“‘With the Exquisite Corpse we had at our disposal – at last – an infallible means of sending the mind’s critical mechanism away on vacation and fully releasing its metaphorical potentialities“
— Andre Breton
NOTE FROM JB: The Parisian avant-garde, notably Dada and Surrealism, are long standing enthusiasms of mine. Occasionally this fascination finds its way into my historical fiction and on those rare occasions when I indulge in making art other than prose, it leans heavily on those two movements. When I discovered author/creator A.A. Rubin’s Cadavre Exquis project, reviving the classic surrealist concept of Cadavre Exquis (French for “Exquisite Corpse”) , I wanted in. It was a delight to be able to participate in an actual Cadavre Exquis exercise, and it is even more of a delight to have A.A. here to talk about the project.
(TL;DR: Check out the results of A.A. Rubin’s contemporary revival of the Cadavre Exquis, a classical Surrealists’ collaborative artistic exercise, here)
Q: Can you explain the concept of Cadavre Exquis and how did you come to fall in love with it?
A: The Cadavre Exquis is a surrealist exercise wherein an artist would fold a piece of paper, like a letter, and draw only in the top section. They would then send the project to another artist who would continue the piece by drawing on the next section, with no knowledge of what the previous artist drew save for the ends of their lines which are visible at the fold. The process would continue until the paper (sometimes multiple papers stuck together) was filled and the piece was complete.
I had learned about the practice a while ago, but was reminded of it during a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition. The show had an extensive collection of surrealist cadavres, and a large portion of the initial gallery was devoted to the practice. Reading the excellent gallery cards made me think about how the practice might be adapted to writing, which is my main creative medium.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your Cadavre Exquis project and what motivated you to undertake the exercise?
A: When I saw the Surrealism exhibit, I immediately began to think about how it might be adapted to writing. In a way, it reminded me of the old John Gardner collaborative writing exercise where one person begins a story and then passes the story to the next person in the group, and so on, the obvious difference being that in the surrealist cadavre, the second (and subsequent) artists had little-to-no knowledge of what the previous artist has done. The other, less obvious difference is that in the Surrealist exercise, the composition is done in private, where the creator is alone with their subconscious.
I wrote a blog post on my website detailing my encounter with the surrealist at the Met, and put out a call for other writers to undertake it with me as well.
The basic idea was to adapt the Surrealist Cadavre for writers. I came up with the idea to have each writer compose a paragraph continuing from the last line of the previous writer. Writers would only have knowledge of that last line, and would send only their last line to the next writer.
When the surrealists did their cadavres, they mailed their physical drawings to each other. For this project, I decided to use modern technology like email and google docs. Each writer emailed their final line to the next, and pasted their paragraph into a group google doc where the full story was compiled. The writers were instructed not to peek at the google doc with the previous paragraphs until after they had completed their own. This required the writers to be honest to experience the true effect of the exercise, but it is really no different than the original cadavre project, where the surrealists relied on the honor of fellow participants not to unfold the paper and peek at the previous drawing.
Q: How were the participants in the project selected?
A: As mentioned above, I put out a call on my website and promoted it on through my social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). I asked writers for a statement of interest and bio. There ended up being enough interest for three groups. I had originally conceived the project as a prose writing project, but I got some interest from poets as well. We ended up with two prose groups and one poetry group.
I divided the writers into teams randomly, and then selected each team’s “batting order” randomly as well. I also decided to participate in each group myself. I was hoping to experience the exercise from each position, and while I got to be in the middle and at the end, I never got to lead off (and I didn’t adjust the random order in my favor).
Q: What are your thoughts on the completed exercises? Were there any things which surprised you? Any things that precisely met your expectations?
A: I think the exercise went well. People seemed to enjoy participating, and everyone completed their work in a timely manner. I was a bit worried about it becoming unwieldy, but it was surprisingly cohesive, at least in process. I think the pieces came out well, too. The various paragraphs are divergent in style, as one would expect, but there’s still a coherence to them, and they read well.
I am pleasantly surprised by the talented writers who chose to join me for this project. When I put out the call, I did not know who would respond, but, considering this was basically a shot-in-the-dark, it’s amazing to me how many really strong writers chose to join me in this endeavor. I am grateful to them all.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, when you’re not invoking the serious games of the surrealists, and about your past and future writing projects?
A: I write everything from serious literary fiction to comics, formal poetry to science fiction and fantasy and almost everything in between. My first published work was a short story back in 2002, and I’ve been publishing pretty consistently ever since. I’ve had recent pieces in Ahoy Comics, Love Letters to Poe, and Flying Ketchup Press, among others, and I am currently working on two novels as well.
I am a teacher by profession, but I am currently on a childcare leave. I am also an experienced martial artist with a blackbelt-level rank in multiple styles.
You can find out more about me by visiting my flowpage.
Q: Do you have any plans for future surrealist activities?
A: You know, when I first chose my social media moniker, @TheSurrealAri, it was a bit of a joke. At the time, twitter was relatively new, and there were many fake celebrity accounts. “Real” celebrities would often choose handles that began with @TheReal before their name to differentiate themselves from the fake accounts that were taken (and held unless the celeb paid an exorbitant price). I came into that environment and said, I’m not going to be “The Real Ari,” I’m going to be “The Surreal Ari.”
Over time, however, I’ve come to embrace the surreal moniker. The surrealist project, which involves accessing the subconscious mind through art, meshing the real and dream worlds, and a heavy use of symbolism actually meshes with much of what I do pretty well. Some of my recent writing has had a decidedly surrealist bent.
Q: Has your experience with the Cadavre Exquis project catalyzed broader realizations or observations?
A: Only that there is a great value to working on art for art’s sake. Not everything has to be commercial and/or marketable. This was a weird project, one no one got paid for, and one that was definitely unconventional and weird, and yet each of the the writers who participated got something out of it, had fun doing it, and connected with like-minded artists whom they may not have known before. There is a value in the strange and the uncomfortable (a very surrealist thought) and it is fun to try something new. Too often today, art is treated as a business, but there is a value to making art that goes beyond the commercial. Make art; get messy; be weird. You’ll grow in ways you couldn’t possibly have imagined.
Q: How can my readers find the completed Cadavre Exquis pieces from the project?
I’m honored that my story “Pioneer House” has been voted Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Short Story of 2021 in the annual Critters Readers’ Choice Poll. My heartfelt thanks to all the fans and friends who made this possible.
Set in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, “Pioneer House” brings big Stranger Things energy to a classic weird-fiction tale inspired by Lovecraft’s “Strange High House in the Mist.” It is my third published story to be set in Junzt County, a fictional Texas Hill County country that is my answer to Lovecraft’s Arkham.
Told through the eyes of Essie Parr, an archetypical ‘80s small-town Texas girl who dreams of escaping the narrow confines of her small town and the life that seems foreordained for her there, “Pioneer House” is story of her closest friend, Gavin Sadler. One of those sublime creatures who is in the world but not of it, possessing an uncannily broad vision even as child, Gavin finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Pioneer House, a local landmark wrapped in mystery. The structure becomes Gavin’s true passion and obsession.
And what about Pioneer House, the ‘strange, high house’? In the 1830s, when the non-native settlers first arrived in what would become Junzt County, Pioneer House was already there. The Georgian-style mansion, two and half stories tall, with its steeply-sloped roof, wrap-around porch, and diamond-paned windows, sits empty atop Brockenburg, a lonely granite dome towering over the surrounding hills.
As Gavin and Essie dig deeper into the riddle of Pioneer House, they discover a legacy of ghost lights, anomalous fog, strange electrical effects, and unexplained disappearances. Along the way, they confront high school bullies, gatekeeping librarians, janitors with mysterious pasts, and an enigmatic man donning the attire of centuries past – building toward a climatic encounter with the ultimate threshold guardian, Pioneer House itself.
Behind the Story
Junzt County originated as the setting for a Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran in 2014. I wanted a fictional setting in a region I know well (in this case, the Texas Hill Country) that I could populate with people, places, and folklore that felt authentic in the same way Arkham feels authentic. While, over time, I found Junzt’s County’s own distinctive flavor and heartbeat, my earliest strokes of world-building following strongly in Lovecraft’s footsteps. Inspired by the eponymous dwelling in Strange High House in the Mist, Pioneer House became one of the first data points to appear in my mental map of Junzt County. But, other than a name and image, Pioneer House took years to flesh itself out in my mind – the details, the history, the enigmas.
Brockenburg, the granite dome that is home to Pioneer House, is based on Enchanted Rock, a real-world geological formation in Gillespie and Llano Counties, Texas. Of course, having the chance to remake it in accordance with genre conventions, I made it bigger, lonelier, weirder.
When I began writing fiction in 2016, I realized Junzt County made a very natural setting for a certain kind of story. To date, I have about ten Junzt County stories published, penned, or in progress. While the original Call of Cthulhu campaign that birthed the region was set in the ‘80s, the Junzt County stories’ settings range from post-Civil War to the present day.
The ‘80s also felt right for “Pioneer House,” contemporary enough that most of its elements of childhood and adolescence would feel familiar to readers, yet enough removed from the present to allow it a certain dreamlike or fairytale quality. On a more pragmatic level, technology available in the 80s and early 90s allowed some interesting narrative possibilities…but not so many possibilities as to make the protagonists’ task too easy.
Currently, Pioneer House is available in “Pizza Parties & Poltergeists,” an anthology of ‘80s-themed supernatural and horror stories from 18th Wall Productions. Later in 2022, it will be rereleased as part of a collection of Juznt County stories, also from 18th Wall (I’m very grateful for their ongoing support for my Junzt County endeavors). In addition to “Pioneer House,” the collection will contain two previously published stories: “Totmann’s Curve” (now expanded to novel-length) and “So Lonesome I Could Die.” It will also feature three new stories: “The Eyeteeth,” “Family Style,” and “Everybody Needs a Friend.”
(TL, DR: Check out the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone, an exciting anthology of Ohio-themed horror upcoming from Cracked Skull Press)
Note from JB: Although I’ve lived most of my life in Texas, my earliest years were spent in Ohio – born in Columbus and toddling around Mansfield. I remember feeling overwhelmed and unnerved by the imposing Romanesque edifice of the Ohio State Reformatory (not that, as a four year-old, I was using phrases like “imposing Romanesque edifice”), still in operation at that time.
Then there are odd bits from my family’s history, more than a few of them touched by the mysterious or the horrific. My maternal great-great grandmother, the automatic writer – a devout Methodist fearful her hand was possessed by the devil himself. My paternal great-grandfather, hanged by his brothers and sisters from the barn door (supposedly because he’d gone to bat and then refused to play the field in one too many games of cornfeild baseball — but I’ve always suspected there is more to the tale), his father returning from town and cutting him down in the nick of time.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of being involved with Soteira Press’ Horror USA project. Since then, I’ve had an appreciation and affection for state-themed horror anthologies. Combined with the personal history outlined above, I was delighted to discover Cracked Skull Press’ That Which Cannot Be Undone project. They were kind enough to make the time to talk with me about the upcoming anthology.
Q: Cracked Skull Press is a new publishing house. Tell me a little bit about the press, its team, and how it all came together.
A: Cracked Skull Press is comprised of Ohio-based horror authors David Day, Randall Drum, Ray Pantle, and Rami Ungar. The press was formed because each team member shares a desire to promote horror literature and raise awareness of lesser-known talent within the horror community. The team came together through shared connections in the (horror) writing community.
Q: Your first publication, scheduled for release in October of this year, is an anthology of Ohio-themed horror stories entitled That Which Cannot Be Undone. Tell me how the idea for that anthology came about and what the title means in this context.
A: We wanted our first anthology project to feature horror authors who were born in, or currently live in, Ohio, and it made sense that Ohio should be the setting for each story. We had several concepts in mind, but what really resonated with us was the theme of “that which cannot be undone.” We feel this provides our contributing authors a lot of space to exploit a theme that does not put in place any limitations. In this instance, the theme also makes for a compelling title for the collection.
Q: What are some of your favorite bits of Ohio folklore and urban legend (ghost stories, cryptids,creepypastas, eerie locations, whatever) which inspire you and that you might be hoping will make an appearance within the anthology?
A: Ohio has no shortage of dark legends and equally creepy locations. Legends such as the melon head children–disabled children who were experimented on and now live in the woods outside of the Cleveland area–have provided inspiration for many tales destined to frighten and mystify readers.
David: I have a special love for The Moonville Tunnel and The Ridges, both in Southeast Ohio. I spent several years living in Athens while in school at Ohio University, and have visited both locations on several occasions. I’ve never had any kind of supernatural experience, but the mood and tone of both places are very evocative.
Rami: I’ve been to several haunted locations in the state, and I experience stuff all the time. My own story takes place at the Ohio State Reformatory, which I can attest to is haunted to the brim. And the Bellaire House in southeast Ohio has a really nasty feel to it. Anyone who goes there is likely to come away a little changed. And there are so many more worthy of writing stories about! Hopefully we’ll see some of them in the anthology.
Q: You already have some excellent authors lined up for the anthology, tell me a little bit about them and, if you’re willing, maybe a few hints about what we’ll see from them in That Which Cannot Be Undone.
A: Ohio has a grand literary tradition and we’re fortunate to have so many wonderful horror authors who made themselves available for our first collection. While we can’t provide a full bio for each author here, we do have several Bram Stoker Award-winners, such as Tim Waggoner, Lucy Snyder, Gary Braunbeck, and Gwendolyn Kiste. We do not yet have the submissions from our contributors, so we can’t provide any insights to their stories.
Q: This year, Michigan beat the Buckeyes 42-27. Can your authors come up with anything more terrifying than that?
A: Challenge accepted!
Q: The Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone has some really unique incentives, especially at the higher levels. Tell us a little bit about that.
A: We are really grateful for all of our contributors who have helped us create some very special rewards and incentives for pledging. Many of them have promised signed copies of their work, such as Tim Waggoner’s novelization of the recent movie “Halloween Kills.” But our favorite might be the Baphomet Bash reward, where you and a plus one can come to our release party in October and hang out with the authors who made this anthology possible. Talk about a horror fan’s dream!
Q: Has Cracked Skull started looking beyond That Which Cannot Be Undone? If so, what’s on the horizon for you?
A: Our focus right now is doing everything we can to put together the highest quality collection of stories we can, with equally high quality put into the production of the anthology. Beyond this first collection, we anticipate our future in publishing to include collections, novels, and more in print and online.
Q: It takes so many things to bring an anthology like this together, what’s been the key to success for That Which Cannot Be Undone?
A: We are grateful for the support we have received from our friends, families, and most of all, our backers on Kickstarter. We hope they are as excited as we are about “That Which Cannot Be Undone” and the future of Cracked Skull Press.
Q: How can my readers engage with Cracked Skull Press online?
A: At this time, Cracked Skull Press can be found on Facebook,Twitter (@CSkullPress) and Instagram (@crackedskullpress). Our online presence will expand later this year.
Check out the Kickstarter for That Which Cannot Be Undone, and look for more great things in the future from Cracked Skull Press.
It was true pleasure to moderate a panel of delightful guests such as Julie Barret, Tim Morgan, and Sue Sinor for the FenCon “Alternative History” session.
It’s funny, I spent a week preparing for this panel and telling people I’d never published AH – before realizing I had. But, because of the filters of perception, it took me until the night before the session.
In 2019, I have the honor of contributing to Defending Earth: The Adventures of Sarah Jane Smith, a charity anthology of Dr. Who stories revolving around the eponymous companion, raising money for cancer research in memory of the late, great Elisabeth Sladen. My contribution, Swinging Londons, involves the space-time around London becoming dangerously unstable, shifting into alternate versions of itself every couple hours. Sarah Jane and the Doctor have to navigate their way through a panoply of Londons, some delightful, some demented, some dangerous, as they attempt to identify and halt the disturbance.
So, as it turns out, I’m going into moderating this panel significantly more qualified than I thought.
The Greatest Hits of All Time(s)
So, let’s talk about a couple of AH titles that have really influenced me both as a writer and a reader.
Lest Darkness Fall: “Rome Never Falls,” is one of the most hackneyed, cliché divergence points in AH. And yet this 1939 classic from L. Sprague de Camp doesn’t suffer for it in the least. There are several reasons for that. First, its focus is on why and how the Empire is preserved. Second, it takes as its starting point the late Roman Empire, when Gothic influence is already strong and a variety of Christian sects battle via polemic (and occasionally via pommel) in the streets, which is a very different beast from the “Salad Days of the Caesars” Rome that dominates AH. Third, while technically retro, its tone of innocence and clear-eyed optimism feels fresh and novel and against a genre that is often gritty and pessimistic. Finally, of course, with a 1939 publication date, the cliché that Rome Never Falls later become doesn’t really apply to Lest Darkness Fall (except, perhaps, for being such a brilliant book that it spawned countless imitators). (Bel NEMETON)
The Difference Engine: Often considered the first great Steampunk novel, or at least the first to successfully marry critical acclaim with commercial success. Some purists reject the idea of Steampunk and subset of AH because it often utilizes (or at least implies) variant physical laws rather than a possible (in not plausible) divergence point. The Difference Engine offers neat refutation of that argument for at least some steampunk. Its divergence point is a simple matter of a plausible invention that did not work in our world being designed just a little bit better: specifically, what it Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” had worked, thus creating an effective mechanical computer in the 19th century. The Difference Engine’s world is understated, looking much like the Victorian Era we knew rather than the self-aware, over-the-top aesthetic that has come to characterize much of steampunk. For all that, I find the question of “what if the Victorians had the same ability to collate, process, and analyze data that we do?” much more provocative and far reaching than “What if airships were everywhere?” (And, no, I’m not hating on airships – they’re awesome).
Harry Turtledove: Okay, normally when I hear an author described as “The Master of” anything, I role my eyes and take it with a grain of salt. But the “Master of Alternate History” earns his stripes. Most of his oeuvre could justly claim a place on a list of The Best of Alternative History. His Worldwar series and Timeline-191 series are remarkable achievements in AH, rivaled only by Eric Flint’s 1632 series. Turtledove’s Crosstime Traffic AH series, while well-crafted YA, pulls no punches either intellectually or emotionally.
To cite a lesser known but fully worthy stand-alone title. Ruled Britannia is tale of intrigue, occupation, and … theatre, in an England where Spanish Armada was victorious and Britain is now a Spanish possession. The tale unfolds largely through the eyes of each power’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare and Lope de Vega. As characters, they are wonderful and their interactions with each other are delightful to behold.
Anatomy of an Alternative History
Every AH has two components.
The Divergence Point, is the moment at which the world’s history begins differing from our own.
The Affect (not the Effect) is the world which results from changes accumulating and compounding since the divergence point which the author wishes to portray in their story.
Stories about the Divergence Point itself, merging Divergence Point and Affect into a Singularity, are certainly possible: Lest Darkness Fall and Turtledove’s How Few Remain are examples that immediately come to mind.
The two main approaches to developing Alternate History stories are derived from the relationship of these components.
Approach #1: the author starts be selecting a Divergence Point and then extrapolates out the Affect.
Approach #2: the author already knows the Affect they want a retro-engineers a divergence point that plausibly brings it to pass. All my AH work, published or allegedly in progress, has used this approach.
Running Out of Steam?
From my perspective, steampunk has become to AH what zombies have become to horror. While there is still really good, ground-breaking work being done in the genre, it has become something of a “default setting,” leading to a field crowded with unimaginative offers retreading the same well-worn tropes. Some of the most exciting work I see being done in the genre mines the potential of settings and times away from the clichés of Victorian Britain, the American West, etc. For example, the Antics of Evangeline, by Madeleine D’Este, uses the very Steampunk-friend but underutilized setting of Melbourne, Australia at the height of the Australian gold rush as the setting for a series of fresh-feeling YA steampunk novellas.
I like steampunk, but I still don’t entirely understand why it became such a phenomenon. I am curious whether any of the AH “baby punks” (atomic punk, clock punk, deco punk, diesel punk, steel punk, stonepunk, etc.) can or will become a literary and cultural phenomenon akin to steampunk. Personally, I hold out hope for clockpunk and diesel punk because I like the aesthetic (Brenden Carlson’s Night Callis an excellent recent example of diesel punk, with noir-ish nods to Blade Runner, American Gangster, and the Untouchables). Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been toying with ideas for a clockpunk series. Want a teaser? It…get ready for it…involves Da Vinci (wasn’t I complaining about over-worn tropes just a paragraph ago?)
And continuing on that theme, what of the three tired old monarch of divergence points: Confederates Win, Nazis Win, and Rome Never Falls? Given that, in addition to being cliché, two of them are potentially problematic if handled improperly, is there still a future for them in AH. For at least two of them, I think the answer is yes.
Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle shows there is still a public appetite for examining the grim consequences of Axis Victory. I am, however, more interested in the possible future for the other two.
We are seeing a reckoning and frank reexamination of the history of race and racism in America. The stories we tell ourselves about the Civil War is perhaps the fulcrum of the debate. Some intriguing work has already been done in the area. After his stand-alone novel Guns of the South (arguably as much a character study as an alternative history), Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191 takes a brutally frank look at the consequences of a Confederate victory, extrapolating it to an absolutely dystopian conclusion in the modern day. But I feel the current reexamining and awakening opens even more possibilities for AH on this theme. There will no doubt be some AH “Lost Cause” apologies offered in the mix, but I hope the vast majority of new works will reflect the more honest accounting we are seeing emerge.
With America’s place in the world changing, and seemingly changing very fast, Rome Never Falls store have a new relevance. As a generation of US global hegemony seems to be fading into a world where America is just one superpower among several, I wonder if we are going to see a flurry of new “Eternal Empire” AH. And I wonder how many of these will be the vessel for some a kind of thinly-veiled FTFY narrative about American’s changing stature; and how many will be genuine if allegorical examinations of the choices available to us, and their consequences.
The Paradox of Alternate History
While ostensibly about the past, AH is really about the present in future. When authors chose divergence points and design effects, we are really commenting about what we believe is significant in the present, and broadcasting our hopes and fears about the future. Moving toward the close of 2021 and the birth of 2022, what trends do I see for AH in the near future?
First, yes, lots of pandemic and disease stories. Look for a plague (ha-ha) of Black Death stories, but also some potentially cannier AH outliers about the 1917 flu, the plague of Justinian, malaria, cholera, maybe even one where the 1970s Swine Flu outbreak proved as bad as few experts predicted. Oh, and if anyone wants to write a story was St. Vitus’s Dance was actual contagious disease…I will read the hell out of that.
And, of course, look for widespread use of themes of alienation, political and social division, unrest, and tyranny.
I would love to see a move away from political, military, and technological divergence points toward a greater embrace of social and cultural divergence points. Some of this can already be seen at work, Apple TV’s For All Mankind, while using the space race as the inciting event, is really an AH about gender roles, inclusivity, and diversity. But my poor little music journalist heart is always asking “Okay, but what does this alternate history sound like? Does it have a good beat? Can you dance to it?”
But my biggest wish for AH would be a broader and deeper range of voices contributing to the genre. Even when the divergence point or effect are not explicitly Western (as with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt or Harry Turtledove’s Through Darkest Europe, AH authors remain overwhelmingly of European descent and predominantly male. It would hard to refute allegations that the genre skews Eurocentric. All genres benefit from increasing the range of voices among their authors, but I believe such diversity would be especially valuable (and is especially needed) for AH.
It was great pleasure to moderate FenCon’s “Liminal Spaces” session for two pannels as eriudite and insightful as Mark Finn and Carolyn Kay.
“Liminal Spaces” and “liminality” are powerful words, ones we often seem to appreciate intuitively rather than consider rationally. Despite, or perhaps because, of that, it can mean many different things to different people, especially depending on one’s primarily lens into liminality. With that in mind, here are some discipline-specific definitions:
Anthropology: The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete” – Victor Turner.
Psychology: A space in our lives where the old self-narrative does not fit any longer and the new narrative has not yet emerged. – Dr. Vincent Deary
Architecture: …the transitional threshold between two fixed states in cultural rites of passage or between two dissimilar spaces in architecture … from which principles can be drawn for the design of a transformative space. The characteristics that define liminal space include layering, dissolution, blurring, and ambiguity and have the ability to transform the occupant of that space as they move through it… – Patrick Troy Zimmerman
Western Magical Tradition: Witches walk between the worlds, with one foot in the world of force and the world of form — The Gardnerian Librarian
Literature: “The state of being on a threshold in space or time” – A Handbook to Literature
Popular Culture #1: On the surface, liminal spaces can be defined by their in between-ness. Places like airports, hotels, and train stations can be described as liminal, but it can also describe existential feelings of being neither here nor there. In the context of the pandemic, liminality takes on a metaphorical meaning, as we sit in our homes contemplating what life was like before and what it will become again in the future. – Günseli Yalcinkaya
Liminality: The history of an Idea
The term liminality (From the Latin, limen, a threshold) was first used in 1909 by ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his book Rites of Passage, focusing on liminal rituals in small-scale traditional societies. This strong focus on liminality in the context of Rites of Passage continues throughout its early anthropological use.
The concept was reinvigorated by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, who began exploring its role in other kinds of societies (for which Turner coined the term liminoid, a distinction which has not generally caught on) and examining its impact on those experiencing liminality in a way which prefigured its adoption by psychology. Anthropologist Agnes Horvath further refined the use of liminality in the discipline by pointing out problems with the concept as used by Gennep and Turning, including identifying liminal/liminoid as a false dichotomy and questioning their portrayal of liminality and liminal experience as universally positive phenomenon.
Jungian psychologists (and to a lesser extent, other schools of psychology) were quick to pick up on liminality’s applicability to individual, internal growth and development as well as external social relations. Once seeded in two academic disciplines, to concept of liminality rapidly spread to other academic disciplines including folklore, literature, and architecture.
While the ideas of liminal space and liminal experience had already been filtering through to popular culture, the internet drastically accelerated the process, to the point that in 2021 liminality is broadly understood concept even if its release into the wilds of popular culture has expanded or muddied (your preference) its meaning – including the idea of a liminality as aesthetic and a focus on mood and atmosphere. It has found an especially potent home in the realms of urban folklore and creepypasta, most notably the “Backrooms” and their purported (liminal) ability to be reached by no-clipping through regular reality.
Perhaps it’s only because the other panel I’m moderating at Fenon this year is on Alternate History but, I wonder in particular about a modern understanding of liminality might have impacted the world of two well known scholars.
For Jung, liminality was an individual phenomenon, the process in the psyche’s development when it could not return to what it had been…but did not yet know what it would become. Jung passed in 1961. I would be very curious what he would make of the word’s evolution over the following half-century, and why kind of conceptual leaps he might have made with the word’s greater flexibility.
The anthropologist Sir James Frazer died in 1941, and his most fertile period was around the turn of the century when “liminal space” wasn’t even a blip on the radar. I am very curious what he might have done with the concept of liminality if could have been part of his mental universe while compiling The Golden Bough.
Liminality as Storytelling
Liminality is inherent to most of the major models of storytelling.
In Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” liminal space begins when the threshold his crossed (notice that Campbell uses the term ‘threshold,’ from which its Latin equivalent WORD, liminal is derived) and arguably does not end until returning across the threshold. Though a case could certainly be made that the liminal period of the Hero’s Journey ends with the rebirth/renewal event.
In Victoria Lynn Scmidt’s “Heroine’s Journey,” liminality begins with the phase of descent/passing the gates of judgment and does not end until either rebirth or returning to the world with new eyes.
“Rules” of Liminality?
Unlike mundane space, in liminal space there are very few rules. Gennep posited that liminal experience or ritual had three distinct phases:
Preliminal: A kind of metaphorical death, as old statuses and ways are broken and left behind.
Transitional: The truly liminal moment of transition, when an individual undergoing liminal experience is neither one thing nor the other.
Postliminal: When the individual is reincorporated into society reflecting their new status or experience gained through undergoing the liminal rite.
Note that the idea that liminality is simultaneously destructive and creative (like the dance of Shiva and Vishnu) is inherent to Gennap’s three phase model.
The model for liminal event or rite is easily portable to liminal space, with two boundary zones wrapped around a core area of pure liminality.
In formal Rites of Passage, rituals and order events are rigorously detailed and may occur under the supervision of an elder or master of ceremonies with almost dictatorial powers. In some ways, the role of therapist/psychologist in liminal psychology mirrors that role. In broader usage of liminality, however, the idea of a prescribed order of events or master of ceremonies may be irrelevant or even nonsensical.
That there are few rules to liminality only makes the ones that do exist even more important (notice that the punishments for violating the few rules of ancient liminal festivals such as Saturnalia were often incredibly harsh).
Varieties of Liminal Space and Experience
The Natural World: Caves (Think of “The Goonies,” where the characters’ quest takes them on descent into the underworld that is inexorably linked with a Rite of Passage toward adulthood. Natural Springs, Running water, shores.
“We’ve Got to Close the Beaches” If the shore is considered a liminal space, “Jaws” can be seen as quest to defend liminal space, and those who use it for their vacations (itself a modern kind of liminality), from an external threat that could otherwise create a hard border between the realm of land and sea.
Artifacts of Human Agency: Borders, Bridges, Crossroads, airports, bus terminals, hotels, theaters and performance spaces (more about that one later).
Borders do not get enough attention as liminal spaces. This includes between “civilization” and “the wild” (the frontier, etc) but also borders between political or socio-cultural groups. The treatment of these as liminal spaces in science fiction and fantasy is so ubiquitous that we often don’t even think of it as such. These borders between worlds of the mind are where new ideas and possibilities emerge, where danger and opportunity can be found, and where ADVENTURE! happens.
Seen from this perspective, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, almost the whole damn things, from the first footstep outside of the shire until the return, are liminal journeys. Which raises a curious question, if liminality persists long enough with no clear end in sight, does it cease to be liminal and, instead, become the new normal. Is that why, in Tolken, peaceful interludes like the visit to Rivendell or Beorn’s freehold feel like liminal spaces within liminal spaces?
Astronomical Phenomena: Solstices & Equinoxes, Dawn & Dusk (literal “twilight zones”). Comets and meteor showers (interruptions of the established order of the nighttime sky). Eclipses (the intrusion of darkness into daytime is extremely liminal…and possibly terrifying).
Holidays: In almost every calendrical system, the equivalent of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are seen as liminal (the period between the death of the old year and the birth of the new). Other holidays have strong liminal aspects. These include the great pre-Lenten festivals (Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fiesta de las Flores y de las Frutas, Fastelavn, etc.) where the border between the regular year and the restrictions of Lent are marked by a celebration of excess. It also includes days when the barrier between the living and the dead is thinned or removed (All Souls’ Day, Dia de Los Muertos, Midsummer Night/St. John’s Day, Twelfth Night, Walpurgisnacht). Some of those are also seen as periods of liminality between the mortal realm and the Lands of the Faerie (or equivalent).
Phases of Life: Adolescence is a prolonged period of liminality, trapped awkwardly between childhood and adulthood. Teenagers are trapped in prolonged liminality. I believe this is why “coming of age” stories are so popular. And I think may at least in part explain the popularity of YA beyond its titular demographic: coming of age stories are liminal stories.
In art as in life, the liminality of adolescence is often paired with liminal Rites of Passage. In The Hunger Games, the Games function as a Rite of Passage of the most absolute sort, with the only outcomes Adulthood or Oblivion. In Shadow & Bone, the Unsea (in the books) or Shadow Fold (in the TV series) is a tangible and very lethal liminal space separating the world’s nations from each other. Of course, this is YA, so as the young protagonists brave the perilous journey through the Unsea/Shadow Fold, it also become a (guess what?)… Rite of Passage into adulthood.
High School, a four year long Rite of Passage, is fertile ground for storytelling, and especially long-form storytelling (everything from Freaks & Geeks to Glee to Buffy).
I think there is another island of liminality in the human lifetime, middle age: that period between adulthood and old age. It does not received as much attention as adolescence in media, but it is still there. It is why we thrill at seeing Henry Jones Sr. acting as foil to his son Indiana, why we have a love-hate relationship with Walter White – who subverts the norms and expectations of his age, and why we are so fascinated by Hobbits (to say nothing of Dwarves and Elves) whose longevity is so different from our own brief spans.
Performance Spaces: Cinema, the stage and music venues are all extremely liminal. Places with no permanent residences, they are a place apart from daily life where a transient population comes and goes to interact with a diversity of stories (many of which are themselves liminal).
Liminal Technology? Looking at liminality in the context scifi, and specifically Star Trek, is the transporter liminal? What about the Holodeck?
Relationship Between the Liminal and the Supernatural in Folklore and Fiction
Because liminal spaces are places where the normal order is suspended, things can happen there that can’t happen anywhere else (summoning the Devil, or various trickster entities at the crossroads, for example). Conversely, liminal spaces can hinder or even bar the supernatural for exercising powers it would otherwise normally possess (vampires’ inability to cross running water).
Most of supernatural horror’s enduring archetypes are liminal. Vampires, ghosts, and other intelligent undead are neither truly living nor truly dead. Werewolves are neither fully human nor fully beast. Frankenstein’s Monster and its countless analogs inhabit the liminal uncanny valley occupied by the imperfect creation of an imperfect creation.
The only real exception I can think of are zombies, at least in their modern post-Night of the Living Dead incarnation. Traditional zombies are different matter. If you want a pre-NotLD zombie flick that oozes liminality, check out 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie.
Vampire fiction seems especially aware of its inherent liminality. Whether something to be sought or something to be avoided, “the embrace” is often portrayed as Rite of Passage, a moment when on is neither truly human nor truly vampire, the death of an old life and the beginning of a new. Anne Rice does a very good job of capturing this in The Vampire Chronicles. So, too, does True Blood/The Southern Vampire Mysteries (which is very good at capturing the liminality of the supernatural in general). Though, in my opinion, the TV series highlights the sense of the liminal better than the books.
In Cosmic Horror/The Mythos, it can be argued that space between the first hint that “all is not as it seems” and the final, horrible, madness-inducing revelation, represents a journey through the liminal. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow sometimes reads like one giant liminal space…and therein lies both its glory and its downfall. Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” uses liminality in multiple, sometimes interlocking ways.
Faith and the Liminal
Just starting with the Abrahamic Faiths, liminality and liminal space are central to their foundational accounts:
Moses climbing Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and establish the covenant.
Jesus spending 40 days in the desert before formally beginning his mission.
Mohammed visiting a cave to hear the Quran dictated by the Archangel Gabriel.
Purgatory is a liminal space. So is the soul’s journey to the afterlife in Pharaonic mythology. In many cultures, the souls of the dead are believed to linger on earth for a period of time before transitioning to the afterlife. Persephone is more than a liminal character, she is the embodiment of liminality itself. Mystery Cults made use of physical liminal spaces like caves for Rites of Passage such as initiations.
Religious ritual is often a liminal space itself. And many religions treat places of worship as liminal spaces, separate from and subject to different rules than, mundane space. While he does not explicitly use the terms liminality or liminal space, Mircea Eliade’s landmark book The Sacred & The Profane is an excellent examination of this phenomenon.
Is the Internet a Liminal Space? I don’t know. From a retro-futuristic angle, the internet as conceived by Gibson, Sterling, ‘80s-’90s ttrpgs, etc. certainly was. But the internet we know and live with? I think that is more of a question. It is certainly interstitial. But has it become too ubiquitous and too mundane to truly qualify as liminal space.
Liminality in the Time of Covid (with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez). The pandemic meets the definition of liminal space in a surprising number of ways, even conforming to more academic definitions of a Rite of Passage…with behaviors, prescriptions, lexicon, and even “ritual garments” that can be fully understood only in the context of the liminal event.
“Do you like getting right up in a monster’s face and giving it what for? Do you prefer to stand waaaay back and throw fireballs or shoot arrows? Or maybe healing up your comrades is more your style? Let’s discuss how to choose the right personality for your RPG character.”
It was a great honor to participate in FenCon’s “What’s my Role” panel with Chaz Kemp and Rie Sheridan Rose. Special thanks to Sarah Brigdon for successfully wrangling a panel whose passions ran to so many different yet worthy aspects of roleplaying.
Conversations along the lines of “Okay, I’m the frontline fighter. You’re the rogue. But we need a caster. And who is going to play the cleric?” are as old as gaming itself. Yet, the more analytical approach of party composition and conflation of combat role with personality is relatively recent, only making its way into the gaming community in the past 15 years or so (yes, my friends, against the long history of gaming, that qualifies as “relatively” recent).
Fourth-Edition D&D gave us the terms “Controller, Defender, Leader or Striker” and the part breakdown of “The Tank, The Damage, The Healer, The Support, The Control, The Face, The Scout” has become pretty ubiquitous. Sometimes, MMO terminology like DPS even makes its way into table top gaming.
That this is a recent development is the more curious as, over the long line of gaming history, there is clear trend toward less time in combat and more time in other activities/challenges. There are, of course, exceptions. In seeking to emulate online gaming, 4E D&D was very much a throwback — and certain systems, including Traveler and the various Warhammer RPG products, can lend themselves to combat heavy games. But, for most gaming in 2021, it is important to look at PC roles beyond combat. Below, I take a brief look at three alternate lens for this issue.
Functionality: This lens considers a PC’s preferred approach to problem solving. Cyberpunk 2020’s use of “roles,” is a good example of this. A given “role” provides skills, experiences, and abilities reflecting an attitude and approach to the meeting the world on the PC’s terms. To cite a few examples: Yes, solos are “kill it with lead and monofilament katanas” kind of people. But there are fixers who, if they can’t do something or find something, know someone who can. Techies believe if a machine can’t solve your problem, any problem, it’s to sit down and build a better machines. Conversely, nomads feel there is no problem than can’t be solved by inviting along another sibling our cousin. This lens ensures party are well covered for a variety of challenges and settings, not only combat.
Archetypes: This lens considers the internal landscape and emotional constitution of PCs. One of the most obvious examples is the Nature/Demeanor system from White Wolf’s World of Darkness universe. Players chose both a nature (true self) and demeanor (exterior persona) from a large preset list of archetypes (Autocrat, Bon Vivant, Child, Loner, etc.) for their character. These are more than just guides for roleplaying, acting in accordance with one’s nature and demeanor is the main method for regaining Willpower, which is important in World of Darkness. Having diverse natures and demeanors in the party helps ensure that someone is always regaining Willpower. Even in systems where this is not explicitly rewarded through game mechanics, there is a qualitative advantage to party of diverse mental states and emotional constitutions to respond to a variety of situations.
Narrative Dynamics: Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling. So it is little surprise many of the tropes and dynamics that are effective in other forms of storytelling work in roleplaying as well. The right party dynamic, or even dynamic between two or more players within a party, can really bring an adventure to life. The dynamics between characters in other media can serve as inspiration or conversational shorthand for party composition. I’ve seen a party who, six sessions in, realized their Call of Cthulhu campaign was a cosmic horror Scoobie Doo. I’ve seen Shadowrun street samurai who might as well have been Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I’ve seen two Vampires go “Winchester Brothers in reverse,” tracking down hunters in a black van with blacked out windows. I’ve even seen a concept campaign inspired by Sartre’s “No Exit,” with characters designed to hate each other but be unable to escape each other. Nobody wanted to push it beyond three sessions, but those sessions were fascinating and entertaining.
No one of the lenses discussed above is inherently superior. And, yes, even in combat light games, the combat lens still has its place. Most parties will get the best results from using a mix of all of them, and the doing what sounds fun. These lenses are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is to create compelling characters with rich stories that allow them to engage with the world on multiple levels. Whether they gel in combat is not trivial, but is a secondary consideration. As a GM, I would happily taken on trying to design fights for a party that is sub-optimized for combat if it means I have a party full of compelling, three-dimensional personalities that let me create opportunities for rich and meaningful collaborative storytelling.
With so many types of characters to choose from in RPGs, does playing a character that is different from your real self give you empathy for that type of person in Real Life?
In 2015, a study administered the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standard psychological instrument for measuring empathy, to 127 frequent roleplayers. These gamers significantly outperformed a control group.
I suppose it should be little surprise that gaming can correlate to high levels of empathy. That, I think, is part of roleplaying’s appeal for many of us – the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while. And, while people have different baselines for empathy, it is a learnable skill that strengthens with use.
Psychology and counseling make extensive use of free form roleplaying. Frequent uses include confronting phobias and managing stress, anxiety, or trauma – with the goal of patients gaining insights or experiencing emotional catharsis. In Relationship Counseling, role reversal is often used to promote exactly those kinds of insights and sympathy – the building of empathy.
Of course, just because roleplaying can build empathy, doesn’t mean it always does. Most gamers have stories about “That one player” or “The GM who delights in torturing their players.” If you’re lucky enough not to, or just want to indulge in some top quality schadenfreude, Google “Worst D&D player ever” (or equivalent), makes some popcorn, and settle in. Or, if you want more curated account of gaming with terrible human beings, check out Al Bruno III’s roman a clef “The Binder of Shame.” (TWs for just about everything).
Multi-classing: Yay or Nay? And Why?
Somewhere between a “provisional yes” and “it depends.”
Personally, I enjoy multi-classing because my character concepts often do not fit neatly into the boxes of class-based which system (which is why I often gravitate to classless systems like FATE, Savage Worlds, or GURPS which are on a point-build or concept-build rather than a class-build.
But there are things to consider before creating a multi-class character. I think the biggest one is to be sure that it’s actually your character concept…rather than that you have two concepts you’re having difficulty choosing between. In my experience, splitting the difference between two competing concepts through multi-classing is an emotionally unsatisfying compromising, giving too little of what attracted me to each class in the first place.
And while this, in itself, is not a reason to say “no,” it is worth remembering that, in many systems, including D&D and Pathfinder, a character who is Level 5 in two things is less capable that a character who is Level 10 in one thing.
But, for all my high-minded “only do it if it feels right,” rhetoric, sometimes multi-classing is a choice that is forced on you. When you’ve got two or three people around the table for a D&D game, it may make sense for someone to be the cleric/rogue.
How important is it to “stay in your lane”? Do you play your character as just a healer? Or do you try to pick the lock with the metal wire you happened to find on the ground?
Honestly? Those are the moments roleplayers live for.
When the fighters are unconscious on the ground and the wizard is out of spells but manages to land that last blow, knocking the giant unconscious with a staff.
When the Dex 8 cleric evades an entire castle of guards to find the treasure room.
When the Barbarian is the only one who remembers the words to the secret chant.
Those are the kind of gaming stories that keep getting told…
In the best case scenario, such moments can serve as catalysts foe new directions of growth and development – enriching the charter, the party, and they player’s experience.
It only becomes a problem when it turns into what my gaming group always called “stepping on someone’s shtick.” Players want time in the limelight for their characters, that’s one of great appeals of roleplaying. Each PC having things they are uniquely good at helps ensure everyone gets the spotlight. So, when the party’s rouge suddenly starts dumping points in diplomacy, which, until then, has been the bard’s shtick, it can create tension and reduce enjoyment unless handled very carefully.
Six words constitute the highest praise one author can pay another: I wish I had written this.
Edward Erdelac’s Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against the Lovecraftian Mythos is rooted in a well-researched and multi-dimensional biography of the eponymous writer, anthropologist, and leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. It then reimagines that biography to include eight encounters with the Cthulhu Mythos occurring at various points in Hurston’s life, from relative youth to literal deathbed, all united by a broader metanarrative.
The tales track Hurston’s real-life wanderings, from New York City to other points in America, Haiti, and Central America – as well as a Mythos-obligatory Dreamlands sojourn. Erdelac’s narrative unfolds in an engaging style that might most properly be called “magical realism with a Mythos twist” rather than horror or supernatural mystery.
First, a curious TL;DR. Presumably most people reading my blog are at somewhat familiar with my work, including Gabriel’s Trumpet, my supernatural mystery revolving around the 1920s jazz scene. Rainbringer and Gabriel’s Trumpet are very different stories, but they play in the same sandbox and I feel confident in saying that anyone who enjoyed Gabriel’s Trumpet will enjoy Rainbringer as well.
Using a historical figure as a protagonist is a daring move that requires both formidable research and exceptional skill. If I may be forgiven one more comparative, I have some familiarity with the required chops via my pulp-mystery novella “A Scandal in Hollywood,” a tongue-in-cheek love letter both to Sherlock Holmes and Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Scandal” required considerable research and notetaking on actor Basil Rathbone. Erdelac’s portrayal of Hurston, however, goes beyond a competent mastery of the facts of Hurston’s life, moving in the direction of intuitive understanding. It feels as if he somehow has a relationship with Hurston, even if such a relationship can go only one direction in time and space. Rainbringer works because Erdelac breathes life into Hurston, makes readers believe her actions and reactions even in the face of cosmic terrors.
I also appreciate Rainbringer’s approach to the Mythos. Erdelac is clearly comfortable and familiar enough with the source material to wield it adroitly throughout the work. Readers should be on the lookout for a delightful Easter egg offering a retelling of one Call of Cthulhu’s seminal arcs…from a very different perspective (but you will need to pay close attention, Erdelac doesn’t set up a neon sign). Just as importantly, he is also comfortable and familiar enough to adroitly deviate from canon, adding his own compelling touches and engrossing sub-mythologies. Of particular note is one of the most innovative, evocative uses of Yig I’ve ever encountered.
Rainbringer showcases more than a layperson’s knowledge of Voodoo and hoodoo, and is careful to delineate the two, even diegetically delivering a short primer for unfamiliar readers. Drawing on various strands from Voodoo, Abrahamic traditions, and the Mythos, the story weaves a seamless, and delightfully unsettling, cosmology.
There was a special delight for me in Rainbringer. In Erdelac, I feel I have finally found an author who enjoys a cleverly-executed historical cameo as much as I do. The rendering of a young Orson Welles at the height of his creative prowess and iconoclasm is especially memorable. And, with my background in music journalism, the appearance of folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax warmed my heart.
While there are no weak vignettes in the collection, each reader will no doubt have their favorites. For me, three tales truly stood out:
Ekwensu’s Lullaby sees Hurston participating in a WPA field-recording expedition to the Gullah communities of St. Simons Island.
The Shadow in The Chapel of Ease plays with the ever-delightful question of what happens when the conventional religion gets caught up in the Mythos.
But, in my opinion, King Yeller is the collection’s crown jewel. If Erdelac is taking requests, I would certainly not shy away from reading a novel-length treatment of this story…and there certainly seems to be enough material to support such an expansion. The premise is delightful: what do you do when writing a Mythos story about the vibrant theatre scene of the Harlem Renaissance? Drop in a copy of TheKing in Yellow, of course. The devil (or the Great Old One), of course, is in the details and the delivery. And King Yeller, set against the backdrop of the Federal Theatre Project’s performance of Macbeth (one of the most celebrated productions in the history of the American stage) shoots for the moon…and hits.
As a side note, several remarkable incidents in King Yeller, including Orson Welles being attacked by a razor-wielding assailant only to be rescued by boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee and the death of theatre critic Percy Hammond shortly after a cast member stuck pins into a Voodoo Doll of Hammond, are the province of history, not fiction, which Erdelac deftly incorporates into the narrative.
As a final note of praise for this Rainbringer, Erdelac should be commended for his frankness in portraying the many layers to issues of race and racism experienced by Hurston throughout her life. He remained steadier in addressing this challenge than I did with Gabriel’s Trumpet.
Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against the Lovecraftian Mythos builds a remarkable set of stories around a remarkable and very real protagonist. It will be a worthy addition to the collection of any fan of horror or Mythos, but will be especially welcomed by those whose interests also include 20th century American History, The Harlem Renaissance, and American literature or anthropology.
(Rainbringer is available for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. Find Edward Erdelac on his website on or Twitter. Remember to rate and review your favorite authors’ works on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever you review books.)
[NOTE: I had intended to get this out days ago but Mother Nature decided to drop a world of hurt on Austin and, after 80 hours without power, here we are.]
Paradoxes & Possibilities is a new time travel TTRPG offering storytelling as broad and deep as history itself via a unique game engine emphasizing fun, fast-paced, dynamic play that unleashes the creativity of players and gamemasters alike.
The Paradoxes & Possibilities kickstarter was fully funded in less than two hours. Since then, its stretch goals have fallen like dominos unlocking new character classes, technologies, and adventures. I had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually speaking) with P&P co-creators Sophie Iles and James Bojaciuk for a Q&A about their endeavor (for readers who may not be familiar with their previous work, short bios can be found at the end of this piece — also check out my note about its next Stretch Goal).
Q: How did the idea for P&P come about?
A: (Soph) I was interested in creating an RPG, and as I had been playing RPGs game with friends over lockdown I really wanted to try. As James’ interests and mine align, with being time travel fans from Back to the Future to Doctor Who and beyond, I wondered if there was a way to make a specifically time travel RPG for anyone and everyone, which was easy to start with, and with some cool modifications.
Q: As someone who has authored content and designed supplements for TTRPGs, I know how intricate and even brutal it can be. I can’t imagine undertaking building an entire game system from scratch. Talk to me about that process and how the two of you divided responsibilities.
A: (James) When it came to Paradoxes & Possibilities, the artist and the mathemagician took very different tracks. Soph handled the writing and the art, and ran with character creation. I took hold of what we’ve playfully called mathemagic–all the rules and math that keep the show running. Between that and the admin stuff, which I can do with my brain tied behind my back, I was able to join in on creating the game without slowing down anything else on my plate. I am very thankful for that! I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this for the world! Thank you, Soph!
Q: As P&P progressed, you brought other talent into the project (myself included) to develop content, including pre-generated adventures. Tell me a little bit about that.
A: (James) We got the chance to work with some fantastic writers–and I’m really proud of the work they’ve done. M.H. Norris, Kara Dennison, Dana Reboe, Jon Black, and John Dorney have made our game something real, and I can’t wait for people to play their adventures. I’m endlessly impressed by their creativity, and they’re going to throw players into some unusual situations.
Q: Part of P&P’s appeal is its unique engine and the streamlined, flexible rule set. Will you give us a sneak-peek at how it all comes together?
A: (James) The rules are perfect for introducing new players to the hobby. They’re easily grasped without sacrificing depth. Too many games leave new players to flounder. We worked hard to make something which is easy to learn, but difficult to master.
Q: Now that the hard part is done and your highly successful Kickstarter is in its final days, how do you feel about the experience?
A: (James) It’s been a lot of fun! I would love to do this again! We floated everything from an Arthurian game to a 1920s mystery game, before we settled on something we could easily boil down to essentials for a zine. Those may return in the future.
Sophie Iles is an artist, author, and once-upon-a-time animator who has a love for the Arthurian legends, RPGs, 80s movies, and Doctor Who. Her writing includes “A Single Wolf, Grey and Gaunt” (found in 18thWall Productions’ Sockhops and Seances) with a novel trilogy currently in process, featuring a historical sequel to the Holy Grail Legend. She has also written for Big Finish Productions. Her Doctor Who Short Trip “Master Thief” was released in October 2020 featuring the first incarnation of The Master and she also recently wrote for the Bernice Summerfield Christmas Collection. She has been a regular writer for Doctor Who Magazine as of January 2020. Sophie’s art has found internet acclaim after creating an A-Z Doctor Who Charity Stream on Twitch in support of FareShare UK and raised $4,762.
James Bojaciuk is CEO Duobus of 18thWall Productions. Obsessed by history, mystery, and the hidden corners of our world, it was perhaps inevitable he would co-create something like Paradoxes and Possibilities. He is responsible for too many short stories, a handful of novellas, and the forthcoming novel The New Adventures of Iris Wildthyme: The Vampire Mutations from Obverse Books. He won Best Steampunk Short Story from the 2017 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll. He has previously written TTRPG material for Glittercats Fine Amusements and ATB Publishing.
[NOTE: Talking about Stretch Goals, as of the time of writing this post, the P&P Kickstarter is just $116 shy of its next goal: an original adventure by yours truly, taking players to 1816 and the shores of Lake Geneva, interacting with some of the 19th century’s leading lights of Gothic and Romantic literature and poetry as characters attempt to stop a rogue time traveler from corrupting a beloved literary genre at its inception.]
I am very excited about the Kickstarter for the new time travel TTRPG, Paradoxes & Possibilities. (Since they’re doing so well, you might want to scroll down and check out the Stretch Goals)
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a small role on its design team (more on that below). None of that negates what I’ve written here.Indeed, it’s the reason I got involved with the project.
In the Beginning
I came of age, at least as far as gaming is concerned, in the late 80s and early 90s. While I’m not saying some of those games weren’t awesome, it was an era of the grognard, dominated by incredibly intricate RPGs that often seemed to revel in complexity for complexity’s sake, such as Rune Quest (where character creation could take two hours), Space Opera (which could take even longer), or Traveler (where, as an added bonus, your character could die during character creation). Even 2E D&D looked like the US Tax Code compared to its 5E descendant (THAC0? How was that a good idea?).
The niche for well-designed games that were fast, fun, and simple (as opposed to simplistic) was tiny. Oh, they were out there: Steve Jackson Games’ Toon, R. Talisorian’s Teenagers From Outer Space, West End Games’ Ghostbusters, Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For the most part, however, these were clearly labors of love that never found widespread popularity or critical acclaim.
(Time travel games were also thin on the ground. Good ones, even more so. Really, FASA’s Dr. Who and the GURPS Time Travel supplement are all I can think of.)
Why Paradoxes & Possibilities?
One of the joys of watching gaming change in the new millennium has been witnessing the explosion of clever games with flexible yet minimal systems. The popularity of such games warms my heart, as does the long overdue critical recognition that well-designed simple system is at least as much of an achievement as well-designed complex one (yes, obviously I burned my grognard card a long time ago … if, indeed, I ever had one).
It is a pleasure to welcome Paradoxes & Possibilities as the latest addition to precisely that category of game. All the more so, as it plays in one of my favorite TTRPG sandboxes: Time Travel. Every aspect of P&P has been crafted to emphasize fun, fast-paced, dynamic play while incorporating the flexibility to handle a literal world of possibilities.
So what does that all mean?
15 points in 5 traits and an optional class system with each class having a cool unique feat. That’s character creation.
All the risks and rewards of time travel mechanics accomplished with a few throws of the dice.
Fast-paced combat rules designed to unleash player creativity.
A straightforward mechanism for paradox that makes possible anything the GM’s nasty little mind can conjure.
Speaking to my age, there is something else I love about Paradoxes & Possibilities. It is an excellent option for Gamer Parents looking to introduce children or teenagers to the hobby (which is not to say adults won’t enjoy it — the same flexibility that makes P&P friendly for the young also works well for elaborate, RP-heavy story lines).
So, Back to That “Full Disclosure…”
With my background in both game design and historical fiction, the Paradoxes & Possibilities team reached out to me to design one of the adventures offered as a stretch goal for their funding campaign. A good GM knows the difference between spoilers and foreshadowing, so I will simply say that hitting the $4,000 mark will net P&P’s Kickstarter supporters some primo Gothic Silliness along the Lake Geneva shoreline).
Click here to learn more about the Paradoxes & Possibilities Kickstarter (and don’t forget to check out those stretch goals!).
For the next in my Q&A series with creators of War of the Worlds-themed media, I had the pleasure of “sitting down” with Edy Hurst, comedian, musician, wit, and driving force behind the podcast, Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Well’s Literary Version of (via Orson Welles’ Radio Version & Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) The War of the Worlds.
Q: Tell me a little about your podcast, Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Well’s Literary Version of (via Orson Welles’ Radio Version & Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) The War of the Worlds (from this point forward, I think we’ll just call it your “War of the Worlds podcast”).
Towards the end of 2019, a simpler time, when all that we had to worry about was the rise of fascism across the world and the UK’s dedication to falling backwards through a bush out of the European Union, I was working on a new show to be toured around the UK.
This show was called Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Well’s Literary Version (Via Orson Welles’ Radio Version & Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) of the War of the Worlds, because it amused me that Jeff Wayne gave the only musical version of the War of the Worlds a fairly unwieldy title. The whole show started as a throwaway joke that I thought it’d be funny to talk about Jeff Wayne and then try and do a really high budget 2 hour production with no budget and less than 10 minutes, and the whole thing spiraled out from there.
Understandably, the previews, tinkering, performing and tour has not come into fruition yet, but I wanted to continue working through the vast array of War of the Worlds adaptations, re-imaginations and inspirations.
As the book was originally serialized, this gave me a great opportunity to create a chapter by chapter look at the original book whilst also still working on new songs and jokes for the live show. It’s also given me a great excuse to work with some of my personal comedy friends and bother some genuine experts in their field.
Q: How did you first discover War of the Worlds? You mention that Jeff Wayne’s musical may be a bigger influence upon you than the Wells original. I’d love to hear more about that.
I think that in a way War of the Worlds is a bit like the Beatles. Even if you’ve never actually heard the originals, you are in some way aware of its effect on pop culture, and behind the scenes there’s far more adultery than previously thought.
There’s two times where I became aware of War of the Worlds. As you mentioned, and I talk about in Interlude 2 of the podcast, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version had a huge impact on me, as I think it does many people who cross its path. It’s a Musical Version of a Victorian metaphor for colonial invasion with a rock disco sound track starring the lead singer of Thin Lizzy, what part of that did someone think was a surefire hit?
Generally, I am drawn to and obsessed with things that are far more successful than on paper they have a right to be. I think it’s a sort of wishful thinking that no matter what ideas my fire dumpster of a brain throws out one of them might be deemed a success. And Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds ticks every box for this.
The concept is bonkers, the performers are giving it absolute stacks, and it has been a resounding hit since its release. Nobody would have believed towards the end of the 20th century minds immeasurably superior to ours would be scrutinizing a novel where nobody would have believed towards the end of the 19th century that minds immeasurably superior to ours were scrutinizing our earth.
I found it in my dad’s record collection following him buying a turn table at the start of the 2000s vinyl revival. Initially it was the artwork that brought me into it, but after listening it’s always remained close to my heart.
The second time was actually much before this, I must have been 10 or younger. There’s a science museum in Manchester that had an area where they were, for some reason, playing the Orson Welles’ radio version in its entirety. It was in the aeronautical hall with all the airplanes, and I think part of why I remember it is because it was such a weird location for it to be. Why was it there? Was it to do with radio as a form of communication? Was it because they had space stuff? It was next to a model of a Boeing, but why?
Who knows, not me, all I know is that the story of a town entering collective hysteria because of a radio show sounded amazing and too good to be true, partly because as we know now, it kind of was.
Q: What inspired you to use WotW as the anchor for a project? Is this the first time you’ve used a book as inspiration or a touchstone for a project?
I’ve often used pop culture as a reference point, either deliberately or it just seeped into the work I’ve been doing. Given how immediate stand up needs to be, you’re always going to be using some form of popular references as a means to quickly communicate images or ideas.
My last show was about how I make daft comedy songs as a means through which to mediate a history of depression, and it had a nightmare Kermit as my inner voice of doubt. So I think that the art that I love inspires me whatever I’m doing.
But this is the first time I’ve used something so explicitly. The show is a very loose adaptation, and really more about ideas of alien invasions than a particular focus on the book itself. It’s an excuse for me to be really daft and big and silly in a way that there is already an established context, which I think comes across in the title.
The podcast, however, I wanted to create something that was in my wheelhouse but something different to what other comedians I saw doing with their podcasts. I love all sorts of audio comedy projects, but I think for me this helps me to create a sort of audio scrap book, so you can listen to it as if it’s a regular (ish) audiobook, but it’s also got the cliff notes and explanations attached.
It gives me a great way to look further at British identity, at the basis for our pop culture (and by extension US scifi) as well as questions such as why H.G. Wells would choose for a Martian to be a weird octopus thing rather than a humanoid.
Basically, if you’re looking to do a book report, you could easily just crib the work in the podcast.
Q: Originally, you intended to use WotW as the basis for a live show and adopted the podcast approach in response to Covid. How would the live show have differed from the podcast (beyond the obvious, of course)?
The show when it’s been performed is much more chaotic and sillier than the podcast, my live shows are a mix of lo-fi props, musical comedy and messing around with the audience. The vibe of it is someone making a high-end musical with the budget of a children’s birthday party.
I think the sensibility is the same, if you like the jokes and the bits that I find funny as we read along, then you’d definitely enjoy the show.
Whereas in the live show I’m racing against the clock to cram as much alien invasion, home made heat rays, bombastic songs and homages to other adaptations in as possible, in the podcast I can stop reading a sentence and go ‘that’s weird, what’s that about?’ and then go off and gain an in-depth understanding of early colonialism in Tasmania.
Q: Clearly, your podcast involved an enormous amount of supplementary research. How did you approach that research?
It’s different with each topic, which is a rubbish answer. Essentially, I try to avoid just googling or using a search engine in the first instance. This is because a lot of the time the questions I’m trying to answer start off quite vague before getting specific (such as ‘how does science fiction predict the future?’) on somewhere that is trying to give you the most efficient answer you’ll often wind up reading articles in newspapers or magazines.
These can be really helpful for an overview, but by the time you’ve got them the writer has usually done most of their research and collated it in a particular way.
I was hugely fortunate to go to University and whilst studying became aware of a range of academic sites. Less fortunately, now I am no longer a student I can’t really afford the access to full sites like JSTOR, but they have free resources on there. These academic papers range from mega headache chunks of writing to hitting the nail exactly on the head in terms of researching, but often give a much fuller picture for me to figure out what I think about the topics they’re discussing.
Plus, they have loads of footnotes and citations which means I can go and find what they were reading.
I think it’s such a massive shame that in order to gain access to these papers as someone outside of an academic organization you have to pay a pretty large amount of money in membership fees, or track down the books yourself which is also an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.
It just strikes me as so weird that we’re meant to live in a world that encourages you to educate yourself and yet there’s so many cost prohibitive measures that stand in the way of that. It’s almost like we live in a society where some people are afforded the luxury of education and the rest are in a system designed to make it hard to have equal footing. But surely that can’t be the case, I say with a knowing cynical look at my computer screen.
As you can imagine, these particular deep dives take quite a lot of navigating and research, which is incredibly rewarding, but also not possible to do on a fortnightly basis. I try to make a mix of the deep academically focused topics and also more fun tangents like the top tripods and Extra-Terrestrial tourism.
For those two it’s a mix of things I already know about and things that I ask listeners to get in touch with me with on my social media channels.
Q: Of all your podcast’s informative tangents, amusing digressions, etc. which one did you enjoy the most? Which of those journeys took you to the most surprising place?
Some of them I kind of knew where they were going to go. I remember during a history of art course we looked at some Victorian science papers on genetics between white and black people that now is appalling and wrong, but at the time was presented as the latest research, which is pretty chilling.
I knew that if I was doing something that looked at the Victorian era, and especially with a look at the scientific, I didn’t want to shy away from these aspects of the past. Likewise with colonialism, which Britain was at the height of its rule during the book’s publication.
It would feel ingenuine of me to make something that’s meant to be looking at the original War of the Worlds book with a contemporary eye and not address these things. Whereas the tripods and the aliens are cool and thrilling, there’s a lot of underlying subtext about humanity’s (read: Britain’s) response to a more advanced civilization attacking out of nowhere, and how that information is disseminated that I think is really fruitful for discussion.
There’s a whole narrative of me struggling to unpick the tangles and contradictions of H.G. Wells. On the one hand he becomes a champion for human rights and an outspoken critic of apartheid, but on the other he can frequently use language that is less than ideal, and although spoke of gender equality, still had numerous affairs.
I think of the things that have really surprised me is the look at local newspapers during the Victorian times. I like it because it started out from a single sentence about a telegram, and revealed this high functioning system of papers that were produced both locally and nationally.
There would be reading rooms in pubs across villages and towns where one could go and hear a reading of the latest news, sort of like how you can get 24 hour rolling news now, but with a pint of beer.
It’s clear that even though there wasn’t something with the immediacy or wealth of information as the internet or television or radio, people still had a need to understand the world around them and what was going on.
No matter what time you find yourself in, people still seem to have the same basic desires that come up over and over, and that is something I wasn’t expecting to find from just looking at how someone in Victorian times might find out about Martians. I thought the answer would be they just wouldn’t, or they might a week later, but there was a pretty robust means of communication even without all the technology we have now.
Q: You’ve brought some other very talented people onto your podcast. Tell us about some of them, who are they, how did you find them, how do you utilize them?
A lot of this is partly an attempt to bring in the aspect of guests that you can get on other shows. Being a comedian, most of my contacts are other comedians I perform with and so it gives me an excuse to spend time with them and also introduce my audience to these incredibly talents folks. These would be guests such as Hannah Platt, Josh Jones and Tom Little.
Here I get them to read out bits of the dialogue and play characters, where sometimes it will be straight as written in the book, other times like with Jade Fearnley, Bexie Archer and Tom Burgess, we’ll play around a little more to add some humor in.
Sometimes if I’ve got a guest who’s a comedian but has a specific knowledge outside of comedy it’s a great opportunity to use their knowledge and save some precious research time. Alastair Beckett King and James Shakeshaft run an ace podcast called Loremen that’s all about unusual Folk Tales, so there’s a really nice natural overlap that we’re both looking at the past with a funny view.
Ross Brierly likewise is a professional horse racing expert, and an excuse to be able to invite him on and use that knowledge on something as ridiculous as Martians invading was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
Alongside comedians, I’ve been lucky to speak to, both on and off podcast, experts about particular topics. Simon Guerrier is a BBC producer I was put in contact with from a random email I sent to a presenter called Samira Ahmed, who both worked on an H.G. Wells documentary.
I also spoke with an author of a book on the Victorian news cycle for a specific question that wasn’t covered in articles. This was again just from sending an email directly, and often there’ll be no response, but it’s heartening to see how frequently people do get back in touch.
Q: Talk a little bit about yourself. In particular, I’d love to hear more about your background in comedy, influences, etc.
I started comedy in 2013 (I think, I don’t really know what counts as ‘starting’ as that could mean anything from professional which I was by no means a that point, or doing it regularly, which was also not necessarily the case then) and performed big absurdist bits.
My big influences for comedy at that time was Steve Martin, Emo Phillips and Tony Law. I guess that hasn’t changed so much, but I think I’ve discovered more about my own voice and what works with me on stage.
Performing music with the comedy has sort of crept in over time until eventually I realized that if I’m largely performing 10 – 15 minute sets it’s a lot to tell an audience ‘ok! Here’s a made-up story, and here’s some jokes and now a song and now back to a story’ there’s just not enough time for so many different threads.
Since starting I’ve been nominated for the BBC New Comedy Award in 2017 and taken my debut hour show to the Edinburgh Fringe and across the UK last year and early this year. I also do improv with Murder Inc, who do longform mystery shows based around an online suggestion.
I love stuff that is very silly and stupid but very smart at the same time. Eric Andre, Monty Python, Maria Bamford all spring to mind.
Q: You describe yourself as “a musical comedian,” tell me more about that? Who are some of your musical influences?
I think of myself as a musical comedian as in someone who is a comedian that is also musical. Maybe that sounds stupid, but what I mean is that I perform music and write songs but the focus is on them being funny. I will also use music as a means of making an observation or a joke. Real talk: I just use a guitar on stage and do jokes that involve it.
Billy Bailey, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D are all people who are and have been hugely influential in terms of what I’ve wanted to do. I also have massive respect for artists such as Weird Al Yankovic who does parody songs (he does write his own music too which is really great and funny), although performance-wise that’s not where I’m at.
I’ve always been drawn to songs that are funny regardless of whether they are by comedians or not. Randy Newman whilst not a comedian, writes hilarious songs, as does John Grant and 10cc. There’s a lot of humor in song writing that I think is underappreciated, but I absolutely love it.
Q: One of your interludes includes a light-hearted segment exploring what it would be like other well-known musical acts (Lady Gaga, Kool and the Gang, etc.) did a musical version of War of the Worlds. Let me turn the tables and pose that as a serious question. If you could select one other musician/group to do a musical version of War of the Worlds, who would it be? And why?
Aha! What a great question, and a tricky one too. There’d be a few that spring to mind. I always find it weird that the musicians that go into big stage musicals often aren’t really the ones that you’d think naturally fit. Like, who listened to U2 and thought, these guys need a musical, let alone one about Spiderman?
In that vein the Killers of modern bands would probably have a great bash at it, but I’d rather not hear that.
Guys that sprung to mind immediately were Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson, maybe together, but then again, I’m not sure if that’s fair as I’d just love to see them do anything together.
So having to choose one, ok, here we go. I think I’d really like to see someone like LCD Soundsystem do a concept album of the War of the Worlds. They have such a great way of wearing their influences on their sleeves, and also an ironic detachment that I think would be perfect for where we’re at now.
Q: Do you have plans for any future WotW related projects?
If we get into a future where the germs aren’t destroying us and the live show can happen, and I finish book 1 and 2 of the podcast, I think I’m ready to move on from War of the Worlds.
Although as said before, my creative output is a bit of a meat grinder of pop culture references and weird ideas my head throws out fed through what an audience will put up with, so there’s no doubt it’ll come back in some form like an unexpected belch.
Q: What else are you currently working on?
I’m making quite infrequent videos that go on my social media stuff, as well as writing new songs and bits for when I can go out into the world again.
Q: What are the best ways for my readers (if, indeed, they exist) to find you online?
I’m on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @edyhurst (or/Edyhurst) where you can follow me for podcast news, videos and jokes.