Ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed? It’s terrible. You’re bleary-eyed, groggy, sore from where your spouse has been elbowing you in the ribs all night to stop your snoring… and you’re starving. It’s that stomach-gnawing hunger you just can’t shake until you’ve devoured half the pantry. If that sounds familiar, you’ll immediately relate to the protagonist of Chuck Wendig’s debut novel Double Dead. Excepting of course that Coburn’s a bloodsucking fiend.
That’s not hyperbole. When we meet Coburn, there’s no question that he’s a monster. Vampirism has not turned him into an upper-class snob or a glittery mewling fangless stalker; Coburn the vampire’s an asshole. He knows it. He revels in it. It was what made his nights so much fun until he woke up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. He hooks up with an RV full of humans heading to the West Coast and, being no fool, volunteers to protect them in exchange for the occasional nibble. Better than getting torn limb from limb and your brains eaten, right?
On the surface, Double Dead is deceptively simple. It’s the sort of premise fans of the horror genre and zombie fiction will find immediately appealing. Diving into it, though, we quickly find these dark waters run very deep. Sure, there are a couple characters who get picked off here and there because it’s the end of the world and everything, but many of them have enough dimension and living, breathing presence that its clear there’s more going on than a simple monster mash-up.
I can’t say it’s for everybody, though. The squeamish will want to avoid it, and be forewarned that Chuck is his usual (and in my opinion, delightfully) profane self. But chances are, being a novel about zombies with a vampire as its driving force, you know already if Double Dead is interesting to you or not. I challenge you, though, to find another zombie apocalypse yarn with a Wal*Mart cult of cannibals, wilderness fortifications manned by juggalos and the scariest thing in a pink bathrobe you’ll ever encounter.
The cockroach scuttled across the insulating layer of dust on the floor. David frowned as he swept his flashlight across the gatehouse interior. The castle had apparently been abandoned for the better part of a century, according to the locals. Nobody seemed to want to say much, though, and the taxi driver had been quite eager to leave once he’d drop the pair off.
“Can you imagine?” Victoria’s voice echoed slightly in the murder holes above them. “Plenty of ski resorts in Romania are near castles, but none of them have one as its centerpiece!”
David kept walking towards the interior side of the gatehouse. His wife had been just as skeptical as he was, but being a venture capitalist meant taking the occasional risk. Two successful start-up companies back in the States gave him plenty to work with, and Victoria’s nose for real estate opportunity had put his businesses in fantastic locations.
“I think there’d be a lot of up-front work to do.” It was the most tactful way he could disagree with her.
“Naturally. But it’s removed from major tourist centers, the drive up was lovely and getting electricity up here wouldn’t be that hard.” She smiled at him encouragingly. “Come on, there’s more to see.”
They emerged from the gatehouse into the courtyard. Towers loomed over the pair of Americans as they crossed the cobblestones. The fountain in the center had been dry for years. David caught sight of a rat scurrying along one of the walls to his left. The great hall dominated the section of wall across from the gatehouse. Victoria was at its massive double doors before David could say a word.
Within, portraits of people long dead watched them investigate the quiet stasis of the castle. Despite the windows, the interior was much darker than he had expected. The flying buttresses high above showed no rot, at least. But David could not shake the feeling that it was wrong for them to be here.
“I love old castles. They were built to last.” Victoria was still smiling. “This place must have been beautiful in its prime.”
“Oh, it was.”
Both of them turned to aim their flashlights at the interior door of the great hall. Standing there, holding a candle, was an elderly man in a dark robe. David narrowed his eyes. The robe seemed to be consuming him, a bit of the red lining visible under the black velvet. His voice was as withered as his form, but strong.
“Forgive me for startling you. You are tourists, yes?”
Victoria found her voice first. “Sort of, yes. I’m sorry, we didn’t know someone still lived here. The locals…”
The old man waved his hand dismissively. “Pah. They fear what they do not understand. My obligation to my family, this castle, is one I will not abandon. They do not understand it.”
David’s frown returned. “You live here alone?”
“Yes. Hence why it is not as lovely as it once was. I am only one old man, you see.” He cackled softly and David looked at Victoria. She was rolling her eyes when the rain started.
“We better go. Sorry again for disturbing you.”
“Go? In this downpour? You are brave indeed, my boy.”
He looked out the window. The rain was coming down in sheets. All he could see was water flowing down the glass. How had it hit them so quickly?
“Come, I have food to offer. You vill be my guests for zee evening.”
They followed him through a dark corridor leading down the anterior wall to one of the towers. Within was a small reception room and a staircase on the wall leading both up and down. Sure enough, a small roasted game bird was waiting for them, with some fruit and vegetables. The old man, introducing himself as Nicu, told of how the castle once defended the valley and its villagers from raiders and Cossacks. Victoria listened with interest while David examined the bottle of wine. Despite the decay in the rest of the castle, things here seemed fine. Maybe the old man really had just let the maintenance get away from him.
The rain did not abate, and Nicu invited them to stay the night. Above the small dining area were a pair of solars, a room for each of them. David tried to call home but got no signal. With the rain outside and a long day of travel behind him, he settled into bed.
He awoke when he felt her on top of him.
“You look so peaceful when you sleep, David.”
He blinked. Victoria straddled him on the wide bed, smiling down at him. She was wearing Nicu’s robe, and nothing else. It hung open, pale flesh and curves luminous in the moonlight. Her hands slid the blankets away from his chest.
“Hush.” Her lips pulled back from her teeth as her smile widened. They were as red as the lining of the robe. “Nicu has shown me his true self, and we have much to do, you and I.”
“I don’t understand.”
“And that is your protection.” Her fingers slid over his neck, felt his pulse. She inhaled, and David couldn’t deny it was an enticing sight. “Your heart… it’s beating so fast.”
“She is unimportant. The castle will live again, thanks to us.”
“What do you mean?”
“You will see. But first, let me show you what Nicu showed me.”
She licked her lips and gasped as she slid against him, feeling the response he could not hide. Fangs descended into the darkness of her mouth.
“I am his queen, and you our servant. When I finish with you, your will shall be ours. Don’t fight it, David. I know you want this.”
He admitted he’d had his fantasies, and wondered if this was a new one. It was when he felt the fangs in his neck that he started screaming; in pain at first, then for other reasons entirely.
Obviously it has, since the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade is coming. I’m definitely interested, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which the time I spent playing that game both on the table and in live action. This pending milestone, plus my current re-read of Niven & Barnes’ Dream Park, has me thinking back on those times I donned a suit for a purpose other than a job interview.
Masquerade was a fun and engrossing game world, but it wasn’t without its flaws. A diverse set of clans for power specialization and fluff flavors coupled with an intriguing take on old vampire legends made it appealing right out of the box. The premise of it being based on ‘personal horror’ was fascinating as well, to me: what does this change, these powers, mean on a personal level? How hard will you fight against these new instincts, this new society, to hold on to the person you were? How far will you go to make a place for yourself among the other creatures of the night? These questions, to me, were far more important to me than any number of filled-in circles on a character sheet, especially in retrospect.
There’s a part of me that wonders if I left a good amount of this really juicy storytelling material unexplored. When I first became acquainted with the game I was still developmental in both my abilities for telling tales and my maturity in handling character beats. To put it another way, I was all about the circles. As time went on I did delve into some of the deeper issues but more often than not, real life found a way to upset the pace I was setting for myself in an ongoing Masquerade game.
Then came Requiem. I haven’t played it anywhere near as much as Masquerade, although I did get a great taste of it when I met Will Hindmarch. The questions are still there, but the answers felt odd, in a way. There felt like there was a clean disconnect between who a character was after becoming a vampire, and who they were before. Maybe it’s just me, but the pitch and timbre of the ‘music’ of Requiem felt a bit more avant-garde than that of Masquerade.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great stuff in Requiem. I adore the fact that they did away with cookie-cutter villains, letting player factions and politics become the crux of the drama in gameplay. The change to clans felt a bit odd to me; while I acknowledge it adds potential diversity through bloodlines, it also seemed like an overcomplication of an aspect of the game that didn’t need fixing, in my humble opinion. The obliteration of the Cainite history, and most history for that matter, felt like the least-welcome change. Traditions, tales and lore added depth and a sense of weight to the condition of the players: You are a product of all that has come before you, and it’s up to you if you follow in those bloody footsteps or strike out on your own. In Requiem, any ties to your past or your lineage is tangential at best. There’s less pressure on the player… fewer questions asked.
I’ve long felt that the perfect vampire game (at least in the World of Darkness) lies somewhere between these two settings. The Cainite history, august lineages of the clans with their centuries of infighting, betrayal, absorption and breakaways and deeper personal questions from Masquerade coupled with the faction politics and cagey-yet-social nature of the Beast from Requiem seems like the best of both worlds. Then again, that could just be me. Either way, the characters continue to be the focus of any decent story, and when it comes to the World of Darkness, they’ve been fascinating for 20 years and hopefully will continue to be so for many more years to come.
With colder weather coming at us and my World of Warcraft account on hiatus for now since I zigged when I should have zagged in allocated this last paycheck, I figured it was high time for me to organize the rather large collection of trading card game stuff. For a while it’s lingered in a couple of old boxes, but I blew off the dust and started putting things together, if only to make sure I’ve plucked what Magic cards I still have out of the rest.
And boy oh boy, did I sink a LOT of money into this hobby.
In alphabetical order:
If memory serves, this game preserves some of the elements that made the video game a great time for anybody into giant fighting robots in general and the BattleTech universe in particular. Iconic mechs, heat management and pilot selection all came into play. I guess slinging cardboard wasn’t a good substitute for either digital recreations or miniatures, though, as players were hard to come by.
There was a time when I enjoyed watching this show. There was also a time when I enjoyed bringing certain characters in it to life in a card game. I never enjoyed it as much as I did Magic, which makes me once again wonder what possessed me to give away so many classic cards.
This game’s complexity always appealed to me. I’m not entirely sure why, but the intricate structure of the politics and powers of the Masquerade being intact in these cards makes me happy. It’s like slipping on an old, comfortable pair of pants. Or fangs.
Legend of the Five Rings
This is a universe I’ve always wanted to explore with more depth. The combination of bushido honor codes with hedge magic and dark powers beyond the wall is full of ideas I like. See also why I enjoy George RR Martin’s books. I’ve yet to get into a role-playing group that plays the tabletop game, and I only played this card game a few times. It was always fun, though.
While I’m on the subject, I seem to have a Hantei/Shadowlands deck that isn’t mine. Ring any bells among my readers?
Introduced not long after Magic itself got started, NetRunner came with built-in PvP. One player was the Corporation, furthering goals of world domination. The other was the Runner, hacking into the Corp’s servers to make a quick buck. It’s definitely fun if you ever enjoyed things like Tron, Hackers, the works of Gibson or Dick or even The Matrix. Although there’s more actual hacking and less wire-fu.
I taught some kids how to play back in Bloomsburg.
…Don’t you judge me.
Universal Fighting System
I was going to demo this and help promote it at the Roundtable in Conshohoken, before they shut down. I still have my demo materials, which feature characters like Felicia from DarkStalkers, Cammy from Street Fighter, Tira from SoulCalibur and Mai from King of Fighters. Yes, there’s a pattern there. I also have the Penny Arcade decks. Gabe & Tycho make anything more awesome.
World of Warcraft
I have more of these cards than I do Magic. I might have had similar numbers if I’d kept my original stock. I competed in a few events, picked up some of the raid decks (Onyxia & Molten Core) and even own a Aleyah Dawnbringer play mat. That may actually come with me on my next Magic trip. Anyway, most of these cards are, from what I understand, all but useless now, as power scopes have far outstripped the original expansions and, unlike Magic, the old cards have lost their luster. I doubt I could get $2000 for any of the rares from Heroes of Azeroth the way I could if I owned a Black Lotus. So they’ll likely sit in the bottom of the box until I can catalog the lot and try to sell it.
Any other card players out there? If so, what’s your game of choice?
Halloween is right around the corner, despite the tendency of retail outlets to forget the holiday as quickly as possible. You can’t milk consumers for as much cash with costumes as you can with guilt-induced gifts for family and co-workers they don’t like. Anyway, since horror is interesting from a variety of standpoints and I missed talking about it in last night’s Classholes podcast, I’m going to talk about three games that really get under my skin when it comes to giving me the creeps. The first one is the most recent, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
The Ocean House Hotel is the setting for a task you can undertake early in the game. Unlike the other two games I’ll be discussing, this setting is unique in that it doesn’t contain a single enemy encounter. That’s right. No shambling zombies. No bloodthirsty vampiric rivals. It’s just you and the hotel.
Of course, the hotel’s haunted.
The horror comes from some brilliantly simple set pieces and the building of atmosphere. The dilapidated, aging building already has a creepy air about it, the sort of building you might think of tearing down or fixing up if you could bear to get anywhere near it. Once inside, it’s even worse. The peeling wallpaper, stained carpets and flickering light fixtures all point to something being very wrong, and that’s before the clock chimes on its own and light bulbs burst without warning.
Add the chilling sound design, from the rather subtle music to the quiet whispers to the peals of thunder, and you’re bound to be on the edge of your seat for the entire time you’re in the hotel, provided you can even step foot into it. I know of people who turn their sound off and wait for a bright morning to tackle this place, and still struggle to get through it with their hearts at a calm rate.
I would love to talk more specifics, but I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t played it. Seriously, beyond the hotel, Bloodlines is a game that holds up pretty damn well despite being buggy and a bit dated in aesthetic. It’s available on Steam.