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This week we return to serialization in Lovecraft Country after the brief sojourn into haunted house territory. Unfortunately though, narrative shortcuts and sloppy attention to detail doom this Goonies-lite exploration episode.

Read on, if “ye” dare.

Christina tangles with a representative of a local Lodge

The story so far…

Our A-plot this episode, “A History of Violence,” focuses on Atticus, Leti, and Montrose on a trip to Boston to seek out the missing pages of the Book of Names. Atticus is convinced he can re-purpose the magic in those pages to project everyone in his life. Leti expresses intense frustration at Atticus’s compartmentalizing of information after Christina Braithwhite pays her a visit. Lastly, Montrose, drunk and reeling, studies the book of information from the cult given to him by a dying George and then proceeds to burn the book, hoping to protect Atticus and the others.

Atticus, Leti, and Montrose travel to Boston in the woody, joined by Hippolyta, Diana, and Tree. Later that night, Tic’s Trio returns to the museum, let in by a guard who also seems to be a contact of Montrose’s, and they uncover the hidden series of chambers and tunnels seemingly constructed by Titus Braithwhite. The Trio encounters a number of challenges and traps and also somehow find themselves just under Leti’s recently acquired haunted house in Chicago until uncovering a ship of corpses and an undead Arawak guardian, Yahima, who happens to be an intersex “two-spirit.” They discover that they were being compelled to translate the pages by Titus, and their people were killed to force the issue. Tic’s Trio manages to retrieve the missing pages, escape the flooded tunnels, and find refuge in Leti’s home with Yahima in two.

Then Montrose slashes the throat of Yahima is a dazzlingly self-destructive choice.

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The rest of the episode revolves around the other women of the show. Hippolyta has clearly taken the orrery from Leti’s house, the same orrery that Christina Braithwhite seems to be seeking in the episode. The orrery also seems to model a distant solar system. Hippolyta and Diana share a cute moment in a star-dome, where Hippolyta reveals she had discovered and named a comet, but the credit was given to a white girl. Later the pair are returning home to Chicago, confused at how Tic’s Trio got there without them. Hippolyta notices that Diana is drawing on George’s atlas, noticed the route to Devon County, where Ardham is found, is marked, and decides to head that way for answers.

Christina, trying to meet her own magical goals attempts to strong-arm Leti but is kept at bay by the magical energies of Leti’s house. Christina drops that Atticus attempted to kill her, as asks Leti for the orrery in the house. Christina spends time in the neighborhood, waiting on the orrery or some other purpose, and is targeted by the same cops who went after Leti last episode. It becomes clear that these cops are tied to another one of the many (maybe even 35?!) magical lodges. This time, however, Christina vanishes and is instead saved by her servant, William. Could Christina and William be one-in-the-same? That might complicate the next bit.

Meanwhile, Ruby, Leti’s half-sister, makes the unfortunate discovery the department store position she craved was filled by another woman. Ruby goes to Sammy’s bar to let off her blues in some fantastic singing that doesn’t seem to inspire many reactions. She then gets introduced to William who seems to promise her the world before seducing her.

Magic has its price, however. Let’s hope the price is not too steep for Ruby.

The ring seems to be the key, here, but I am sure the blood helped.

How it worked out…

It takes about 15 or so hours to travel from Chicago by Boston, according to Google maps. I only mention this because, within the span of two hours, Tic, Leti, and Montrose somehow manage to use an underground passage from a museum in Boston and arrive at the secret tunnel beneath Leti’s new house. Spatial anomalies are fine and welcome in creating unsettling weirdness in Lovecraftian works, but the key is that it needs to be established first. There is no indication that the laws of time and space are warping around Tic and company in the tunnel, all that there is is the rising tide. So unless there was some sort of time and space shenanigans that were established prior to their arrival at Leti’s elevator then the episode absolutely went off the rails, very badly.

It might seem a bit cynical and unfair of me to latch onto a continuity error such as this, but it is a perfect example of some of the narrative leaps that “A History of Violence” took. So many puzzling choices just to set up circumstances in non-organic ways. Why does Montrose burn the book? Because it makes it easier to set him up to tag along. Why is everyone pissed off at an obviously traumatized Atticus for trying to protect their lives? What happened to Tree? Does the hidden trigger in the museum ever get activated when someone is cleaning the alligator statue?

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Even worse, the strength of the show, the themes of the existential horror faced by people of color, was largely absent. We get references to colonialism, Hippolyta being unable to take credit for the cosmic object she saw, and a made-up story about a knot. We do get something with Rose, but it’s all a set-up for next week’s episode.

Instead, we end up with a lukewarm riff on Journey to the Center of the Earth only even more nonsensical than that pulp adventure. Solid performances across the cast can’t even really save it, either. We’re now just mostly hitting the same notes on the characters with a slight thawing of the relationship between Atticus and Montrose.

Lovecraft Country‘s adventurous return to serialization moves the story forward, technically, but seems to be mostly moving pieces around to get the players where they need to be for something more significant to come. Sloppy attention to detail, however, sinks what could have been a fun romp. There is little terror, Lovecraftian or otherwise, to be had, however.

I give the fourth episode, “A History of Violence” two and a half Cthulhus. 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

This sequence was pretty fun.

Miskatonic Musings

What do we have of note in this edition of the Miskatonic Musings?

  • Of course, the Freemans were never enslaved. It’s in the name… Free Man.
  • We also see a little bit more of the kid who we assume will be history’s very own Emmett Till.
  • Speaking of tragedy, Montrose references Tulsa as he burns the cult’s book.
  • Yahima Maraokoti is said to be from Guyana and is a two-spirit. There is a history of “two-spirit” intersex individuals in Native American culture and a fascinating example of differing perspectives on sex and gender in indigenous culture.
  • So, Montrose is gay. His friend from the bar, Sammy, in episode one, was caught receiving oral sex. Tree seems to hint at this in the episode.
    • With that said, Montrose killing Yahima feels gross and unnecessary, but it may also make a perverse sense to him; he may be grappling with his own queerness and Yahima represents an uncomfortable blurring of boundaries for him.
  • Literary references in this episode specifically revolve around Journey to the Center of the Earth. The episode borrows heavily from that sort of pulp adventure storytelling. Not entirely successfully, mind you.
  • There is also a rather laconic retelling of the events of “Genesis.”
  • My music pick for this episode? Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

What did you think about “A History of Violence?” Let us know in the comments!

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David Davis is a writer, cartoonist, and educator in Southern California with an M.A. in literature and writing studies.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask

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Episode two of Goosebumps was honestly more fun than the first. It was dark, funny, infuriating and wonderful. Best of all, it has a killer twist ending.

Let’s discuss.

The story

Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.

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Cover of R.L. Stine's The Haunted Mask.

We’re introduced to a character we haven’t seen much of so far, named Isabella.

Isabella’s life doesn’t seem great. She’s all but invisible at school. She is responsible for taking care of her little brother. It seems like her only real joy is bullying people online. She was the person who tried to get Allison’s party canceled by sending the invite to her parents. Why? Because she is a very unhappy person.

Despite trying to get the party canceled, she decides to go anyway. At the Biddle house, a voice calls her down to the basement. There, she finds a mask.

The mask inspires her to do wild things. She wanders around the party, flirting with everyone. And she has a great time.

Several days later, after Isaiah breaks his arm, Isabella brings an expensive drone to school to get shots of the football team’s practice. Unfortunately, Lucas breaks it fooling around. And Isabella, tired of being ignored, says some awful things to him.

When her mother grounds her because she took the drone without asking, the mask compels her to do some awful things.

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What worked

I would first like to talk about the storytelling structure in this season. It appears that we’re going to be getting the events of Halloween night multiple times, from multiple points of view.

Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

I love this structure. It’s unique, and it allows for more mystery in a shorter period. It’s also more complex, showing just how much madness was happening, while just showing one part of the story at a time.

Another thing I appreciated was the evolution of the character Lucas.

On one hand, it’s easy to be angry at Lucas. Even if he thought the drone belonged to the school, it’s still kind of a selfish move to break it.

But Lucas just lost his father. We don’t know how yet, but we know from Nora that his death caused Lucas to start doing things like jumping on drones and skateboarding off the roof from his bedroom window.

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We all mourn differently. Losing a parent as a teen is awful. So while we can all agree that he’s being a problem, he’s also being a sad kid working through something hard.

And the same can be said for Isabella.

Look, we still don’t know what the adults of this town did to make Harold Biddle haunt them. But we do know that these parents are messing up in all sorts of other ways. And Isabella is suffering from parentification. She’s being forced to play mom at home while being ignored by her classmates at school. Even without the mask, I could see her lashing out and trashing the house.

Finally, I love Justin Long in this series. His visual comedy was fantastic here, as he falls through the hallways. But he also manages to be scary as hell. His creepy smile and jerky movements are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. I honestly can’t think of a living actor who could have played this better.

What didn’t work

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If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Every song seems like it’s just screaming what the characters are thinking. Which isn’t really what I’d consider the point of a soundtrack.

Maybe it’s just a curse on RL Stine. None of his projects can ever have good soundtracks aside from the theme song.

Unlike the original Goosebumps series, there were moments in this episode that did startle me and unnerve me. Which is wonderful. And while it’s still clearly for kids, it’s something anyone can sit down and enjoy. I’m very excited for the rest of the season. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die

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Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.

For nostalgia.

Cover for Say Cheese and Die, Goosebumps number 4.

With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.

So, how was the first episode?

The story

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We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.

We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.

The teens end up not being thrilled either.

Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.

Zack Morris in Goosebumps

While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.

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All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.

What worked

For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.

It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.

That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.

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More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.

This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.

What didn’t work

All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”

Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.

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It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.

But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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