Mask of the Other


Mask of the Other is a modern Lovecraftian horror/military adventure novel by Greg Stolze. Here’s the sell text from the back cover:

In 1991, a squad of US soldiers in Iraq stumbled across the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s secret occult weapons program. Mask of the Other tells their story.

In 1974, something two armies couldn’t kill was buried under the wreckage of Varosha, during the invasion of Cyprus. Over the next three decades, teams of Turkish soldiers repeatedly attempted to poison it, burn it, or blow it to bits. They only succeeded in keeping it pent up, waiting.

In 2001, a skirmish in rural Afghanistan somehow escalated to the point that an entire village was wiped out, along with most of the personnel of a private military company. The only survivors were four Americans suspected of looting Iraqi antiquities a decade earlier.

In 2004, those same Americans were hired to provide security for a mining firm looking to restart operations on the abandoned island of Hashima. Both they, and the man who hired them, knew that the island’s abandonment in 1974 had left it as the home to far worse things than smugglers and squatters.

Mask of the Other takes modern ghost towns, low-intensity combat zones, international espionage and corporate intrigue, weaving them together with the ineffable horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It’s a war story, a survival tale, and an account of existential survival against incredible threats.

Now, bias alert. Here’s a list of reasons that you might decide my review of the book is biased:

  • Greg Stolze, along with John Tynes, bought a bunch of my writing back in the days of Unknown Armies.
  • I got to know Greg back in those days, and we’ve been friends ever since.
  • Greg sent me a .pdf of the book back when it was first released, for free.
  • I backed the Kickstarter for the audiobook version ((Some may view this as bias, some may view it as further endorsement. I leave it to you to decide which it is for you.)).
  • In general, I like Greg’s writing, both his fiction and his game material.

So, those factors may indicate that I am predisposed to like this book, and you’d be right, I guess. But I try to be honest in my reviews. I think the above points make it more likely that I’d read the book, certainly, and to write a review if I like it ((I don’t write reviews of things I don’t like. I’d rather celebrate and share stuff that I think is good than whine about or tear down stuff that I don’t. After all, opinions are very subjective, and there’s lots of good stuff out there, so why not focus on stuff I like?)).

This review is coming very late – the book was released over a year ago, and I started reading it then, but I got distracted and never got back to it. When the Kickstarter for the audio version of the book came along, I backed it at a high enough level to get the softcover version, as well. I just finished listening to the audiobook this afternoon, so it’s time and past time to write a review.

The sell text above hits the high points of the story. The book actually weaves a few different narrative tracks together, some of which come together later in the book, and some of which are more in the nature of vignettes, filling in some blanks from the story and illuminating the nature of the threats facing the characters ((Most of the illumination is some form of “See? This is why it’s very, very bad.”)). This does a good job of controlling the revelations of information for the reader to heighten suspense, because sometimes it’s scarier to be surprised and sometimes it’s scarier to see it coming.

I had a bit of a problem with this approach, though, especially in the earlier part of the novel. The chapters don’t progress chronologically; that is, they jump forward and backwards in time. Each chapter starts with a date/place heading, so it’s not that huge a deal – except with the audiobook. With a written text, you can flip back to the chapter’s beginning, and to other chapter beginnings, to help keep track of where you are in the story’s timeline. You can’t do that with the audiobook, though, and with all the jumping around in the start of the book, it’s not hard to lose track.

It’s not a huge problem, though; just something that caused me a little confusion. And, as the book proceeds, the narratives come together and begin to advance in a more conventional manner, the problem evaporates.

The story itself is a lot of fun, and really quite disturbing in many places ((Which is what one looks for in Lovecraftian story, after all.)). Greg uses a couple of very common monsters from the Lovecraft corpus, and uses them pretty much in their conventional roles, but throws a couple of awesome twists in to move them from standard tropes up to things of real horror again. The deep ones are nasty and terrifying in their breeding program and level of infiltration, and the shoggoth pulls some tricks that show why they were essentially an Old One doomsday weapon.

The main characters of the book – the squad of soldiers – are great. They make the same kinds of desperate, foolish, awesome decisions as player characters in an RPG ((And, incidentally, so completely unlike the rather sterile, cerebral characters of an actual Lovecraft story.)), and enjoy the same kinds of great victories and horrible defeats. The horror of Lovecraft’s stories is often so cosmic, that it is removed from personal horror, but this story does a good job of showing how the cosmic horror leads the characters into personal horror. Their choices, and the consequences of those choices, really drive the most disturbing parts of the novel.

Of course, some mention must be made of the narrator of the audiobook. His name is Trevor Dutton, and Greg described his voice as “gravy on gravel.” I can’t do any better than that; it’s a smooth voice, with a bit of a rumble in it. He doesn’t do a lot of voices, but reads clearly, and at a good pace. I believe he produced the book, as well as reading it, so he’s responsible for the sound effects interspersed throughout. The first time I heard one of the sound effects on the recording, I was startled, but they work really well, and I wound up enjoying them a lot ((Mostly. There were one or two little tinkly musical stings that struck me as kind of incongruous.)). All in all, a fine job of reading.

End result? I really enjoyed Mask of the Other. It hit all the right buttons for modern Lovecraft fiction, as far as I’m concerned, marrying his stark, horrific universe with the more personal, immediate horror of modern sensibility. It’s a tough balance to strike, and Greg Stolze hits it about perfect. If you like Lovecraft, Delta Green, or just modern horror, you should read this book.

Mid GenCon Update

Two days down, two to go.

It’s been a fun convention so far. We got into Indy around two on Wednesday, and I caught up with Scott Glancy and Jared Wallace (of Pagan Publishing and Dagon Industries, respectively) to head over to the convention centre to set up the booth.

Now, they don’t put the air conditioning on during set-up, so it’s hot, sweaty, and pretty smelly in there, what with hundreds of vendors setting up their booths while the convention centre staff lays down the carpet. We’re also sharing the booth with Arc Dream and Greg Stolze, which makes for a fun crowd.

After we finished, we went to the Rock Bottom Brewery for dinner. It’s got good food, and isn’t afraid of us geeks.

The con opened yesterday morning, with the Very Important Gamers coming in an hour before the hoi-polloi were admitted. Of course, there’s always a scramble on the first morning, trying to get all the last-minute stuff done.

And then things got busy.

That evening, we went back to Rock Bottom, this time with the folk from Sigh Co. Graphics, which is always a good time.

Today was more of the same, with the exception that I got to go for lunch with Clint, which was nice, because we often don’t see each other much during the show. Tonight, Scott is running a playtest, and I’m taking it easy in the hotel, reading my new purchases. And what are those purchases?

  • Innsmouth Horror. This is the new supplement for Arkham Horror. I haven’t looked too closely at it, yet, because these games always have a ton of components, and I don’t want to risk losing any.
  • The Stars Are Right. This is a new Cthulhu-themed game from Steve Jackson Games. I’ve looked at the rules, and they seem a little complex. I’m going to try and sit on a demo if I have time, because I think that’ll make thing a lot clearer.
  • Geist: The Sin-Eaters. The new World of Darkness game from White Wolf. I’ve just started reading it, and it looks interesting.
  • Eclipse Phase. A transhuman conspiracy RPG from Catalyst Games. The book is beautiful, and the bit I’ve read looks fun. I haven’t got to any of the system, yet, so I’m still not completely sold. But it looks great!
  • A Couple of Shirts from Sigh Co. I’ve been looking at their great stuff for years, and I finally got a couple. This one and this one, to be precise.

I’ve also picked up a surprise or two for friends back home that I’m not going to talk about.

Not a lot of new stuff at the show, as far as I can tell, but that’s sort of par for the course in this economic climate.

All in all, I’m having fun. And I hope to be in Scott’s playtest tomorrow night, if there’s room.

Home Again

I’m back from GenCon. As always, it was a real blast. I got back around 9:00 last night, and had to be up for work this morning, so my recollection is kind of chaotic, but I want to talk a little bit about it while it’s fresh.

Here we go, in no particular order:

  • Once again, I spent my time with Scott Glancy of Pagan Publishing and Jared Wallace of Dagon Industries, both fine gentleman. We shared the both with Shane Ivey and the Arc Dream Publishing crew, and they were a good bunch of fellows, as well.
  • Greg Stolze spent a lot of time in the both, flogging his games Reign and Dirty World. I got to know Greg back in the days I was writing for Unknown Armies, and it’s always a pleasure to spend some time with him.
  • Ken Hite, one of my favourite connoisseurs of the weird and the real and the intersection of the two, stopped by a few times. He’s got a new book out: Tour de Lovecraft. It’s a collection of his blog entries, and takes you on a tour through all 51 of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. Good, good stuff. I bought two.
  • I got to touch base with Fred Hicks and Lenny Balsera of Evil Hat. They were both pretty busy, but it was good to shake hands and attach faces to names. Nice folks.
  • At the Pagan booth, we had the printer’s proof of one of their next books, Mysteries of Mesoamerica. My good friend and GenCon traveling partner, sculptor Clint Staples, wrote a big chunk of the book, and it’s been a long time coming out. But it’s more than worth the wait. This book is absolutely beautiful!
  • Had dinner a couple of nights with Gwen and Brian from Sigh Co. Met them last year, and they’re very nice people. Good to see them again.
  • Fantasy Flight Games is rapidly becoming the powerhouse of the show. I bought a new expansion for Arkham Horror from them that I didn’t even know was coming – The Black Goat of the Woods. There were about four other games I would have liked to pick up, but the budget can only be stretched so far.
  • Last year, I passed on the Campaign Coins, and I regretted it. This year, I bought the starter set, and feel much better about myself. They’re very nice.
  • Also picked up Aces & Eights, BRP, and Alpha Omega. Haven’t had much chance to get into them yet, though. Look for thoughts in future posts.
  • Didn’t get to play in Scott Glancy’s playtest this year, but he did talk to me some about the scenario and his thinking behind it. I just want to go on record as saying that there is something broken inside his very soul if he can come up with stuff like that, and I thank him for it.
  • Seemed to be a larger female turnout this year. More, there seemed to be more females buying game product for themselves this year. I like to see this; the hobby has a lot to offer everyone, regardless of gender, and it’s good to see it grow.
  • For those interested, the final tally for the count on Saturday was 43*.

So, it was a good trip, and I had a lot of fun. Thanks to everyone I spent time with down there. You guys are what makes the trip worthwhile.


*Those who know don’t need to ask. Those who ask don’t need to know.