I was selfishly trying to save myself the pain of losing them when they moved on. When they had enough of the crying, the insecurity, the wobbly moods, the struggle. What I refused to have faith in was the fact that they weren’t going anywhere. They still haven’t, and I won’t claim that everything is always a field of wildflowers. I still have dark days. I still feel the need to push everyone away, but it’s more when I know I’m not playing nice. When I have too much rage built up and nowhere to release it. When I find myself lashing out at the people I love. When I know intrinsically that “I’m not good with people right now”. Lucky for me they both roll their eyes and stand their ground.

Recently I’ve found that I want people in my life again. Bit by bit. I’m starting to want to make room again. To make plans. To see those plans through. The big test was this past Saturday.

VTVT has been a friend for years. We met while working at PetSmart. I didn’t like her at first. I thought she was a know-it-all and it drove me bugfuck. What I was unwilling to realize was that I was jealous. While I was scraping by living with my parents, scooping hamster shit at a pet store, and waiting for my big break as a teacher, this chick was living her dream. She was a vet tech (VTVT was the name I made up for her when I didn’t like her, based on her penchant of reminding people she was a Vet Tech.) When my jealousy subsided and I started to see who she really was, I realized I not only liked her, but we clicked. She was the person who taught me how to crochet, which is one of my favorite hobbies.

During the Dark Year she was one of the people I pushed away. She was getting ready for her wedding, which I backed out of being a bridesmaid because of the anxiety, depression, and inability to handle crowds. The stress of that coupled with the fact that I couldn’t seem to explain to her what was going on with me only frustrated me more. She made suggestions – do yoga, drink tea, crochet, go for a walk. These are sound suggestions, unless you’re in a dark hole and looking for somewhere to vent your rage. I viewed them as unhelpful, and decided that they weren’t going to make the pain go away or make me better. I pulled away. She still posted on my Facebook wall. She texted. The offer to hang was always there. But I didn’t want to go to the Botanical Gardens. Or the craft store. Or the state park. Or anywhere that wasn’t the dark of my basement or Dipper’s house. She offered to come over, but I found the idea of hanging out with anyone who wasn’t Tkout or Dipper or Phoebe too terrifying to even consider. I always said no.

After awhile I think she figured out that I had closed off. That didn’t stop her from texting. Or offering a ride to the park. Or asking me if I needed to go to the craft store or out for coffee. She didn’t get mad when I wouldn’t text her for a few days. (Or weeks, if we are being honest.) She never blew up on me because while I couldn’t hang out with her, I hung out with Dipper and Phoebe all the time. She was patient.

This past Saturday we finally hung out. She came over to my house and I gave her an afghan I made for her right before the Dark Year started. I also gave her a Star Wars pin with a Funko cartoon version of Wicket, her favorite Ewok. I found it at GameStop a few weeks ago. She loved them, and I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t even wrapped them, or put them in a gift bag. She didn’t seem to mind.

We sat in my living room with Zelda and talked for a bit. It felt like we hadn’t ever stopped hanging out. It felt comfortable. We talked about her progress in yoga and my progress with finding a job that made me happy. We caught up. It felt good.

Then we hopped in her car and headed to the local park. I knew VTVT liked to bird watch. She does it while sitting in her garden at home. I had a fuzzy recollection of her purchasing some binoculars. I didn’t realize how into it she had become. We walked the park trails and she kept her eyes out for birds. We saw a woodpecker right off the bat, as well as some catbirds. She told me about the different birds and what made them special. People often feed the wildlife in the park, but we hadn’t brought anything. Neither of us believe in feeding the wild animals. We think familiarity with humans is to their detriment. Even so, we had quite the entourage. A squirrel, chipmunk, blue jay, and some other assorted wildlife were following us along the trails. They kept their distance, sort of. It allowed for some really nice photos, and certainly it was nice to get closer without the animals being behind glass at a zoo.

VTVT is a bit of a shutterbug, like me. She kept trying to take pictures of birds, whereas I was more into the bugs and the fuzzy animals. Not to mention plants. I love taking pictures looking up into tree canopies. They’re like a slice of comfort. One of her goals was to get a picture of her doing Tree Pose on a tree stump. We managed that with flying colors!

I think we spent 3 hours in the park, and walked just under 10,000 steps. It was definitely refreshing and fun to get together again. I’m looking forward to it in the future, and am thinking of reaching out and asking her for some help breaking the ground for my garden. I have bulbs that need planting, and I find creating flowerbeds to be a bit of a pain in the ass. VTVT built her garden from the ground up, and adds to it every year. But that’s a topic for another post.

This morning I thanked Dipper for not letting me cut everyone out of my life. He was the first to notice it, but only because he had done that himself during his dark times. Tkout listened to my complaints about people, but was always the devil’s advocate for not getting rid of them. He always argued that there was merit, even if it meant that I needed to take a little bit of a break here and there. At the time, I went along with their suggestions, but wasn’t fully sold on them.

After VTVT left on Saturday I started to think about the Dark Year and why I pushed people away. I’m not going to take all the blame – there were more than I few moments where I was justifiably angry with people. However more often than not, I just wanted something concrete to fight. Mental illness is invisible. Even when the symptoms present themselves, there’s nothing you can fight. You can’t strangle depression. You can’t lock anxiety up and throw away the key. You can’t get on a train, plane, or boat to escape them. The same is to be said of the other disorders and diseases. Like it or not, they’re with you for the ride.

I’m a person that, while I don’t relish conflict, I prefer to meet my challenges head-on. Tkout says that I like to fight things out and be done with it. He’s not wrong. During the Dark Year I didn’t know what to fight. I felt helpless. The medicine adjustments were a hellacious rollercoaster. The soaring highs and crushing lows were unbearable at times. When I was suicidal, I didn’t want to reach out and bother anyone. I know everyone says, “If you need anything let me know.” The problem is, when you’re so sick of it all, you don’t want to let anyone know. You want to be out of the picture. No longer anyone’s problem.

Lacking a corporeal target, I turned on my friends. I found fault where there wasn’t any. Where there was fault, I amplified it to gargantuan proportions. Tkout and Dipper saved me from getting rid of everyone, and I can’t express how thankful I am to both of them. On Saturday I realized how much I miss VTVT. There are other friends I miss too, and it’s my hope that I will be able to bring them back steadily. That’s not to say that everyone is coming back, because in going through it and finding my spine, I came to realize some people really are there to use you. The ones that aren’t, the ones that waited, they’re the ones I am looking forward to letting back in.

This post is longer than I meant it to be, but I hope the message I intended to convey came across. Don’t let your illness and the struggle make you blind. If you need space, take it. But whatever you do, don’t listen to the voice telling you to let everyone go. At times your illness will find every excuse in the book to get you to get rid of people. Don’t listen. Don’t allow it to isolate you. Keep fighting the good fight.

 

An Impressive Offering

Back in 2014 I had the pleasure of reviewing These Old Tales by Kenneth W. Cain. It was an anthology of his dark fiction. I still remember the tale of the man whose life is too good to be true, until he finds himself in a Chinese buffet run by a very shady proprietor. Every time I see shrimp at the grocery or on a menu, I hear “irucky shrimp!” in my head and I shudder. Suffice to say, Cain’s stories have a way of staying with you long after you’ve read them.

Which brings me to the subject of my current review. When I heard that Cain was publishing another anthology I couldn’t wait to purchase it. Previously I had read his works on my Kindle, but this time I was bound and determined to get myself a copy I could hold in my hand. I ordered Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction off Amazon as soon as I was able. When it arrived I held it as close to my face as I could in order to see the intricate detail of the cover. Laugh all you want – it’s true. The cover, like so many of Cain’s stories, is frightening in it’s subtlety. The tiny red glowing eyes of the child and the setting which evokes thoughts of a catacomb. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve come across Ben Baldwin’s cover artwork before, but I will be on the lookout going forward. It compliments the stories within the book extremely well.

From time to time I have found that when an author writes their own anthology it can be problematic in that the stories start to take on a formula. Cain defies this monotony by switching the perspective his stories are written from as well as their settings. Every story is unique but fits extremely well within the whole. There are several that I can tell will be staying with me for some time. Cain also varies the monsters in his stories. I was surprised when reading that a few of them were from the perspective of the monster itself, and often it can be debated who really should wear the mantle of “monster”. The human characters aren’t always the most horrifying and evil in the stories. The only aspect of Cain’s work that could be considered formulaic is that he enjoys leading the reader in one direction and then completely ripping the figural carpet from their feet. Rather than being disorienting or annoying, this tactic is one of my favorite aspects of his writing. Cain’s stories are interactive, in that I’m always guessing who the narrator and characters are and what the surprise will be. I can say that with Embers I never guessed correctly. I came sort of close in the story “The Bad Men” but I wasn’t quite on the money.

I loved Cain’s work back in 2014 and didn’t think it could get much better. I was delightfully wrong! Cain has honed his storytelling to a razor-blade precision that cuts deep every time. He’s more confident in his storytelling and it shows in that he’s willing to go even further into the odd and unfamiliar in order to scare his readers. Back in 2014 I compared his writing to The Twilight Zone. I almost would have compared it to Tales from the Darkside, but I think even that isn’t really getting to the marrow of the matter. Cain is in a class of his own. His stories are short, wickedly clever, and have a way of burrowing into your mind.

As a reviewer, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t speak to the quality of his characters. Cain doesn’t need to go in-depth describing every facet of his characters. Most of the time he lets the characters speak for themselves through their actions and choices. From the tiniest human to the most tentacled being, all of Cain’s characters are relatable and so realistic you can’t help but become immersed in their stories. One of my favorite characters is Boris, the anxiety-riddled bystander in “To Save One Life”. He knows the identity of a heinous killer and wants desperately to step in, but he’s not sure how much he can do to save the victims. The reader watches helplessly as Boris tries to figure out some method of intervention, and it’s impossible not to feel for his distress leaking off the page.

The girl in “Valerie’s Window” faces a terrible dilemma. If she leaves the safety of the house in which she hides, she risks being eaten by the undead. However, the house isn’t as safe as it should be, and she has a difficult choice ahead of her. Cain goes beyond the usual trope of being trapped with nasty people during the apocalypse to bring a multi-layered and heartbreaking story to life. I had to re-read parts of it because I couldn’t help but hope that I was wrong in my assumptions. I was correct, and I don’t envy the girl her choices one bit.

His story “Soul Tapped”, about a man named Henry who lives in a nursing home reminded me of one of my favorite movies. Like Bruce Campbell’s character in Bubba Ho-Tep, Henry is up against a supernatural foe that is hell-bent on killing. Henry tries to stop it, and in so doing finds out a truth more awful than he could have ever imagined.

For those who love a good Lovecraft story, there’s “The Water People”, in which a man spends his life researching the myth that there are tentacle beings inhabiting Chesapeake Bay. As is usually the case in these stories, he is proven correct with disastrous results. Cain’s parting shot, however, will leave your jaw swinging and your mind spinning. It’s anything but the usual fare.

Cain’s characters are anything but black and white. They are as multi-faceted as any real person you know. They are presented with difficult decisions and even worse situations, and they do the best that they can. Monster and man both are tested relentlessly, Cain never taking the easy way out. Some of the stories are predominately scary, some are predominately sad. All of them will evoke a range of emotions while you read and long after you’ve finished.

I can’t recommend Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction highly enough. Normally I wait until I am done with a book before putting up a review, but I couldn’t wait. I have to finish “Parasite”, which is visceral, nasty, and totally engrossing. (And, it might be mentioned, somehow I’ve found up eating while trying to read this story three times, having lost my appetite every time!) Then read “Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women”, “The Benefit of Being Weighty”, and the “Afterword” by Cain, and I will be finished. In many ways I wish Embers would never end because it’s so damnably enjoyable. However, considering Cain seems to enjoy these anthologies of dark fiction, I am hopeful that there will be many more volumes in the years to come.

If I may make one last suggestion, if you like what you’ve read in this review, not only should you pick up Embers, but his other books as well. You can find a full listing at his author site here, and it’s worth noting that he writes several types of books. He has offerings for middle grade, youngsters, and the seasoned horror reader just to name a few.

 

Outrunning the Beast

Previous posts go into the history of my discovering that I suffered from depression and anxiety, so I won’t go into it here. What I want to focus on, instead, is the daily struggle.

It’s open for discussion, but for me personally, the greatest struggle is not the illness itself, but how I am unable to communicate my feelings to other people. I was talking with a family member today and trying to explain that it’s just not a good day for me today. It doesn’t matter that the sun is shining, or that I love my job, or that I have people who are very dear to me. When you’re hanging over the abyss much of what normally makes you happy just doesn’t. It’s not for lack of appreciation, but more that you’re missing some core component.

I was trying to explain to this family member that despite the many blessings I count, today was going to end the same as the last two. I am going to finish my work shift, go home, walk my dog, take a bath, and curl up on the futon downstairs in the finished basement. I will either read, put on a movie, or read a book. The response I was looking for was something along the lines of how sometimes you just have to take care of yourself.

Instead, she tried to comfort me by telling me how she was feeling and what she was going through. What it did was actually make me feel like not speaking up at all. Without meaning to, she had started up a “Who is Sicker?” competition. I said depression and anxiety. She saw that and raised it by a stroke. I told her I had a nervous breakdown. She told me she had one in her late 30s.

I understand how callous this can sound, but hear me out. I just wanted her to listen. I am aware of her conditions, but she’s always saying how she wants to help me. When I try to open up and speak, the conversation always goes back to her somehow. I explained this, and she understood. It seemed like we were getting to a place of understanding, but as it turns out, we weren’t really because my anxiety derailed that pretty quickly.

Immediately when she began to understand I fought not to backtrack. Whenever I speak up and fight for understanding, there’s always this voice (that sounds an awful lot like the one that tells me I’m worthless in the beginning) that starts telling me I’ve been too strong. Too bossy. I’ve trampled someone else and am guilty of what I was accusing them of doing.

I’d say that’s a slippery slope, but in truth, it’s more like being kicked into the abyss. Before I can stop it, I’m running through everything else that I do wrong. All the ways I hurt the people I love. All the things say and do that are wrong. Then, just for good measure, I circle back to what I should have said and done but didn’t. From there, I find myself drowning in the things I’ve done days, months, and even years ago. All the damning evidence piling up to prove what I already know in my secret heart: I’m a flawed human being and it’s unbelievable how lucky I am to have people that look past that and find something in me worth loving, and it’s not going to last.

I used to let it end there. I would stay in that lightless oubliette, all of my successes and all the love I give forgotten. Cancelled out by the twisted monster I was. The knowledge that I would never get better anchoring me in the mire and filth of my self-hate.

At my lowest point, something happens. It’s like I hit the bottom and then bounce. I’m not going to lie and tell you that I become fully operational again. But usually it’s enough of a bounce for me to be vertical. To get the laundry done. Or answer a phone call. Then I start thinking of how bad things used to get when I would stumble, and I know that I’ve made progress.

From there it’s not too much of a stretch to remember the good moments that I’ve been a part of. I think of something Dipper told me, which is that the anxiety is loud, I just have to make sure the love is louder. Usually around this time I start swimming up from my cocoon in the covers, and I find Tkout ready to give me a kiss. Provided he can push Zelda out of the way long enough. A quick glance at my phone shows me previous messages between Dipper and I, and if he’s awake, sometimes I’ll reach out. I’ll start looking around the room (any room of my house, actually) and seeing the momentos of happy times from Tkout, Dipper, and Phoebe. Most of the time that will bring me out of it, with a little more help from my Ride or Die Family.

Today is one of those rough days, where I feel like I can’t outrun the beast fast enough. I’ve managed to stay for most of my shift, and in 47 minutes I will be able to say that I stayed for the whole shift. I can cross that accomplishment off in my daily journal-list. Then I can go home and start to convalesce, and within a few hours I should be feeling better.

What I’m getting at is that it doesn’t do any good to push everyone away. Or to wallow in self-hate. (When I figure out how to consistently do those things and never fall into the trap, you can bet there will be a post on that!) But until then, I’m going to keep practicing not giving up on myself, and being kinder to myself. If my Family doesn’t see me as a monster, then I’m sure I can find something worthwhile to hold onto until I’m able to properly see myself again when the clouds lift.

 

 

Not Your Average Monster {Anthology}

One of the things I love most about being a reviewer is that I get to talk to so many different people all over the country – and even people outside the country. I was talking with author Pete Kahle recently and he told me that he had started a publishing house called Bloodshot Books. I told him that if he needed any reviews, to let me know. He passed along a Kindle copy of Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors, along with some of the other titles. Along with the book came a warning about his story, which is featured last in the anthology. He told me that it was a gross-out. I don’t really think that was an adequate description! (To my absolute horror, I found myself attempting to eat while reading it, because I didn’t want to put the anthology down. Without giving too many spoilers, I’m really struggling with the thought of eating rice any time in the next month or so!)

{Before I go into the review proper, I want to make sure that my readers are aware if they want to read Bloodshot Books, they can either borrow them on Amazon.com with Kindle Unlimited or purchase them from Amazon.com in digital or traditional format.}

Not Your Average Monster is a page-turner filled with talent. I know I said a few paragraphs up that I love anthologies, but don’t let that weaken my claim. The monsters contained in the pages of this anthology defy title. The only other time I’ve encountered a lamia in horror literature or cinema was Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. Kahle managed to find not one, but TWO lamia in one story.

The remaining monsters in this tome don’t have a name. They seem to be pulled right from the shared human subconscious, from the days where we were little more than primitives scratching stick figures in caves by firelight. The monsters Kahle has collected come for you in sunlight, in darkness, but always with teeth and deadly intent. I’m not afraid to admit that they scared me so badly that I had nightmares. But you know, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly which monster did it. Was it the horrible two-legged beasts rampaging through a school as a little girl tries desperately to hide? Or the boojum, a nasty sort of beastie that one girl must defeat using the advice of the Parliament of cats, before it can come back and finish the job it started? Or the story of the family in the tunnel, who survive a horrific pile-up only to find themselves fighting shapeless monsters? Maybe it was the parasite hidden deep within a cave, stumbled on by some friends reliving their wilder days. It could have been the spirits summoned by human hatred and bloodlust to the carnage of a battlefield, to claim souls for their own.

Truth be told, I think it was all of them. There wasn’t a single weak story in this entire anthology, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what horrors lurk within. I don’t want to rob any readers of the terror and surprise waiting for them in Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors.

There is a second volume, Not Your Average Monster, Vol. 2: A Menagerie of Vile Beasts, which you better believe is high up on my to-read list! There are two main reasons I’m not jumping right into the second volume. Firstly, the stories are like a horror buffet. I don’t want to run through it all at once. Secondly, I’m well and spoiled for other anthologies, probably for the rest of my life. This is hands-down one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. And, well, I lied, there’s three reasons. Kahle has not confirmed the intent to publish a third volume (to the best of my knowledge). I don’t want to go through everything now and be left like an addict without a fix.

Oh, and if you’re stuck for what to get mom for Mother’s Day? Well, here you go! Volume 1 and 2 make great gifts for your favorite horror hounds! Or for yourself, if you’re looking to sample the work of several extremely talented authors all in one place.