The Harrowed Hearts Club: Q&A

GURPS Encounters: The Harrowed Hearts Club – CoverNovember saw the release of my first gaming supplement, Encounters: The Harrowed Hearts Club, for Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System). Though I have published occasionally in their monthly periodical, Pyramid, the supplement is a big milestone for me. After gaming for more than 30 years (and using GURPS for more than 20 of them) I feel like I’ve finally given something back to the gaming community. I’m pleased to report it’s already received generally favorable marks from one reviewer.

 “It’s quite clear that Jon Black knows his stuff” — Review at The Blind


In putting the Harrowed Hearts Club together, it was a pleasure to draw deeply upon my background as a music journalist and music historian. The supplement’s first part combines tools and resources for GMs to design and populate detailed, realistic, and unique nightclubs/speakeasies/music venues, etc. The second part contains  four adventure seeds (encounters) reflecting a variety of genres, power levels, and historical periods.

  • Jewels, Jezebels, and Jake Leg : A pulp encounter for low-level GURPS Action or similar campaigns. On the trail of stolen jewels hidden in the club, the party faces challenges, expected and unexpected, in finding the loot.
  • The Lady With the Red Cameo: This encounter blends urban fantasy with Gothic elements. Meeting an unusual ghost, investigators have the tables turned when they are shifted back in time, confronting the worst disaster in the club’s history.
  • The Deadly Chamber: Heroes discover that more than money is at stake when a backroom poker game adds macabre rules.
  • Nobody Gets Out Alive: A night out takes a supernatural turn when patrons witness something they shouldn’t. Someone doesn’t want any survivors to tell the tale.

(The encounter descriptions and other teasers are available from the free excerpts of the supplement available for download from Steve Jackson Games here)

To pull back Harrowed Hearts Club’s curtain a little a bit, below five questions about the supplement asked and answered.

Q: Is there a real world inspiration for the Harrowed Hearts Club?

A: The HHC is based on no single venue, but aspects of several different establishments found their way into my conception of the club. Bobby Mackey’s Music World, in Wilder, Kentucky, is the most direct influence (or, rather, the almost unbelievable body of supernatural folklore that has built up around Bobby Mackey’s). The now defunct Skyline Club of Austin, Texas, infamous as the venue where both Hank Williams and Johnny Horton played their finals shows before meeting untimely deaths, impacted HHC’s feel and back story. (Since there is a strong Austin component among my social media followers, the site of the Skyline Club now rests somewhere beneath the H-E-B at North Lamar and Rundberg). The Church, Dallas’s premier Goth club during the 80s and 90s (and possibly longer, but I don’t have the frame of reference to say so) offered an atmospheric influence on the HHC’s 80s and early 90s incarnations. Finally, I have to cite a decrepit basement punk/industrial club in Shreveport, Louisiana. I no longer recall the name, the venue’s subtle, creepy sensation of something being “off” has stayed with me and very much found its way into the mood and look of the HHC.


Q: Are any of the encounters’ NPCs based upon historical figures?

A: Even more than the club itself,  the impact of any real persons on HHC’s NPCs is indirect and nebulous. That having been said, it is certainly possible to see elements of Hank Williams in Billy Montgomery, Johnny Horton in Andrew Jackson Johnson, and (a bit more obviously) Johnny Ace in Ace Hoyle.


Q: Do any elements of the Harrowed Hearts Club reflect personal experience?

A: Yes. The section about it normally being impossible to get locked in a modern walk-in freezer (don’t ask).


Q: What was the most difficult aspect of researching the module?

A: Believe it or not, the hardest (or at least most frustrating) part was researching the sizes of various historic venues (offered as reference for GMs designing their own  establishments). This proved incredibly time consuming. Apparently not many people Google “How many square feet was the Moulin Rouge?” Even where figures could be found, they were sometimes vague or contradictory.


Q: Do you have a “suggested playlist” for the Encounters.

A: Not yet, but that’s a good idea. I’ll get to work on if for a future blog post.

Purchase The Harrowed Hearts Club from Steve Jackson Games here.

Poetic Justice for Descansos

While my contribution was a short story, “So Lonesome I Could Die.,” I am ecstatic to see that the anthology Descansos from Darkhouse Books is Amazon’s #1 New Release in Poetry Anthologies.

I think this is proof that Darkhouse’s concept for a new kind of anthology has legs. They envisioned an anthology where the only criteria (other than quality of course) was thematic. The anthology was open to all genres and mediums as long as it revolved around the central thematic element, in this case descansos or, rather the “interrupted journeys”  implied by such roadside shrines.

Thus is it is that my 1930s musically-driven ghost story can coexist harmoniously with such excellent poetry within the confines of a single volume.

Check out Descansos on Amazon or B&N.

Read more about “So Lonesome I Could I Die.”

Descansos Now Available!

“I want readers to be able to hear the guitar and smell the sawdust and smoke of the honkytonks.” — Jon Black

Descansos, the new anthology from Darkhouse Books featuring my short story “So Lonesome I Could Die” is now available on Amazon and B&N.

“So Lonesome,” is a tale to appeal to anyone with an interest in music, Texana, or a good old fashioned ghost story.

It brings together elements of Texas Gothic and the classic Ghost Story, with more than a passing nod to Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. It is the tale of musical prodigy Johnnie Gruene (as the story notes, “if you’re not from around here” that’s pronounced Green, like the color) his mysterious origins, big chance for fortune and glory, and enigmatic fate.

The story is set against the backdrop of the Depression-era Texas Hill Country. The latter, I believe, is one of most criminally underused settings for fiction, especially of the mysterious or macabre variety.  With its ancient hills and shadow woods, long history by southwestern standards, and being touched the hands and feet of so many peoples over the centuries there is something archetypal and liminal about the region.

Of course, one of the great joys for me in writing “So Lonesome,” was drawing on my experience as a music journalist and music historian to really make the musical elements of the story come alive. The Hill Country of the 1930s was an immensely fertile crossroads for musical traditions of the past, present, and future: reels, German and Czech polkas, cowboy tunes, Gospel, blues, country, honkytonk, Western swing, and even the first stirrings of what would one day become rock and roll. As readers make their way through “So Lonesome,” I want them to be able to hear the music and smell the sawdust and smoke of the honkytonks.

One departure from my usual writing style was using Third Person Omniscient narration, but with such a distinctive voice that the narrator itself arguably becomes a character in the story.

This is a story I’d been kicking around in my head for a very long time but could never quite make it work. Serendipitously, it was the descansos angle, both literally and figuratively as a “journey interrupted” that let me tie it all together.

Throughout the whole process, working with Dark House books was true pleasure. I am very impressed by their whole operation. Descansos marks the first of new line of anthologies for them, in which submissions are selected around a central theme regardless of genre or medium. It is a fascinating concept that makes use of art’s true potency and I wish them well with it!

Purchase Descansos on Amazon or B&N today!

Today’s Big Announcement

Celebrating a Project That Could Only Be Published Today

I am pleased to announce I have had another novel accepted for publication. The project, Tristouse Ballerinette and the Perpetual Motion Machine, is one I haven’t discussed with many people … for the simple reason I never expected it to go anywhere. But the project is my attempt to cash in on the Young Adult Paranormal Romance craze.

Of course, I added a few twists intended to offer a note of gravitas to more discriminating readers … while still, hopefully, being a huge hit with the young people. The main action takes place in the milieu of 1930s Welsh coal mining, but transposed to 2017 California so as to be more accessible to the young folks.

Narratively, the work is divided into three parts:

The first is a flashback that takes place over the last 15 seconds of the protagonist’s life as she falls from a trestle into an ore smelting crucible.

The second part is a series of non-sequential vignettes exploring how she develops her supernatural powers, meets her love interest, Chai (pronounced “Gee”), as well as their mutual wizardly nemesis, Professor Dastard Rhesus.

Resolution of that conflict comes in the third art, in the form of a therapeutic dialogue between Tristouse Ballerinette, Chai, and Ernest W. Camp (who, of course, was first Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service) which takes place in something like a bus station.

Needless to say, I am tremendously excited about this project. I invite you to look for Tristouse Ballerinette and the Perpetual Motion Machine in print on this (or any other) April 1st!

All the Little Things: Editing A Manuscript

If you took a survey of authors, I suspect 99% of them would say editing is their least favorite part of the writing process. I’m not exception. But it has to be done. I’m currently in the thick of editing Gabriel’s Trumpet. It’s my second novel (or at least long novella) length project. But I’m beginning to get a handle of my editing “process.

First and foremost, I don’t edit for everything at once. Obviously, that would be the most efficient way to do things. I’m just not up to it. If I looked for everything, I’d end up not catching anything. So, I break my editing into focused passes. The typical breakdown goes something like this:

Round 1 & 2

Checking for narrative continuity, smooth transition between scenes, and anything that just plain doesn’t make sense.

Round 3 & 4

One of my biggest issues with editing is passive voice. For some reason, I find passive voice much more pleasing than the rest of the world. So, typically, I do two editing passes just to get my use of passive voice down to an acceptable level.  Because the “Find” feature lets me pick up words like was and were regardless of whether it’s passive or not, it’s also an opportunity to switch out being verbs for other, more interesting and uncommon verbs.

Round 5 & 6

After that, it’s time for comma culling. I am also quite comma happy … a trait I will lay in the feet of ten+ years of speechwriting – where it’s common to insert a comma anywhere you want a speaker to pause or even just breathe.  So, there’s a lot of comma culling as well.

Round 7 (and, if necessary, 8, 9, etc.)

I finally move on to the other punctuation, grammar, and generic errors typically associated with editing. A special variation on this in Gabriel’s Trumpet, with its extensive use of historical figures, was fact checking spelling and biographical information.

So, that seems to be my process. I’d interested to hear how others handle this most unloved of tasks.

Trumpeting My New Project

I’m excited to announce I’ve signed a contract for another novel.

Gabriel’s Trumpet is based my short story of the same name, which will appear in the upcoming anthology Speakeasies and Spiritualists from 18th Wall Productions.

The anthology features supernatural stories set against a 1920s backdrop of spiritualism, prohibition, and jazz culture. Expect not only horror but also adventure, mystery, fantasy, and pulp with supernatural elements.

Mississippi Delta plantation

Mississippi Delta plantation

Gabriel’s Trumpet is a supernaturally-tinged mystery telling the story of two men. Gabriel Gibbs is a Delta trumpeter who, tales claim, has returned from the dead with extraordinary musical prowess, and is shadowed by rumors of crossroads deals, grave robbing, and other occult dealings. Hot on Gabriel’s trail, seeking the truth about the musician’s background and abilities, is Dr. Marcus Roads, an investigator for the Boston Society for Psychical Research.

Action takes place across a broad swath of 1920s America: Boston, the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, and Harlem at the height of its renaissance. Along the way, Roads confronts truculent authorities, hostile locals, rival investigators, and, just possibly, supernatural agents and their mortal minions.

In his travels, Roads encounters a colorful cast of characters, some stepping out of the pages of history books: Langston Hughes, Harry Houdini, King Oliver, Charles Fort, Walter Franklin Prince, and NOLA photographer E.J. Bellocq. There may even be a character borrowed from classic Weird Tales canon, no names … but your hint is Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!

Look for both the short story and novel versions of Gabriel’s Trumpet sometime in 2017 from 18th Wall Productions.

How to “Dr. Frankenstein” Extinct & Poorly Documented Languages for Fiction

The Pictish language (or dialect, see below) was spoken in what is now northern and eastern Scotland approximately between the Fourth and Tenth centuries, when it was eclipsed by the language which evolved into modern Scotts Gaelic. Very few records of Pictish language have survived, mostly as brief mentions in Irish or Welsh sources.

That presents certain difficulties for one of my w

orks in progress, a novel tentatively titled Caledfwlch, the second book in my historical fantasy/progressive pulp series Bel Nemeton. The Picts feature very prominently in Caledfwlch. As part of bringing that people and their land to life, I wanted to be able to use some “Pictish” in the story.

I’ve turned that quest into a blog post not only because some of my readers may find it interesting but also in hopes it might be useful to other writers seeking to use a poorly documented extinct language in their work.

First, a few caveats on the scope of my project. I am not so ambitious as to try to go Tolkien/Star Trek on the problem and create a fully functional language. My goal is much humbler, to be able to drop the occasional word or phrase into the text for effect. Also, I am not attempting to recreate the actual, historical Pictish language. With such a miniscule sample size, that task has proven beyond the abilities of the world’s best linguists. I know I have no hope of doing so (nor do I have the time or inclination). Rather, my objective is creating plausible facsimiles of fragments of Pictish for use in fiction.

Here is how I tackled the problem.

I began by looking at how Pictish relates to other languages, living and dead:

Yes, there are a few claims that Pictish was a non-Indo-European tongue…or other outlier hypotheses. But the overwhelming academic consensus is that Pictish was an Insular Celtic language and a member of the Brittonic/Brythonic (P-Celtic) sub-family. From there, opinion appears about evenly divided whether Pictish was a dialect of or a sister language to Common Brittonic. Either way, that means the surviving languages descended from Common Brittonic (Breton, Cornish, and Welsh) are the closest living relatives to Pictish.

From there, I made an assumption (a well-reasoned one, I hope): geographical proximity suggests, of those three living languages, Welsh is likely to have been the most similar to Pictish. That geographical argument is strengthened if one considers the now extinct Cumbric dialect of Welsh, which was spoken in northern Britain and southern Scotland.

So I used Welsh (Old Welsh or Middle Welsh when available) as my jumping-off point for Pictish. There are a number of sources for Old and Middle Welsh online. When I couldn’t find relevant Old and Middle Welsh information, I turned to the plethora of Modern Welsh resources as well as good ol’ Google Translate.

Locating a Welsh translation for the word or phrase I wanted, sometimes I used it directly as Pictish. Other times I shifted a few sounds. Again, I understand this is not a linguistically sound way to actually recreate an extinct language. But I am hoping it creates a plausible, if utterly fictitious, facsimile that helps bring that fascinating people to life in my novel.

So, my solution to using a poorly documented extinct language was to identify the closest living language (or nearest well documented extinct language) and use it as inspiration for the language I was trying to recreate.

So, yes, at the end of the day, I am not so much trying to “Dr. Frankenstein” the language as I am making a hand puppet out of the corpse’s fist and hoping that will engage the suspension of disbelief of my readers. Nevertheless, I hope this has been entertaining and possibly useful for my readers.

Follow Jon at @BlackOnBlues on Twitter.

Eggs of Horror

on the second book (still tentatively titled Caledfwlch) in my historical fiction/progressive pulp series is significantly ahead of schedule. So, with the intent of not putting all my writing eggs in a single genre basket, I am dusting off four stories I wrote earlier in the year. While none of them are quite horror, they all nibble at its edges.

In the tradition of Lovecraft’s Arkham and its environs, three of the stories are set in Junzt County, a fictional county within the Texas Hill Country. One of the most historically rich regions of the state, the Hill Country also has the advantage of being an area I’m highly familiar with and offering the right cocktail of isolation and mystery.

The Eye Teeth: Set in the 1940s, is classic weird fiction with strong Cthulhu Mythos overtones. As with my series, historical sources and research play a prominent role. A well-known politician from Texas also puts in a guest appearance in the role of quest-giver.

Pioneer House: This flashback to the 1980 blends weird fiction with an “outsider” archetype protagonist, portrayal of small town ennui, and the question of free will.

So Lonesome I Could Die: Is a 1920s Western Gothic ghost story with nods to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The story draws heavily upon my background in music journalism for mood and atmosphere.

The fourth story, and the only contemporary tale, is The Renewal Room, the tale of a music journalist (write what you know, right?) whose quest for a forgotten bit of music history leads him to a town on California’s Salton Sea which is equal parts Arkham and Twin Peaks.

With the exception of So Lonesome I Could Die, these stories were submitted elsewhere and rejected. I will spend the next few weeks retooling and strengthening them prior to submission for other upcoming anthologies or magazines.

So, wish me luck … oh, and Ia, Ia, Cthulhu fhtagn!

Follow Jon at @BlackOnBlues on Twitter.

Bel Nemeton Q&A: Part V

The following installment concludes my Publisher’s author interview for the short story “Bel Nemeton.” The template for my upcoming novel of the same name, “Bel Nemeton” can be found in the anthology After Avalon, from 18th Wall Productions.

Q) Your story features brief scenes with Merlin in the distant past. What
were those like to research and write? In fact, your story builds itself from a complicated web of real historical fact.

How was the whole research journey?

It is possible I did just enough research to get into trouble. If hope any archaeologists, historians, or linguists that happen to read “Bel Nemeton” will forgive my errors in the interest of narrative license.

With that caveat, it was a wonderful opportunity to research and highlight many interesting things occurring in the Sixth century.

Giving life to the complex and cosmopolitan civilizations along the Silk Road, such as Sogdia, was particularly enjoyable.

It was my goal to transfer the delight of that research and discovery directly into the narrative itself through the eyes of Vivian and Jake.

Readers who enjoyed that aspect of “Bel Nemeton” will be happy to learn the upcoming novel significantly expands the attention given to Merlin’s wanderings and exploration of the world of the Sixth century.

Please check out earlier answers in previous blog posts. Follow Jon at @BlackOnBlues on Twitter.

Bel Nemeton Q&A: Part IV

The following is part of my Publisher’s author interview for the short story “Bel Nemeton.” The template for my upcoming novel of the same name, “Bel Nemeton” can be found in the anthology After Avalon, from 18th Wall Productions.

Q) Tell us more about your two leads, their relationship, and what
inspired them.

Dr. Vivian Cuinssey is a professor of Celtic linguistics. Jake Booker is a two-fisted treasure hunter. While the “academic” and the “man of action” are common archetypes of contemporary pulp, one of the great joys of writing “Bel Nemeton” was playing both leads against type. Vivian comes to the table with considerable moxie and a willingness to dust it up with the bad guys. Conversely, as the story progresses, Jake reveals that, underneath his action hero exterior, beats the heart of a nerd.

Initially an alliance born of convenience, Vivian and Jake’s relationship evolves into a symbiotic partnership rooted in mutual respect – none of which prevents the obligatory barbs and banter which are de rigueur for an action-adventure duo.

Interestingly, I began writing “Bel Nemeton” without plans for romantic tension between the leads. Regardless of intentions, as I wrote, it was clear there was chemistry between them. While it’s not heavily emphasized in the story, it is definitely there.

I have been blessed to have a lot of strong, capable women in my life, many of whom are academics. As cliché as it is to say, especially my mother. These women provide much of the raw material for Vivian Cuinnsey. Jake Booker emerged more organically. I began without a strong conception of who Jake was and he gradually revealed himself through the process of writing.

Drop in on Friday for the interview’s conclusion. Please check out earlier answers in previous blog posts.

Follow Jon at @BlackOnBlues on Twitter. ,