Pulp Appeal: Black Christmas

Black Christmas

Bob Clark’s[1] Black Christmas is a 1974 slasher flick widely considered to be one of the inspirations for John Carpenter’s masterpiece Halloween. While it is not the first of the slasher flicks, it is early enough to have had a profound impact on the slasher films that came after it.

Olivia Hussey

Black Christmas’ Final Girl Olivia Hussey as Jess

The movie stars Olivia Hussey,[2] who was already famous from her role as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s great interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, which I consider to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays (with the exception of the character Mercutio, who I love). Notable supporting actors include Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, and John Saxon, all of whom reached their biggest mainstream successes in genre films. Kidder was, of course, Lois Lane in Richard Donner’s Superman. Dullea’s most famous role is David Bowman (Dave) in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Saxon has acted in a ton of films and tv projects, but the ones with perhaps the widest reach are Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Keir Dullea

Keir Dullea as Peter

Margot Kidder

Margot Kidder as Barb

Black Christmas is based on the old urban legend of The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs in which a babysitter gets a series of prank calls only to be informed by the police the calls are coming from inside the house. Since the movie came out 44 years ago, I’m not going to avoid spoilers. The film starts with a third-person shot of a sorority house and the beginnings of a Christmas party before shifting to a first-person camera shot that follows as a man secretly enters the sorority house and sets up shop in the attic. The girls of the sorority house are all murdered during the course of the film until the moment when police trace the call to inside the house. They call the main character Jess (Hussey) and tell her to get out, but Jess stays to go get her friends because she doesn’t yet know she’s the final girl. Because of some of the things the killer says in his prank calls, Jess thinks the killer is her boyfriend Peter (Dullea). After being chased around the house, she takes refuge in the basement. Peter shows up because he heard her screaming, but she lashes out and beats him to death. The police find Jess and Peter, but not the bodies of her friends or the real killer. The cops pin the murders on Peter, and as far as they’re concerned, that’s the end of the story. The real killer is still holed up in the sorority house attic with his trophy corpses. The film credits roll as a phone rings.

People who want closure will no doubt find this ending maddening. The killer is still loose, we don’t know what his motivations are, and, worst of all, we don’t even know who he is! There’s no neat bow tying everything up a nicely and removing the disquiet from viewers’ hearts. It’s this aspect of the film that elevates it above many other slasher films. Even though I’ll defend to the death Friday the 13th as my favorite slasher of all time (in no small part because I grew up in the town where it was shot, albeit I moved there 10 years after it was made), Black Christmas is the better film. Black Christmas’ deliberately open ending may certainly have its detractors, but they’re probably the same people bothered by the sudden cut to black at the end of The Sopranos, angry at the wobbling (or not?) spinning top at the end of Inception, or obsessing over whether Deckard is a Replicant in the original Blade Runner.[3] If art reflects life, then ambiguity at the end is the only real answer. That’s unsettling, maybe, but nothing about our lives is definitive. Not even what we hear when internet memes make us listen to words on repeat and share them with the world.[4]

John Saxon

One of the funnier scenes starring John Saxon. The idiot desk sergeant took down a phone number for the sorority house, and this is where he explains to Saxon that it’s a new exchange – Fellatio 20880.

Some of the tropes explored in this film are the injection of humor juxtaposed directly with serious horror, the first-person camera from the killer’s POV, location based serial killing, and holiday/seasonal settings, all of which John Carpenter borrowed for Halloween.[5] The slasher genre in general has borrowed many of these techniques. It’s not like Black Christmas was particularly original in using these or other film techniques (like oblique angles, zooms/pans/cut and discordant music) but the way in which they are combined was relatively new for American cinema. Italian giallo films by directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento had either developed or expanded most of these in imitation of American mystery/noir directors like Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, giallo as an art genre is the Italian version of pulp, down to translating and interpreting great works by people like Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, and Ed McBain, mainstays of mystery pulp.

Slasher movies are definitely pulp. Some may have arthouse aspirations, but even the best of them have grindhouse cores.


[1]Bob Clark is maybe more famous for his lighter-hearted Christmas movie A Christmas Story. You know, the one with the Red Ryder BB Gun, the Italian leg lamp, and “You’ll shoot your eye out.” However, Clark also wrote and directed the teen sex comedy Porky’s.

[2] She was also in Stephen King’s It, the 1990 tv miniseries starring as Audra, Bill Denbrough’s wife, the one who is caught by It and sent into catatonia after seeing the deadlights. True fans need no more information. The rest of you should read the book. I suppose you could watch the miniseries, but if you’ve seen the more recent movie adaptation, I don’t expect you to enjoy the made-for-tv version.

[3] I love the ambiguity, but I’m also 100% convinced Tony and his family are murdered, Cobb’s reality isn’t the actual one but he has chosen to stay in this version, and Deckard is a Replicant who could be (and likely has been) replaced by an exact duplicate many times over.

[4] After a quick consultation with Matt, I can confirm we here at Broadswords and Blasters are in the “Laurel” camp–because that’s what’s being said.

[5] Arguably Halloween is the better film, what with Hussey’s screen-chewing over-acting bordering on unwatchable, which makes Kidder’s attempts at scenery mastication seem pale by comparison.

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Pulp Appeal: Switchblade #5

If you want to read some of the best crime fiction being written today, you owe it to yourself to pick up this issue of SWITCHBLADE magazine. More than good time girls and hard luck guys, the stories in SWITCHBLADE shows humanity at its most desperate but stops short of being voyeuristic. Each of the broken souls in the stories remains, at the end of the day, human, and to their credit, each of the authors featured zoom in on that characteristic and challenges the reader to not sympathize but definitely empathize with the characters contained within. There are stories of rotten luck and worse choices, of unintended consequences and occasional moments of grace. Continue reading

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Pulp Appeal: Switchblade #4

If you are looking for a magazine publishing the best in underground crime fiction, you would be sadly remiss passing on SWITCHBLADE. Edited by Scotch Rutherford, SWITCHBLADE fills a much needed gap in publishing hardboiled, stripped down crime fiction. Some of the shorter pieces are more vignettes than true stories, but each packs a punch like a bullet in the dark, or a knife twisting in the small of your back. Each story highlights the bad choices and worse luck that happens to those on the wrong side of the law, and there are few happy stories to be found within and even less redemption. These are stories that have you reaching for rot-gut whisky and unfiltered cigarettes, and might just have you thinking “There but for the Grace of God go I.” The magazine itself is smartly put together, with illustrations and photographs that set the tone well for each piece. The editing is rough in parts, and could probably do with another set of eyes at times, but for an indie mag the sins are minor and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the writing.

Switchblade: Issue Four by [Sheridan, Max, Deverell, Diana, Brock, Henry, DiChellis, Peter, Burton, Jeffrey, Hansen, Pearce, Douglass, Lisa, Manzolillo, Nick, Patterson, A.B., Rawson, Keith]

It’s not all motorcycle gangs and California.

Continue reading

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Pulp Appeal: Ghostbusters

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When an ancient Lovecraftian-style evil rears its head in New York, who ya gonna call? The Ghostbusters, of course! What, you don’t consider Ghostbusters to reside under the pulp umbrella? I can only assume you skipped over nearly every piece of dialogue relayed by Harold Ramis or Dan Aykroyd. Ramis’ Egon Spengler and Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz are hardcore horror history nerds. They also believe in the paranormal, are swept up in the gathering manifestation of Zuul, the harbinger of Gozer–an ancient evil god once worshipped by the Sumerians–and fight back against the potential world-domination with hand-made nuclear-punk backpacks.

But before all that, they enlist their lecherous cynical compatriot Peter Venkman to be the face, hire on resident everyman Winston Zeddemore to do some of the grunt work, and call on the sarcastic and underpaid Janine Melnitz to do all the thankless but important secretarial work. After being called upon to catch an increasingly large number of ghostly manifestations, their work hits the public consciousness and the tabloids and they are accused of staging the ghost-catching in an elaborate scam. This brings the EPA in and leads to the arrest of the Ghostbusters for multiple violations of safety laws. This allows the minions of Gozer to run free and call forth the god of destruction. Like most movies of the 1980s, and particularly comedy action films, there’s a happy ending wherein the Ghostbusters are heralded as heroes by the citizens of New York, but not before their famous encounter with the gigantic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man drenches the streets in the sticky mixture of sugar and gelatin.

Ghostbusters Logo

Lots of people have co-opted this for supposedly real ghostbusting businesses. There are at least two separate vehicles in my area claiming to do paranormal investigations, and both have this symbol on them.

Per usual, you likely know the story, but how exactly does that connect it to pulp fiction beyond the action driven plot? Well, until the more recent Get Out and Cabin in the Woods, it was about as close to Lovecraft as you were likely to get on film.[1] Need more proof? While the sense of humor sets Ghostbusters apart from the more dour Lovecraft, the basic setups are all there. Consider the following: cults, possessions, alternate dimensions, ancient gods, and regular people in way over their heads. There are even analogs of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.

First, there’s an in-fiction[2] book called Spates Catalog, a magazine compendium containing information about nameless horrors and occult lore. And then there’s Tobin’s Spirit Guide which houses information about ghosts, gods, and spirits across the world, and also mentions an architect, Ivo Shandor, who headed up a cult[3] and conducted rituals to summon nameless horrors and extradimensional demonic forces in an attempt to rid the world of humanity.

This sets up the elements of the plot that are mentioned once and usually forgotten by viewers (or completely missed unless they really pay attention to the details, especially to the prison scene).[4] Shandor’s greatest work was encoding a summoning ritual into city buildings that allowed for the gathering of energy and the eventual call to darkness. This comes to fruition during the events of the film and sets up the main conflict as you see it.[5] Shandor’s ritual brings about the rebirth of the demi-god Zuul, who in turn calls forth a second demi-god, Vinz Clortho, and the match between the two of them breaks a seal between dimensions and sees Gozer the Gozerian return to Earth after an 8000 year banishment by the Sumerian goddess Tiamat.

If it weren’t for the fact this was written by Aykroyd and Ramis, the basic story could be something right out of the 1940s era pulp horror. Maybe not Lovecraft directly, but perhaps Clark Ashton Smith or August Derleth. It helps that Aykroyd is a big believer in the supernatural world and was the main catalyst behind the first draft of the script. If you read about the film’s creation, you’ll come across articles about producer/director Ivan Reitman rejecting Aykroyd’s original script–which truthfully makes even the silly Ghostbusters 2 sound like an Oscar candidate by comparison–and sending Aykroyd and Ramis back to draft the script as you know it.

The Real Ghostbusters cartoon cast

By any objective measures, the cartoon is not good. It doesn’t hold us as well as, say, Scooby-Doo, but it can still be fun to watch from time to time.

At any rate, the existential horror of the unbeatable gods is at root in the background of the Ghostbusters, where even the best that can be done is merely a postponing of the inevitable. This holds true even of its lesser sequel, the spin-off video games, the silly 1980s cartoon, and the far inferior recent live-action version (which has moments of brilliance, but overall falls flat for me, making even Vigo the Carpathian and his weird-ass painting seem like a passable story by comparison). If you delve into the tabletop roleplaying game produced by West End Games in 1986, the darkness of the background behind Ghostbusters is starker and even more obvious.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark - Dead Girl

This image haunted my nightmares as a kid. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has mediocre tales of terror, but truly horrifying surrealist art. It’s a shame the reprint of the book has such dull art.

If you haven’t looked at Ghostbusters recently, or have always thought more highly of its comedic chops than its horror bonafides, I definitely encourage you to rewatch it now that you’ve been primed to see beneath the humor. The film can be legitimately terrifying, as in the scene with the librarian ghost. (Pause it just as she screams and tell me she isn’t one of the scariest-looking spirits portrayed in film. It’s like a Stephen Gammell illustration come to life.)

Oh, almost forgot that Ghostbusters hit modern pop culture in 2017 in the latest season of Stranger Things, where Mike (the de facto leader of the group from season 1) and Lucas (the single minority member) both want to be Venkman. Mike assumes Lucas will be Winston just because they’re both black, but Lucas fancies himself the leader of the group and refuses to back down. For my money, Winston is the only one of the four Ghostbusters who’s an admirable person all around. He’s down to Earth, practical, smart without being freakish about it, and, most of all, isn’t a slimy weasel who tries to take advantage of his graduate student subjects or his clients. Yeah, that’s a modern reading of Venkman, but I think you have to admit he’s a creep even by 1980s standards.


[1] Yes, yes, I can hear the film nerds yelling at me from the future. I know Re-Animator came out in 1985, and that there have been other films that take on Lovecraft’s works more or less directly in the last 34 years. I’ve seen most of the ones listed when you do a Google search, but all the ones I watched are seriously terrible and might retroactively make you hate everything Lovecraft ever wrote. Thankfully I’d read widely enough in the Lovecraft canon to realize that none of the movies really groks Lovecraft’s plots.

[2] Much like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, these texts and gods are treated as real in the fiction, but have no basis in reality, except the Sumerian goddess Tiamat, who was also co-opted by Dungeons & Dragons writers to serve as the major evil deity in several campaign settings.

[3] It should be noted that a lot of this is established in the 2009 video game, which is considered to be an official sequel. It’s as close to a Ghostbusters 3 as we’ll likely ever see, especially since Ramis died in 2014 from complications of an autoimmune disease.

[4] Or have watched the films a dozen times or more, played several of the video games, seen every episode of the cartoon, own some of the sourcebooks for the roleplaying game, and teach at the college level where you talk about Ghostbusters when discussing literary analysis. You know, a nerd like me.

[5] If you ever played the old Commodore 64 or Nintendo Entertainment System video games, you no doubt remember Zuul doesn’t appear until enough ghosts make it to the central building. This is because Shandor built a giant antenna to attract enough energy to break the wall between the dimensions. Ray even says as much in the movie.

 

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Pulp Appeal: Econoclash Review #1

Econoclash Review

Editor: J.D. Graves

Econcolash Review advertises itself as Quality Cheap Thrills, and much like Broadswords and Blasters, bills itself as a contemporary pulp journal publishing “publish only the best crime/sci-fi/noir/horror/humor/fantasy and everything else in between.” For a first issue debut, I can only gape in awe at the amount of talent pulled together into this anthology and will definitely be adding EconoClash to the list of small press magazines to keep a very close eye on.

You aren’t here to listen to me gush though, so let’s take a look at the stories included within.

Cover Art for Issue 1

“The Last Book” by Rick McQuiston

“In the Mouth of Madness” style metahorror piece. When a writer writes to entertain the eldritch horrors, what happens when he decides to quit the game? The meta-fiction aspect is a little heavy handed and not what I would have expected fresh out the gate from this anthology, and it doesn’t quite set the tone for everything that comes after.

“Recompense” by William R. Soldan

What happens when addiction takes hold and you can’t shake its hooks from where they’ve buried under your skin. How it destroys not just the addict, but everything it touches, like a crap version of King Midas. This story drills home the inherent tragedy, without indulging in angst.

“The Boss Man Cometh” by Christopher Hivner

A demon keeps escaping from the abyss, and each time he’s dragged back. But as each trip makes him a bit more human, maybe he’ll be able to escape for good? Well, he would if the Boss didn’t come down on him like a bucket truck of bricks. And sometimes being handed what you want turns out to be the worst punishment of all.

“Blessed He Be, Shinokaze” by Joachim Heijndermans

A Kaiju cult in London, trying to spread the good word of imminent destruction. A study in what bravery looks like in the face of death, or at least a fatalistic look at what inevitability looks like. So when the Kaiju comes, do you run or do you except that you are going to be consumed in glory? I really enjoyed the perspective this piece gave, with the focus lasered in on a couple of characters and with the Kaiju being treated like the natural disaster it would be.

“Meet the Family” by Charlotte Platt

What happens when a con man goes to Scotland with the pretense to meet his bride-to-be’s family but in fact planning to kill her and cash in on a life insurance policy? Sure, the girl is nice enough, but when you owe a lot of money to some very bad people, you start to look for ways out. What Steven wasn’t counting on was his fiancée’s pedigree.  A great atmospheric piece and I couldn’t help but feel that vicarious thrill you get when a bad thing happens to a terrible person.

“The Little Death of Jacob Green” by J.D. Graves

Small towns keep secrets like bees keep honey, but you always suspect that the dirty laundry is there. A whiff in the air, the stench of something foul. This story is kind of like that, where one man’s apparent suicide is what makes the town wonder what was really going on. Also, a strong story on marriage, and what it might take to keep a couple together. Graves’ metaphor on marriage being like a casino gamble against the house is deeply cynical and jaded, but his characters hold true throughout, despite the personal cost exacted.

“Exit Ramp” by Lyndon Perry

What starts out as a standard crime fiction story takes a sharp turn into the weird in the best way. The criminal underworld mashed up with the supernatural underworld was an unexpected delight. Perry’s setting and set-up were well done and his delivery pitch perfect with characters that would fit right into any hardboiled story you’d care to name.

“Green Eyed Monster” by Gerri R. Gray

Honestly, this was probably my least favorite piece in the magazine. The dialogue came off a bit stilted and the plot a bit too B-movieish. It does, however capture the struggles of two people who both wanted a little more out of life, and the danger when you let your ambitions blind you to those around you.

“Quick Pick” by Nick Manzolillo

A dead body and a lottery ticket are all that stand between Billy and the easy life, but the ticket’s buried with the body. So what’s a guy to do? Grab a shovel and get to digging is what. But what happens when he’s discovered late at night in the graveyard? This story’s humor is about as black as you can get, but you can’t help but feel a little sorry for poor Billy.

“Beneath Me” by Edward Turner III

A creepy horror piece. What if, when you’re dead, you can still sense the world around you? How do you cope with seeing your loved ones walking by your corpse? How do you deal with being buried? And what might you hear, crawling in the dirt around you?

“Neon Anemone” by Scotch Rutherford

An unexpected cyberpunk story that hums with energy, and manages to blend substance and style. The story unfolds beautifully. This is the story that rewards the most on a second read through, and to say too much of it would give away the plot. Set in Las Vegas, it works in summer blockbuster levels of action. I sincerely hope there is more from Rutherford using this setting, if not these exact characters. My one complaint is that this story could have used another pass in editing as some of the sentences comes across as somewhat awkward.

 

You can grab EconoClash Review at Amazon. You can also check out their website and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

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Pulp Appeal: The Goonies

568b86df-4c6c-46cc-b5a5-c7618d4389e6_1.384063bbefbb6e9b73ebd94c66b95068Pirates, gangsters, deadly boobytraps, diatribes about the uselessness of wishing wells, Cyndi Lauper[1], jocks vs. nerds, stolen kisses, braces, Baby Ruths, and the Truffle Shuffle.

I mean, holy crap.

I’m sure some of my love of The Goonies is simply the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, but look at the list above. It’s like screenwriter Chris Columbus knocked over a shelf containing stacks of National Geographic, Smithsonian, Black Mask, The Outsiders, grocery store flyers, Rolling Stone, and the plot for Indiana Jones. Papers scattered across the floor in every direction and as Columbus attempted to pick everything up, it came out in the shape of The Goonies.

All jokes aside, the movie was directed by Richard Donner, who rose to fame with 1976’s The Omen and then struck movie gold with his Superman (starring my favorite Superman to date, Christopher Reeve) two years later. Although he was famously fired from Superman II, his fingerprints are all over the movie, considering most of it was cut together from film shot during the original. After those two successes, he moved into a string of alternating hits and flops, including The Toy[2], The Goonies, Ladyhawke[3], Lethal Weapon (and its sequels), Scrooged, and Maverick. That said, The Goonies feels more like Steven Spielberg than anyone else. If you’d told me Spielberg had actually directed it, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it doesn’t appear to be the case.

The Goonies connected to children and teenagers at a fundamental level. The opening scene is a car chase ranging all across Astoria, Oregon as the Fratelli family, a mother and her two sons—nothing more than Italian Stereotypes masquerading as characters—escape from the police after breaking the older son out of prison. Through the chase we are introduced to each of the main characters as they go about their day. We meet Mikey (Sean Astin), the asthmatic younger brother of high school senior meathead Brand (Josh Brolin); Chunk (Jeff Cohen), a chubby nerd with a penchant for telling outlandish stories about meeting Michael Jackson; Data (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan), an inventor/tech nerd whose father is an inventor of weird gadgets; and Mouth (Corey Feldman), a fast-talking polyglot who is endearing and sociopathic in equal measure. After the story gets rolling, we meet Andy, (Kerri Green) a potential love interest for Brand but currently the girlfriend of uber-rich asshole Troy; and Stef (Martha Plimpton), Andy’s best friend and potential match for Mouth.

The protagonists are all young adolescents who live in the Goon Docks, a middle class neighborhood, which has recently been sold off to an unscrupulous and filthy-rich developer who intends to demolish the Goon Docks in order to replace it with a country club. If that’s not a commentary on 1980s me-first yuppie politics, I don’t know what is.

Mikey, the main POV character, is fascinated with the history of the town and regales his friends with stories of Astoria’s founding, supposedly as the location of a hidden pirate treasure. As it turns out, the story is true, which the characters discover after accidentally breaking a frame containing a pirate map. Mouth translates the Spanish written on the map. Mikey, Mouth, Chunk, and Data hatch a plan to seek the treasure of One-Eyed Willy, in the hopes they can save the Goon Docks from foreclosure.
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The rest of the Goonies tie up Brand, who is supposed to be watching them while Mrs. Walsh is out shopping, and then run out in search of the treasure. Along the way they cross paths with the Fratellis, including Mama Fratelli’s deformed son, Sloth, who forms a bond with Chunk over a shared Baby Ruth candybar. While braving the traps set by One-Eyed Willy, running from the Fratellis, and dodging snotty rich brats, the Goonies team up with Brand, Andy, and Stef who have been searching for the younger kids.

It’s not spoiling anything to say they find the treasure, the Fratellis get arrested, and the Goon Docks are saved, as it is simply to be expected in a feel-good kids’ movie from the 1980s. And while the childhood sense of awe and wonder is hard to recreate as I  approach 40, it’s hard not to smile at the reverence Mikey has when he meets One-Eyed Willy’s skeleton.

This movie really does seem like the mishmash I described above, but that’s why I love it. Pirate treasure, slick shoes, BMX bikes, video games, and candybars? It’s my 80s in a nutshell.

Are you “good enough”?


[1] The music video (above) features 1980s WWF Superstars Captain Lou Albano as Cyndi’s father and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as an oil baron buying up the land where Cyndi’s family lives. Cyndi famously hated the song for years, but has apparently relented and begun to perform it live.

[2] A godawful Richard Pryor vehicle shot around the same time of his famous stand-up special Live on the Sunset Strip.

[3] This may become its own article at a later date.

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Pulp Appeal: CIRSOVA #5

CIRSOVA: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine recently released their seventh issue and in celebration they made issue five free on Amazon. I’d been meaning to pick up an issue anyway, and this acted as the perfect excuse to do so.

What’s interesting about this issue is that it acts as a formal introduction to a new shared world, Eldritch Earth. The concept is that during the Triassic period the Earth was colonized by the Great Ones. They were responsible for engineering various sub-species of humans to serve as slaves, but also imported other entities not native to Earth. There also the amphibious Yrrowaine who raid humans for mates, and the insectoid Slagborn and reptilian Dryth to contend with[1]. The idea is to have a setting where Lovecraft elements can be used in sword-and-planet and heroic fantasy stories. This isn’t exactly a new concept, and when reading through the stories, I was reminded less of Lovecraft and more of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle, though more in the style elements than the actual stories themselves[2]. Indeed, a world where humans and dinosaurs strive in the same world, along with other races would be ripe for adventure in exotic locales and against fearsome foes. Continue reading

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