The story of a chess game

Staunton chess pieces, the standard in competition

Games are something like stories. In role-playing games, the connection is obvious, but it’s true even of board games. So I want to tell the story of one such game, a game of chess.

I was on my high school’s chess team my senior year. Although I compiled a record of two wins, one draw, and no losses in interscholastic competition, I was not really all that good. It’s symbolic of my playing that my best game was probably the one I drew.

It was my first game playing against another school. Not that I was worried, more fool me. I drew white, we sat down to play, and at first, everything went well.

Reproductions of the famous chess set from the Isle of Lewis

But you see, there was a problem. We were playing by strict competitive rules. That included touch-move. You touch a piece or pawn, you MUST move it. You let go of a piece or pawn, and you cannot move it again, ESPECIALLY not to take back your move.

I’d never played touch-move before.

So I did the obvious stupid thing. I picked up a piece, moved it, let go, and then realized I had made a stupid move. Not JUST a stupid move, a fatal move. I was going to lose a piece. (I think it was one of my rooks.)

Which I did. And as a natural result, I soon lost another. In a game when the players are of comparable ability, that’s it, folks. One does not recover from being down two pieces.

But this was my first game! I couldn’t lose it. No. I thought, I thought, I thought. And then I came up with a plan. It was based on something I’d read in a chess book.

If I couldn’t win on skill, I was going to win by using psychology. No, nothing like making weird noises, or trying to irritate my opponent. That would be bush league, and probably have caused me to forfeit.

I played stupid. If I could fumble once with touch-move, I could do it again. I was going to get my opponent to underestimate me. And that way, he would not see the dreadful surprise I was going to spring on him.

18th century chess piece from India

I lost more pieces. I ran my king almost to the corner of the board as it dodged attacks. (That was my plan.) I worked to ensure all my pawns were blocked from advancing, and exchanged as many pieces as I could without giving away what I was doing.

We arrived at the end game. There were few pieces on the board, more of them his than mine, of course. My king was trapped on the left-most file, second row, as my opponent’s rook was on the next file (knight’s file) over. It was protecting a pawn that was blocked by my last rook from moving one more square and being promoted. (If a pawn reaches the other side of the board, it can be exchanged for any piece, even ones you haven’t lost.)

By this point, all the other games were over, and most of the other players were gathered around, waiting to see how my opponent would finally defeat me. For defeat me he must. There was no chance of my winning.

The key to what happened next is to understand that the rook was the only piece or pawn I had left that could move, apart from the king. I pulled a long face, picked up my rook, looked like I was deciding what to do with it, put it down on the bishop’s file next over, and then let go!

Naturally, I looked horror-stricken. I’d moved my rook so my opponent’s pawn could not only capture it, but be promoted! Without a moment’s thought, my opponent reached out, took my rook with his pawn, and replaced his pawn with a queen.

Kings and queens, that’s what it’s all about!
(Credit: Wikipedia/Andy Burgess)

I said one word. “Stalemate.” The room burst into chuckles. I’d drawn the game.

In his haste, and sure I was a bad player, my opponent hadn’t looked carefully at how all the pieces were arranged. By promoting to a queen, he had not put my king in check (where it could be captured by another piece), but he had made it impossible for me to move my king without moving it into check. I had no other pieces, and all my pawns were blocked. That meant I HAD to move my king, but under the rules of chess, one cannot move a king into check. So I had no move. Under chess rules, the game ended there, a stalemate, a draw, with neither of us winning or losing.

What made this such a devilish and risky play on my part, is that if my opponent had figured out what I was doing, he could have taken my rook with his pawn, and promoted his pawn to any other piece except a queen, and won. But he was already convinced I was a bad player, and could make such obvious mistakes. So he didn’t look carefully, and naturally promoted his pawn to the most powerful piece, a queen. And so blew his victory.

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A report on the state of my health

I had a cold. It was a promiscuous cold; others had had it before me. And yet it clung to me like an unpaid student loan. I tried to use whiskey as an antibiotic. It went viral. I tried to sleep, but every time I came close, it woke me with a cough.

Finally, I sat down at my computer and called up the news. It was so depressing, I heard each cold virus scream as it committed suicide in a fit of nihilistic despair.

Wise men used to say, “starve a cold, feed a fever.” I say, show ’em the news. Let’s see just how tough they really are.

(From the movie, “The Shining.”)

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Review: The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Having just read and reviewed The Werewolf of Paris, I decide to tackle its movie version, The Curse of the Werewolf, for my Halloween evening entertainment. In short, read the book. It’s interesting and unusual. The movie is a run-of-the-mill horror flick, with only one redeeming factor: it starts slow because it focuses on character development for the first half.

I knew I’d be in trouble from the start with this movie, because the setting has been transferred from France to Spain. All the comparisons between the outrages of the werewolf and the outrages of humans at war were dropped from the novel along with this change of setting, taking out one of its major points.

Amazing how the peasant maids all have ample cleavage!

Still, the first part of this movie is reasonably faithful to the novel in spirit. Even some of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the novel. Our young lad has an ill-omened conception and birth. As he grows older, his “uncle” thinks he’s becoming a werewolf, and tries various means to protect and restrain him. The lad himself is bewildered, because he doesn’t fully understand his plight. It’s all done fairly well. Makes you think about how you’d feel in their situation.

Having jettisoned the rest of the novel’s plot, the movie develops the werewolf along standard cinematic lines. He becomes uncontrollable at the full moon, looks like a hairy man, and maybe can be redeemed by true love. There’s the inevitable climax when a mob faces the werewolf. Ta-da. The end.

Thanks for tossing me in a dungeon where I was raped, you lecherous old bastard!

It’s not bad, as an ordinary werewolf movie from the days before An American Werewolf in London. You’ll think you’re watching an old Universal horror flick, even though this came from Hammer Studios. There’s even a young Oliver Reed in one of his first starring roles as the cursed young man. But so much was sacrificed from the book! Take the love interest. In both the book and the movie, she’s a young aristocratic woman who rejects a bland upper-class lover for the werewolf. The movie’s Cristina is virginal and pure, hence a conventional redeemer. The book’s Sophie is a much more complex character, whose darker cravings answer the werewolf’s.

If you like the old-fashioned monster movies, you’ll enjoy this. Just be prepared for a slow build-up. But if you want a horror story that challenges you, read the book.

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Horror for Halloween: The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore

Guy Encore (1901-70), author, screenwriter, political radical and activist

One of the standard criticisms of supernatural horror literature is that it is unreal. Why this isn’t a criticism of all literature is a good question, but supernatural horror literature is condemned for presenting us with unreal horrors when so many real horrors abound in the world. Well, hang on to your shoulder straps, boys and girls, because Guy Endore is going to take you on a ride that turns that criticism upside-down. We’re talking about his best-selling novel, The Werewolf of Paris.

The biggest problem with this book is that it’s too well-written.[1] There is no shocking language at all, not surprising since this was written in 1933. It’s the events that should shock you. But the novel is so low-key that the reader takes on the entire range of crime, from murder and rape to more enduring forms of cruelty, with hardly a shudder. Endore was also a Hollywood screenwriter, but there was no way under the Hays Code to turn this novel into a movie. Even today, a faithful adaptation would be at the very least a hard ‘R,’ and quite possibly the disreputable NC-17.[2] It did get filmed once, in 1961, as The Curse of the Werewolf. I’ll track that down and watch it soon to see how badly they bowdlerized the novel.

So what’s it about? Degenerate scum priest rapes peasant girl and produces a son tainted with lycanthropy. The reader figures this out pretty quickly. Jump scares aren’t this novel’s style. It’s watching the boy’s family deal with his growing problem, and then following young Bertrand into the violent and chaotic war-torn Paris of 1870-71[3] in which the novel hits its stride. Gee, character development: probably the greatest weakness of the supernatural horror genre, and yet it’s the substance of this book. What do you do when your child likes to go out and slaughter creatures with his teeth? How much attention would a werewolf get in a land convulsed with violence?

There are no good people here, just real ones. Everyone’s wrestling with their problems. A lot of them are trying to do good, but their own natures and events sometimes conspire to twist their actions to wicked ends. Endore’s no optimist. But, give him credit, he can sympathize with human failings at the same time that he condemns them.

The Werewolf of Paris lures you in with a horror story about a werewolf. And then it actually gets horrible. You’ll finish the book a sadder and wiser person. Me, I kept thinking this novel reads more like it was written after the Second World War than before, when people clearly knew that their fellow man could set up extermination camps and slaughter millions. But no, it was written in 1933, from the safety of the United States.

This book was my “moldy oldie” for Halloween: my annual reading and reviewing of a supernatural horror book that has been mostly neglected.[4] Unlike several of them, I can truly say I enjoyed this book. I thought Endore was about to go Hollywood on me when he introduced the aristocratic Sophie, but, in the end, she took her (im)proper place in this horror story.

Compared to Endore’s subtlety, this movie adaptation’s poster is not promising


[1]Sadly, the edition I used, a 2012 reprint from Pegasus Crime imprint, apparently was created by someone running a scanner with optical character recognition software over an older edition, and then not proofreading the result. There are some obvious typos, and a few words mangled out of recognition.

[2]For my non-American readers, the rating system in the United States is a series of letter codes. ‘G’ is family fare. ‘PG’ and ‘PG-13’ allow increasing levels of violence and sex. ‘R’ is the last “respectable” rating in the series, awarded for serious violence, extensive nudity, and stylized portrayals of sexuality. ‘NC-17’ is for movies so hardcore in their violence or sexuality that many theaters won’t show them.

[3]France and Prussia (think Germany) went to war in 1870, and the Germans besieged Paris. Meanwhile the existing French government broke down. A very leftwing government, which became the Commune, took over in Paris, while a reactionary government controlled the rest of France. After the French admitted defeat and the Germans withdrew, the National government besieged the Communards and defeated them. Endore explains a lot of this, not just to give you background, but because the violence of war is a counterpoint to Bertrand’s story.

[4]Well, I try to make it annual. Some years I’ve just been too preoccupied.

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Review: The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976)

Time to haul out the Necronomicon!

So let me describe to you the typical Cthulhu Mythos story formula. Adult male comes across hints of evil. He does research, uncovering various writings that point to an alien evil that could destroy Mankind. Finally, he confronts the alien evil. The outcome is rarely good.

To make it clear this is a Cthulhu Mythos story, the writer includes many references to classic Mythos stories, certainly Lovecraft’s, often those of his contemporaries. And since repeating old stuff is boring, the writer tosses in some new deity/book/band of followers. By now, the Mythos has so many forbidden tomes that they could stock an entire college library . . . which incidentally is where many of them are kept.

H. P. Lovecraft did a lot of this sort of writing himself. But he had a fertile imagination, and rang many changes on this one theme, as, say, “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” demonstrate. His successors were not always so talented.

Back in the 1970s, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos were enjoying a revival. Edward P. Berglund put together what has been described as the first all-pro collection of new stories in the Mythos, The Disciples of Cthulhu(DAW Books, 1976). After reading a blog post about rock music and horror at Duke De Richleau’s Nocturnal Revelries, I dug this volume out of the dusty shelves of my library to see how it has stood up after over 40 years. The answer? Meh.

There are some illustrious and not-so-illustrious names here. Sadly, the most illustrious in the eyes of Lovecraft fans, Robert Bloch, is here only to provide an introduction. It’s a pity, because elsewhere Bloch has expressed regret that he wrote most of his own Mythos stories when he was still learning his craft. What he might have done in the mid-1970s!

The main difficulty is that most of the writers were straightjacketed into the formulaic Cthulhu Mythos story plot described above. Considering there has been some arguments, then and since, about what qualifies as Cthulhu Mythos, this at least ensured that all of the stories definitely belonged (with one odd exception, noted below). But it severely restricted the writers’ ability to display their talents. Whether a story succeeded or failed depended on how much they could innovate on the formula. Let’s take a look and see.

[N.B. This collection was reprinted in 1996 with the Brennan and Carter stories swapped out for ones by Robert M. Price and A. A. Attanasio. If that’s the edition you found, you’re on your own for two stories.]

“The Fairground Horror” by Brian Lumley. Set in a freak show in England. Give Lumley credit: he went to great effort to build up his background. He’s a decent writer. But there’s no pizzazz here. 2/5

“The Silence of Erika Zann” by James Wade. You can’t get more derivative than this reworking of a Lovecraft story not usually associated with the Mythos. And yet it’s the one story from this collection I distinctly remembered after 40 years, because it’s well and briefly told. 5/5

“All-Eye” by Bob Van Laerhoven. In his last two pages, the author opened up a plotline that was a complete departure from the formula. If only he’d kept going! 3/5

“The Tugging” by Ramsey Campbell. Like his fellow British writer, Campbell relocated the Mythos to an imaginary English locale. Otherwise the two authors were quite different. Campbell’s horror was reinforced by the psychological problems of his protagonist, something “All-Eye” tried to do but not so thoroughly. 3/5

“Where Yidhra Walks” by Walter C. DeBrill, Jr. A Texan “Shadow Over Innsmouth” story. DeBrill’s innovation was that the relationship between the alien entity and its human followers doesn’t follow the usual “half-breed” formula. 2/5

“The Feaster From Afar” by Joseph Payne Brennan. August Derleth meets Frank Belknap Long’s “The Space Eaters.” And that’s all you have to know. 1/5

I bought this and de Camp’s Lovecraft biography at about the same time. I deep-six’ed this one some years later.

“Zoth-Ommog” by Lin Carter. Carter once wrote a book trying to define exactly what was and wasn’t Cthulhu Mythos. He needn’t have bothered: he tried to cram it all into this story, which suffered as a result. That’s one danger of the formula: too many Cthulhu Mythos references, and you’re not telling a story, you’re trying to prove how clever you are at incorporating the Mythos into your story. 1/5

“Darkness, My Name Is” by Eddy C. Bertin. You are either going to love this story or hate it. Either it’s an intriguing attempt to explain the utterly alien, or a lot of pretentious babble. A decently atmospheric build-up either adds to the story or keeps it from being total rubbish. 4/5

“The Terror From the Depths” by Fritz Leiber. I like Fritz Leiber. I don’t particularly like this story. And yet I admit it has a peculiar charm. Apparently Leiber took a story he’d initially written in the 1930s and rewrote it for this anthology. So it has a few quaint touches. 3/5

So there you have it. Average story rating is only 2.67, hence the “meh.”

Why so poor? Cthulhu Mythos stories can go in two directions if they are to succeed. They can try to evoke an alien horror, in which case atmosphere is 9/10ths of the story, as Lovecraft so well knew. Or they can tell a story about human beings who happen to run into these alien beings. In that case, plot and character development become much more important. (Think “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”) As a rule, if you’re going long, you can’t rely just on atmosphere; you must engage in character development.

In this anthology, instead of either direction, the emphasis seems to have been on tying the story into the Cthulhu Mythos. As an early anthology of new material, this may have seemed an essential strategy. So a cookie-cutter story such as Brennan’s made it in. And Carter was not the only writer to weigh down his story with a survey of Mythos apparatus. Leiber was another, to the detriment of his story.

The emphasis on the Mythos didn’t have to be a death sentence. Wade’s story showed that a derivative tale could still sparkle. It had spirit, it had twists. And it spent less than one page laying out its Lovecraftian background. It didn’t need to do more, because the Lovecraftian elements were an integral part of the story. Fritz Leiber’s story came closer to success than many of the others here, because sometimes his namechecked Mythos characters actually help drive the plot.

Again, so there you have it: Cthulhu Mythos circa 1976, with both the Mythos and several writers trying to take wing. This isn’t the Mythos’s Dangerous Visions. But neither is it a complete failure.

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Dead authors, live horrors: anthologies by Aickman and Matheson

Richard Matheson

Of the two men, an American is more likely to recognize the works, if not the name, of Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013), because so many have been adapted to the screen. For example, there is that classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner . . . and 15 other episodes! And yet, in many ways, the stories of Robert Aickman (1914 -1981) are deeper in a literary Twilight Zone, even though he never wrote for the series. In this review, I’m going to talk primarily about two anthologies of their stories that I’ve read.

A Matheson novel that made it to the the big screen: Hell House

The Penguin Classic The Best of Richard Matheson (2017) demonstrates that Matheson was comfortable ranging all over science fiction as well as horror, and did good work in both. Often, of course, they overlap. For example, “Shipshape Home” spins a yarn about humans who become afraid that their apartment building is host to aliens. And there is humor, sometimes to be found in what otherwise would be dreadful places, as in “The Funeral.” But what drives a Matheson story is a normal person confronting the abnormal, or occasionally an abnormal person dealing with the normal world. A man confronts a killer truck in “Duel” (the basis for Steven Spielberg’s first TV movie) or suddenly find himself learning the knowledge in whatever he passes by in “One For the Books.” A boy wants to become a vampire in “Blood Son,” or a man realizes he’s a robot (or is he?) in “Deus Ex Machina.” “The Last Day” is just about how people react to the very last day.

What I found amazing is that all of these stories still seem fresh, even though many are foundational in sci-fi/horror pop culture. Critics used to joke that much early sci-fi was written in a very plain, simple style (think early Asimov, for example). But Matheson’s work shows that  a plain style can be versatile and memorable. Tell your story, tell it cleanly, make it memorable. That’s a Matheson story.

Robert Aickman

To judge from the anthology Compulsory Games (2018), Aickman was similar to Matheson in concentrating on how ordinary people confront the abnormal. But what distinguishes Aickman’s stories is how reality goes off the rails, as it always does. Aickman’s stories might be horror, they might be fantasy, but one cannot be sure. His characters live in surreal worlds, in which they may notice a river that wasn’t there before, or see humans manipulated as if they were mechanical contrivances. In Matheson stories, what is real is rarely in question; we know what elements are fantastic. But in Aickman stories, it is much harder to find the line between reality and unreality. It’s as if his stories don’t enter the Twilight Zone — they begin there.

The problem with such stories, to judge from this anthology, is that they can be very effective, but they can also simply be puzzling, and sometimes seem downright trivial. “The Coffin House” sets up a truly surrealistic situation, but resolves it in such a lame fashion that passes for mysterious that I was more annoyed than interested. And yet, hard though it may seem to believe, Aickman can make a perfectly gruesome and surreal story out of government indecision, as he does in “Residents Only.”

I’m happy to have read The Best of Richard Matheson and recommend it. Compulsory Games I’m less happy with. Maybe it’s the editor’s choice of stories. I’m interested enough to go look for some other collection of his stories. This one I’d recommend if surrealistic horror in a minor key is your cup of tea.

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The Coldest City for an Atomic Blonde

My partner is a cartoonist. So we take a particular interest in movies that are based on comics. For example, no sooner did we see The Death of Stalin, then she was on the phone to France, asking a friend to pick her up a copy of the French comic book it was based on.

But this post is about another comic book turned movie: The Coldest City (2012), which became the movie Atomic Blonde (2017). I saw the movie, unaware that it was based on a “graphic novel,” as we now call square-bound comics of some length. Since then, we’ve picked up said graphic novel and watched the movie together.

The premise of the graphic novel is that it’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to fall, and a crisis has hit British Intelligence (MI-6). There’s a list afoot which contains the names of every spy in Berlin. MI-6 dispatches agent Lorraine Broughton to get that list. Her contact in Berlin is the chief British agent there, Perceval, who’s thought to have “gone native.” Berlin turns out to be a snake pit of intelligence operatives, none of whom can be fully trusted . . . not even Broughton, as it turns out.

Broughton goes from brunette to blonde, because it’s Hollywood

Surprisingly, given the known proclivities of the director and the star’s role as a producer, the movie actually adheres fairly well to the novel in terms of atmosphere and general shape of the plot. Oh, there are twists: neither Broughton nor the list turn out to be quite what they were in the novel. And, given the track record of the director, it is no wonder there is much more physical action in the movie than in the novel. Still, one can trace the influence of the novel on the film very clearly.

The movie did only modestly well, although the are plans for a sequel. I suspect it’s because the plot in some respects is even more byzantine than in the novel. There’s a key plot point in the movie when the CIA agent passes a newspaper to Broughton. Understanding what Broughton learns from this is key to interpreting her motivation for her actions for the rest of the movie. But you don’t learn that until the very end of the movie. Even the graphic novel only hints at the issues, because this is one of the points at which the novel and movie diverge. In many ways, the movie is plotted more like an old Agatha Christie murder mystery, in which anything might be a clue, and your job as a viewer is to figure out which ones are significant. Fail, and the movie is in many ways unintelligible.

The acid test for understanding the movie is this question: can you figure out Broughton’s motivations in wanting to save Spyglass once Satchel’s cover is blown? If you can, the movie makes sense. Otherwise, you’ll wonder if the screenwriters were too clever by half.

Given all this, which is better? Once I could answer the question above, my answer is the movie. The movie’s plot is more unified than the novel’s. And the soundtrack, for someone who lived through the 1980s as I did, is gorgeous. On the other hand, I have to admit that the novel is more intelligible at first read, and can help in understanding the movie. And it does not pander to Hollywood conventions about glamorous women and happy endings, as the movie does.

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