Thursday, February 11, 2016

Monsters and Miscreants

I recently discovered the existence of a delightful thing called Monsters and Miscreants, an entire card game devoted to the monstrous and ghostly world of M.R. James. Needless to say, I bought a set immediately! The tiny package arrived in the mail the other day, bursting with beautiful art and boundless imagination and -- thankfully -- very simple playing instructions. Each card features a ghost, monster, or generally terrifying character from James' stories (a text insert details the stories corresponding to each one) and numerical scores based on "Fright Factor," Physicality, Slayer Score, Dark Arts, and more. I was interested to see that two of my favorites (the Ash Tree Spiders and the Lost-Hearted Children) had middling yet respectable fright factor scores of 76 and 75 respectively.

I personally can't wait to play with my set, though I may just end up admiring the cards for a little while -- and doing some re-reading -- first. In the meantime, I harassed the creator of the card game until he granted my a Q&A for this blog, so please enjoy my conversation with James Drewett, and order your own pack today -- supplies are limited!

SA: How did you decide to make an M.R. James card game? Where did the idea come from?

JD: I've always been a gamer, but have found that the main literary world that is portrayed in gaming is the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. I love the variety of monsters and ghosts in M.R .James and thought it would be fun to see these in a game. Monsters & Miscreants is a simple game that came about while creating my main M.R. James card game, 'Cards for the Curious'.

SA: How did you end up working with your collaborator and illustrator?

JD: While trawling the internet for M.R. James images, I came across a lot of fantastic, vibrant images on which I sourced to an artist at I sent him an email and it turned out that he was the brilliant Swedish artist and designer, Richard Svennson. We had mutual contacts in Mike Taylor and Will Ross from the entertaining M.R. James podcast 'A Podcast to the Curious', and Richard was only too keen to come on board.

SA: What is your background? Are you a game designer?

JD: I've been playing and designing games since I was a kid; however, most of my designing has been for myself, friends and family. I have a life-long love of literature, and now teach students with dyslexia - hopefully helping them to find a love of reading for themselves.

SA: Can you describe the basics of the game in a few words? How did you decide on the rules and structure of the game?

JD: Monsters & Miscreants is a very simple trump-style game, familiar to most people and easy to learn. All the players have a hand of cards. Each card shows a set of categories with statistics, such as Fright Factor, Wall of Weird, Slayer Score etc. On your turn you choose a category on your top card which you hope will beat your opponents' cards. The object of the game is to win all your opponents' cards.

SA: What is your favorite MR James "monster"? What's your favorite MR James story?

JD: It's difficult to choose a favourite "monster" - but I like the guardian of the treasure in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, just for its tentacled weirdness! Again, difficult to choose a favourite M.R. James story - but I think 'A Warning to the Curious' contains all the Jamesian ingredients for a good story: somebody uncovers an artefact that should have stayed hidden, he is stalked by a presence that appears as shadows, fleeting glimpses, bony footprints in the sand, while all along James builds the tension to a truly horrific climax.

SA: Who else do you read? What are your other favorite ghost stories/authors?

Cards for the Curious
JD: I have always read an eclectic range of modern and classic literature, and now am challenged to read an even wider range as I run a local book club. I think Sheridan Le Fanu would rank among my other favourite ghost story writer.

SA: What else are you working on now? What do your future projects look like?

JD: I am aiming to bring out a range of M.R. James games under the banner of 'Pleasing Terror Games'. My hope is to bring the stories of M.R. James to a whole new audience through the route of gaming. I am planning a story telling game as well as a set of cards which will go play alongside Monsters & Miscreants to create a new game.

However, my main project is 'Cards for the Curious' - a strategy card & dice where you play the role of the protagonist in the main M.R. James stories - embarking on a terrifying journey of the imagination, where you try to survive the nameless dread that hunts you, with either your life or your sanity intact. Players relive all the main drama of the actual tale, but, with a host of other encounters thrown in the mix, no story is ever told the same way twice. The concept and prototype have been produced and Richard has agreed to work on the art and design. So watch this space!

A terrifying journey of the imagination where I try to survive the nameless dread that hunts me? I'm sold! You should be, too. Follow the work of James and Richard over at Pleasing Terror.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

You Can't Get This on YouTube, Actually

Getting yelled at by randos on the street is part of my job.

I'm a New York City tour guide, which means I encounter any and every type of person imaginable on these city sidewalks. Some people are perfectly sweet and nice -- entertaining, amusing, wacky New Yorkers. These people are great.

But I’ve also had people yell “TOURISTS!” and “LIES!” at me on my tours. I’ve had cabs deliberately splash me. I’ve had frat boy types yell, “Whooooo ghosts!” (Yes, I do ghostly and macabre tours.) One woman told my group they deserved to get hit by a car and die. Their crime? Standing on the sidewalk outside her house. Once someone called me a liar just as I was telling a group that Fraunces Tavern is still an operating restaurant. “You’re right," I said, "You can’t get a nice meal there, that was a total falsehood, you guys.” Most of the time the best thing to do in these scenarios is muster whatever shred of dignity you have remaining, and ignore them.

But it can get wearying. Because here's the funny thing: I don't like getting yelled at by people. Especially people who literally have no idea who I am, and what I'm saying. Not one of these people has ever listened to me talk, and probably even if they did they're so heavily influenced by indignation and alcohol it wouldn't matter. And I realize it's hypocritical to get uppity about street drunks on an Edgar Allan Poe tour, but something that happened last night bothered me enough to goad me into making a public statement to settle this once and for all.

A Response to a Real Life Troll

My customers are not "tourists". (80% of my year round clientele live in the five boroughs or the tri-state area, and even if they were tourists, that doesn't really mean they deserve to get yelled at just for existing.)

My guides do not tell "lies."

And you can't get this on YouTube.

Let me explain that last one.

Last night a particularly lovely and intelligent gentleman was idling at a stoplight on Waverly Place, where he treated me and my group to a barrage of insults for the entire duration of the red light. Yelling out his SUV window, he began with the usual ("Lies! All lies! Don't believe a word," etc.) then helpfully added, "You can get this all on YouTube!" He finished by admonishing my guests to "Read a book!"

What a truth teller!

Think of the incredible powers of deduction this man must have. Without even hearing a word of what I was saying, he was able to deduce instantly that I was simultaneously lying, reenacting a popular YouTube video (I usually alternate between Sneezing Baby Panda and The Evolution of Dance) and trying to convince my guests to stop reading. Unfortunately, before I could chase this genius down and beg him to make love to me, the light changed and he drove away.

For some reason, the whole episode really got under my skin. Why? I'm used to being called a liar. What was it about these comments that bugged me so much? Was it the fact that I basically experience the IRL equivalent of trolling? Possibly.

"Read A Book!"

I think the "Read a book" comment struck me as particularly irritating, for one, because there's a (wrong) belief among some people that tour guides do nothing more than regurgitate the same exact knowledge you could get from a book or a website. Let me tell you something: if your guide is doing nothing more than sharing information, he's doing it wrong.

You can't, as some have suggested, "save money" by "reading a book instead," or downloading an app or, god forbid, using Wikipedia or internet listicles ("Manhattan's Ten Most Haunted Places!") to get the same experience my guides and I provide. I mean, you could get the same raw information, certainly, but again, it's not about sharing information. That's barely half of what we do. The other half? Engaging in dialogue with you, sharing and listening to personal stories, answering your specific questions, synthesizing heaps of information from diverse sources that would take you hours if not weeks to find on your own, weaving narratives and telling stories (you know, like how they do on TV and in the movies), and making you laugh. Yes, my macabre death-tours are funny. Perversely funny.

Flesh and Blood Gore 

The spontaneous human interaction and element of live performance you get on one of my walking tours cannot be obtained simply by reading a page of text and staring at a specific location. But if you're still hell bent on going the self-guided route, by all means, do. Other things you can do to save money and pass the time include cutting your own hair, reenacting Broadway plays in your living room with your cats, and pulling your own teeth. (Actually, reenacting Broadway plays with your cats sounds fun. Let's make that, "Read a transcript of "Hamilton" or "The Book of Mormon" on your phone. Yes, that's a better analogy.)

Look, I realize the guided tour experience isn't for everyone, and some mavericks will never enjoy being part of a group or listening to a guide. (And some people will never feel weirdly compelled to watch Wicked Tuna either.) I know that sometimes it's more fun just to wander and ramble alone than to take a guided tour. But what we offer is less a "guided tour" than an imaginary exploration of a long-vanished New York City, accompanied by the telling of ghostly, gory tales by professional story-tellers. In short, it's a live performance. And you can't get that in a book or on a website, even YouTube.

PSA: How To Avoid The Bad Ones

If, by the way, you're ever on a walking tour where you think what your guide is doing could actually be replicated or even improved in webisode or podcast format, or if the info you're getting is widely and commonly available online and everywhere in the world, then your tour guide is failing as both a performer and a researcher and needs to be stripped of their license -- if they have one -- before they bore someone to death. Sadly, I'm in pretty tainted company here, because many, many ghost tour guides in the city are guilty of this... not mine, of course, but I'm not about to go around naming names.

Quick PSA: before you take a tour with any ghost tour company in NYC, please check that their guides have licenses first. Most reputable companies will list their guides' first and last names on their websites, and a quick DCA license lookup will show whether or not they are licensed. If they're unlicensed, or their real names are unlisted, caveat emptor. I say this not to bash my competition, but to keep you from suffering through a shitty, derivative tour.

You Make It Better

Look, YouTube is great and can totally offer some stuff that I can't. This is very big of me to admit, I realize, but I am a humble person. Mostly, it can offer this great version of The Raven as read by Christopher Walken (Poe's name is spelled wrong, but the poster has added a sincere apologia, so it's all good):

But here's a funny thing that happened last night. At the end of my Poe tour, a customer said, "You know, I'm inspired to go back and re-read some Poe. I haven't done that in so long." It's moments like that that make up for all the heckling and complaining. Much like my live performance is more satisfying -- really! -- than an app or a website, my real life customers are what make everything all worth it.

You guys are amazing and I love you. 

I'm not sure I was ever inspired to re-read anything by Poe because of a video I saw on YouTube, and there are actually some pretty decent Poe biographies/documentaries on there.

So yeah, watch them. Listen to Walken. Read a book. And if you're constitutionally inclined, take a tour that will immerse you in a live, interactive, engaging experience that will bring history and literature to life all around you. Don't yell at tour groups you see on the street; they might be New Yorkers and/or human beings with feelings.

And to the lady in the cab whose singing made a beautiful background for our discussion of Poe's ill-fated final days? We love you, too. Don't stop Beliebing.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Round Manhattan's Rim

In 1933, journalist Helen Worden of the World-Telegram decided to take a jaunt. With her friend Ruth Steinway in tow, she circumnavigated the waterfront of Manhattan island, and wrote it all up in a pithy little number called Round Manhattan’s Rim. This Depression-era travelogue is a wonderful curio that opens up a vintage Pandora’s-hatbox of questions, from “What is a B.E.F.?” to “Where on earth was Spanish-town,” and “When did the Seaport stop being painted in bright colors of blue and white?” For any NYC history buff, this trove of forgotten pockets of the city long since disappeared is an incredible thrill; that goes double for an NYC history buff with any special love of the water and waterfront life. And the little unassuming moments during which it becomes especially clear that this book was written in another era create a second layer of history — this is a nostalgic text written in a time already past.

“Romance and adventure lie on the waterfront of a great city.
In the middle, up-to-date buildings obliterate early landmarks. On shore-line streets, you will find the past as well as the present, see the ever-changing character of the town and meet the pioneer types of a frontier civilization…
The Battery is familiar to those who have watched it from ferry-boats and ocean liners, contacted it by occasional visits to the Aquarium, and strolled along its wall on summer days.
But it is one of the few New York water-front localities that is known. How many have seen East Marginal Street with its wind-swept spaces? Who can tell where Jeffrey’s Light is, and where would you go to fish for striped bass in Manhattan waters, or set crab traps off the rim of the most important city in the world?”
So much of Round Manhattan’s Rim is pure gold, so endlessly fascinating and arresting in its excavation of a lost world, that to really do it justice I would have to reproduce the entire book here. The next best thing is to pluck out a few of the highlights that particularly grabbed my attention, and encourage you to hunt down a copy and do some exploring with Ruth and Helen on your own. But first, a brief overview of their walks, and how they did them.
Click here to read the rest of this post. You will be re-directed to Boroughs Of The Dead, where it originally appeared. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Toronto's First Moving Picture Show

I recently went up to Toronto for something called a "development incubator," which is less biological than it sounds. This was a movie development incubator, we weren't splicing genes or creating life or anything. It was exciting to see one of my screenplays in development, even if the odds of a screenplay actually emerging as a fully formed film are still as infinitesimal as hatching an Indominus Rex.

On the very first day of this incubator thing, I totally by accident walked by an extremely exciting and informative historic plaque:

Toronto's First Moving Picture Show

I'd been wanting to do a little more research on this fascinating new discovery, but kept putting it off. But seeing as how today is Canada Day and all, I reckoned there's no time like today to figure out what exactly this is all about.

Let's start with the basics. The plaque says:

On August 31st, 1896, a series of films running less than a minute each was projected from a "Vitascope"invented by Thomas Edison at Robinson's Musee Theatre on this site. On the next day, the Toronto World reported that "... the machine projects apparently living figures and scenes on a canvas screen... It baffles analysis and delights immense audiences." Known as a Dime Museum (admission was ten cents), Robinson's Musee has opened in December 1890 and featured jugglers, magicians, and aerialists; a curio shop and waxworks on the second floor and an animal menagerie on the roof. The building changed hands several times, eventually becoming, in 1899, the first location of Shea's Theatre (later situated on Bay Street). It was destroyed by fire in 1905.

The site in question, it bears mentioning, is the southeast corner of Yonge and Adelaide Streets. (You can find the exact coordinates here.)

Now I freaked out a little bit when I saw this plaque because it manages to combine so many of my favorite things in one slab of granite: old time moving pictures, Dime Museums, the nascent years of the film industry, and yes, Canada. Without Canada, we'd have no Mary Pickford or Marie Dressler, and at least one of my screenplays would never have been written (it's a high concept comedy that has them solving murder mysteries, it's great... and yet-to-be-optioned, FYI!). Incidentally, the website Toronto Plaques is amazing; it'll also lead you straight to a Mary Pickford plaque if you want to make a day of it.

A little more research yielded this little bit of insight about the Vitagraph's earliest uses in Canada, from the website Kinema, a superb resource from the University of Waterloo:

"The sole right for exhibiting the Vitascope in Canada was secured by the Holland brothers of Ottawa, as agents for Raff and Gammon, the American Vitascope promoters. The scheme devised for marketing called for the selling of franchises of Thomas Armat's Vitascope (not Edison's, since Armat had allowed Raff and Gammon to use the Edison label strictly for commercial expediency). For an initial advance payment, an agent could purchase the exclusive rights to the Vitascope for a state or group of states giving the person [or persons] the right to lease projectors (for US $25 to $50 monthly per machine) and buy, of course, Edison films. The manner and location of the exhibitions were left entirely to the franchise holder. Agents could exploit the Vitascope themselves, or, as Raff and Gammon repeatedly pointed out in their correspondence, the territories could be further divided or sub-franchised."

I like the way this site gives credit to Thomas Armat for the Vitascope. (I guess it's too much for one historical plaque to get into!)

Robinson's had high aspirations to be a museum of the first water, with "nothing cheap except the prices:"

Something new in the line of amusements will be opened to the Toronto public on Wednesday next. The buildings at 91 and 93 Yonge street have been fitted up for Robinson's Musee Theatre. The entrance leads to the second floor, on which is a large hall containing wax works and tableaux, on the third floor is the art gallery, stereopticon views and curio halls, and on the fourth or top floor is the menagerie of living wild animals, aquarium and aviary. From the top floor the public will pass downstairs in the rear of the building to the theatre on the ground floor. The hall is being fitted handsomely and will have seating capacity for several hundred people... The theatrical attractions will be of high order and will be kept free from anything of objectionable character.

(The source Kinema credits for this quote is the Globe, Dec. 1, 1890, p. 8.)

The Toronto Daily Mail, December 2, 1890

 According to Kinema, the introduction of the Vitascope was all part of Robinson's plan to make the "Musee" seem fancy: the Vitascope, of course, was at the forefront of science and technology, educational, and edifying. I mean, come on, it "baffled analysis!"

Kinema has only teeny, tiny picture of what Robinson's Musee looked like:

Robinson's Musee at 91-93 Yonge Street

No word on the critical reaction of Torontonians to these initial short films, but I can only deduce from what the city has become that the moving pictures grew on them. (Admittedly, I am running out toe enjoy that other great Canadian pastime of drinking a few cold ones, so I don't have any more time for this post. But if you have any info, I'm all ears.)

So there you have it. My little bit of Canadiana on this fine July 1st!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Return of Spinster Aunt

Well, well! Just like old times!

It's been a while. In fact, it's been over a year since I updated this old girl. I've enjoyed just now going back and reading some out-of-date reader comments ("Your blog post on this topic is stunningly stupid").

Lately I've been blogging more over at Boroughs of the Dead, where I mostly write about macabre NYC history. Still, there are a host of other brilliant thoughts burning in my brain that I've got to share just for fun, and now that ALL OF Murder She Wrote is on Netflix, well! You can imagine I've been thinking up some pretty exciting blog post ideas (J.B. Fletcher-inspired fashion shoot, that's the first one).

And then there's Maude.

No really. I'm also watching Maude! (Note to self: possible blog post title = Their Eyes Were Watching Maude.)

It's been a busy year for me. Besides ramping up business over at BotD HQ, I've also been slogging my way through my first adult-length novel, a ghost story. (Writing, not reading. I have read a whole novel written for grown ups before, I promise.)

I was unsure as to whether I should continue to blog here at all, what with being busy and grown up and all. But you never know when I'll want to unleash some stunning stupidity on the world. Also, would you want to live in a world without my remarks on Dale Carnegie, the Hams and Jams catalog, and whatever this is?

Reading through my old posts -- which are hilarious, by the way, I don't care if you're not supposed to praise yourself, fuck it, they're error-riddled and bizarre and terrible but also insane and entertaining and funny -- it occurs to me how long it's been since I wrote anything for FUN. Remember fun? It's a thing I used to do when I had regular employment, before I became an "entrepreneuse" and suddenly every hour that I wasn't working was an hour I wasn't making money. (Money, it turns out, is a thing you need to survive.) Writing for me now has become sort of joyless -- I just used the word SLOG for god's sake -- and it took rifling through blog posts from 2009 to see how emotionally downtrodden I've become.

It's like Harold Diddlebock says: "Maybe they were right to fire me. I've gone soft. Your mind gets dull after twenty years working the same job, taking the same train every day, sitting at the same desk doing the same work, taking the same route home again."

So fuck it. Prepare for an onslaught of my nonsense, misuse of commas and the word "frankly," cryptic remarks apparently ungrounded in reality, and a host of other idiocies. Also be prepared that this blog might veer toward the personal, with less carefully curated quirkiness (oh, I'm on to you, Circa-2009 Spinster Aunt!) and "information" (though I will continue to assiduously post monkey-related news items... and gorilla-related news items). I just want to regain the joy in writing that I lost somewhere along the way. Before I started thinking of writing as a thing that had to be done, as an assignment. Something to sell. Something to be reviewed. A thing to be bought. One endless to-do list.

Professional writers sit down at their computer every day and write, they say! Yes, but.... that can't be all there is to it, can there? All I know is I used to enjoy this more.

Now all this isn't to say that I am not capable of writing any more. If anything, I've gotten better at my craft, more skilled, more polished, gone to more profound levels in my work. This is all true. (Especially if you're reading this and you're an agent or an editor. Then it's doubly true, I'm amazing.) But I sort of lost the.... nonsense of it. And that was the thing I really used to love. The sense of wonder, of "being puzzled at what we do not know.”

I need to get back to this. I need to bring some genuine wackiness back to my creative life. I need to have more foot-care-and-Maude nights with my funniest friend. (The health of your feet is so important, I can't stress that enough.) I need to remember the thing that I forgot.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

YA Favorites

There are more Nancy Drews hidden behind this one!

I've been answering lots of interview questions lately, doing promo for my YA novel Glamour, and one that pops up a lot is, of course, "What are your favorite books?" A recent Twitter discussion about The Witch of Blackbird Pond made me realize I have this whole shelf of my YA favorites in my bedroom, so I reckoned I'd share a snap with my tens of readers.

Since I am a terrible photographer (why do my pictures always come out so blurry? Is it because I have shaky hands? I'm dying, I think, that's why I shake, probably) you can hardly see anything here, so I'll just point out the highlights:

Of course, in addition to the aforementioned Blackbird Pond, we have:

My beloved Hitchcock anthologies
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl (actually, Matilda is my favorite but I left behind a lot of books when I moved to NYC)
The Booky Trilogy by Berenice Thurman Hunter (If you have not read these books, do it now! This series opens with a ten-year-old in Depression-era Toronto begging her parents not to give away her new baby brother.... because they can't afford to keep him, see? But it's never maudlin! It's delightful! How is this even possible?)
Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck
A bunch of Nancy Drews
Some Anne and Emily books by L.M. Montgomery
Three Gordon Kormans (one obviously stolen from the school library)
Grimm's Fairy Tales
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
A Swiftly Tilting Planet, my favorite of Madeleine L'Engle's series
And finally, the piece de resistance, the novelization of the 1980 cinema classic Little Darlings

(Notable omissions: The Westing Game, The Long Secret. I think I left my copies of these back home in Canada ten years ago.)

On a side note, my cover of A Little Princess has an illustration from a 1909 edition of the book illustrated by Ethel Franklin Betts, with whom I am now obsessed.

Ethel Franklin Betts 1909 illustration
So that's a window into my soul. How about you all? Which YA classics have a shelf of honor in your house?

Which Witch Are You?

Witches abound in the pages of GLAMOUR! With so many different varieties, skills, and styles, you might be wondering which witch you are!

Take this fun quiz I made up to see Which Witch you are! Are you Christina? Raven? Nadia? Just be forewarned: this quiz is eerily accurate, so it will show you your true self... Can you handle it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

GLAMOUR release day!

My Young Adult novel GLAMOUR is on sale as of right.... now!

Buy the book, read it, then do this fun quiz I made up to see Which Witch you are! Do it!