Saturday, 24 December 2016

Book Review: Hardcore Zen

Book Review: Hardcore Zen

Review written by Casey Douglass

Harcore Zen Book Cover

Blurb: This is not your typical Zen book. Brad Warner, a young punk who grew up to be a Zen master, spares no one. This bold new approach to the “Why?” of Zen Buddhism is as strongly grounded in the tradition of Zen as it is utterly revolutionary. Warner's voice is hilarious, and he calls on the wisdom of everyone from punk and pop culture icons to the Buddha himself to make sure his points come through loud and clear. As it prods readers to question everything, Hardcore Zen is both an approach and a departure, leaving behind the soft and lyrical for the gritty and stark perspective of a new generation.

I first read Hardcore Zen years ago, but recent times have seen me growing more and more keen to have a re-read, if for no other reason than to see what I think of Brad Warner’s words after a second reading. I remember feeling impressed with the book after my first reading, and if memory serves me correctly, I did go on to read more books about Zen afterwards, although I’d also read a few before hand. This leaves the waters murky as to what kind of an effect the book had on me, but hot off the heels of my second reading, with a few more years on the clock, I am happy to report that it was still a very good read.

Hardcore Zen looks at reality through the gritty lens of Zen Buddhism. Standing in stark contrast to many religions that promise you paradise in the next life (if only you’d stop being a mucky pup, playing with yourself and being naughty), Zen lays reality bare and tickles around the truth that right here, right now can be paradise too, if only you’d look and pay attention to what is going on around and within you. Brad also delves into the idea that, again, unlike many religions, Zen encourages you to question everything, not to take anything for granted, be it from an authority figure or from your own habitual view of the world. How many religions adopt the tones of: “Believe it if you like, but if you don’t, that’s fine too, suit yourself” and “Don’t take anyone’s word for it, but try and test it yourself”. Maybe if more religions were like this, the world would be a better place.

Brad imparts his own take on Zen by way of his love of punk rock, his enjoyment of Japanese monster movies, and his personal experiences of struggling with life and its possible meaning at various points in his life, from his early years at Kent State University, to his life in Japan, first as an English teacher, and later as he worked at movie studio Tsunuraya Productions. Amongst these tales he intersperses information and teachings on the basis of The Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra (which is the stuff about form is emptiness and emptiness is form), the topic of zazen (sitting meditation), and other areas of interest such as sex, drugs and enlightenment. He doesn’t spend vast amounts of time on any one subject, which aids the book’s pace and readability, but does run the risk of leaving the reader wanting to know more. Then again, any well written book should leave readers inspired and hungry to find out more, so that’s hardly a draw-back. There is also humour, whether it is Brad’s own slightly twisted look at the world, or by way of anecdote and tales of Zen masters, both of present times and of yore. Dry, this book certainly isn’t.

Since Hardcore Zen, Brad has gone on to pen another seven books. Sadly I have yet to read any of these, but on the basis of Hardcore Zen, I am certainly hoping to in future. If you have any interest in Zen, or maybe not even Zen but just in books that challenge your way of viewing reality, books that do so in a voice that seems to stick their middle fingers up to stuffy dogma and clueless authority figures, check out Hardcore Zen.

Hardcore Zen Book Cover Image © Copyright Wisdom Publications

Book Title: Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality
Author: Brad Warner
ISBN: 9781614293163

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A Leaf Caught in a Spider's Thread

I filmed this video a few months ago and have only now remembered to upload it to YouTube. I find it quite peaceful to watch so I am hoping others might too.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Dark Music Review – Khmaoch

Dark Music Review – Khmaoch

Review Written By Casey Douglass

Khmaoch Cover Art

Exploring eastern esoteric traditions this will take you on a voyage through old civilization. The crackling sound of incense fills ancient ruins. A solitary flute by Ivan Ioanov leads you through dim lit passageways underneath. Deep drone summons forgotten spirits as lush noise of mother earth calms the soul. The contrast of dark and light on this album serves an enlightening experience.
ProtoU has already created, or had a hand in creating, two of my favourite dark ambient albums: Lost Here and Earth Songs. When I saw Khmaoch about to be released, I was hopeful of another album to add to that list, and largely speaking, that is what I found. The atmospheric field recordings of wind and water merge expertly with echoing soundscapes and various melodies, each track seeming to give the listener something new to listen to, or something familiar, in a new way.

Water seems to be a common thread between many of the tracks, whether squally and rainy, such as in opening track Bridge of Storms, or dripping and bubbling as it appears in Voices of the Water, a lot of flavour is brought by our aqueous elemental friend. Other elements are not overlooked however, wind being shown favour in the form of the above mentioned flute, which features in a number of the tracks, such as the excellent Stygian Vortex. Stygian Vortex is a composition that also includes lots of interesting scrunching scrapings, and a fun buzzing sound that put me very much in mind of an insect buzzing from ear to ear in a sun-bleached skull.

A particular favourite track of mine is Skar Mekh, a deep and brooding space filled with the sounds of furtive industry and an echoing beat. A low drone looms, mixing with voices and flute that for me, created a scene of preparation at some temple or other. Water flows, cries sound and, as the second half continues, there seems to be much bone scraping and the odd blood-curdling scream in the distance.

Khmaoch blends elemental forces with a deft touch, sprinkling in some catchy beats (such as in the track Pel), along with a healthy dose of darkness and light. The end result is a dark ambient album that wraps its arms around you in a strong embrace, but leaving you unsure whether it will drag you down into the ground, or raise you up into the heavens. I give it 4.5/5.

Visit the Khmaoch page on Bandcamp here for more information, and check out one of the tracks, Skar Mekh, below:

I was given a free copy of this album to review.

Album Title: Khmaoch
Artist: ProtoU
Label: Cryo Chamber
Releases: October 11, 2016

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Dark Fiction: Gobbling Goblins

Gobbling Goblins

A Digby and Nurn Tale

Written by Casey Douglass 


This is another story featuring unlucky adventurers Digby and Nurn. The first tale, The Sword of Infinite Possibilities, can be found here. Anyone that has already read the first one will probably notice that Nurn speaks in a normal way in this one, I decided to drop the simpleton aspect of his character. Oh, and it's quite adult in nature.

‘You’re going into goblin country then lads?’ the moon-faced shop proprietor beamed.
‘Unfortunately,’ Digby sighed. He didn’t like sighing. It often meant that the next bigger in breath carried with it a choking dose of whatever odour surrounded him, which at this time was stale sweat, polished wood and tobacco.
There was a clatter of clanking armour and the rattle of toppling swords from somewhere near the window.
‘Hey!’ the moon bellowed. ‘Watch what you’re doing over there you clumsy sod!’
Digby’s chin lifted as he looked up at the ceiling. He hadn’t intended to, but when you roll your eyes as forcefully as that, you have to expect some momentum. ‘Nurn you’re drunk! I told you to wait outside!’
A helmet rolled and teetered along the floor before resting against the side of Digby’s boot. A small hiccup sounded from behind the racks. ‘Sozzy!’
Digby looked back at the merchant. ‘I want a box.’
The moon ratcheted up to full beam. ‘A box! Yes sir! Right away!’
Nurn popped up beside Digby, his legs and body seeming to dangle from his head. ‘Abotts?’
‘A box.’
‘Oh a boksh! Wash that for Digs?’
‘To preserve our innocence.’
‘Howz a woonen box gonna do that Digshee?’
‘It’s metal.’
‘An wasss it protectoring us from?’
‘Yes Nurn, remember? That’s the whole reason you got drunk in the first place!’
Nurn swayed and rubbed his forehead. He muttered and shook his head. ‘Goshlins. Goglins. Oh, Digs, shit! Goblins!’
Digby caught Nurn’s arm as Nurn tried to retrieve the flask from his pocket. ‘Don’t you dare! We’ve got an early start!’
‘But they’ll de-de-deffffial us!’
‘Hence the box Nurn!’
Nurn twisted out of Digby’s grasp and made a run for it. It wasn’t a straight dash. Digby watched as Nurn seemed to hit almost every display and cabinet along the way. The valiant effort ending as Nurn’s head thunked into the door frame, followed by the deeper, skittles-falling-down noise of his body crumpling beneath him.
‘Peace and quiet at last,’ Digby muttered.

Nurn woke moments after his head bounced off something hard, something that rang out with a clang. He also realised that he was moving.‘Arrgh bloody hell! Stop! Stop!’
Whatever it was stopped. He squinted against the glaring light of the sun as a silhouette loomed over him.
‘You’re finally awake then,’ Digby said.
Nurn rubbed his head. ‘Where are we? What’s this?’
‘Don’t freak out Nurn, we can’t afford it here.’
‘Goblin territory.’
Nurn sat up and swivelled around, his eyes wider than a cow’s backside. ‘Goblin territory?’
Digby’s hand clamped over Nurn’s mouth.‘Yes Nurn, and I’ve been dragging your hungover arse for three hours. You know very well that we need to cross this area to get to the big city where we can offload this fucking sword and actually make some decent money. This box nearly cleaned us out.’
Nurn blew through Digby’s fingers and nodded. The hand floated away. ‘Okay Digs, okay.’ He put his hands on the side of the box and lifted himself out, swaying a little as his legs woke up. ‘Not really a box though is it? Looks more like a coffin.’
‘I know. We need to bundle into it at the first sign of trouble.’
‘And that’ll keep ‘em out?’
‘The shop-keep said he was optimistic about our chances,’ Nurn replied, doing a passable impression of the man.
Nurn kicked the side of the box. It gave a dull boom. He appraised their surroundings, seeing little but a dirt track and towering trees that butted up against it on either side. Something chittered deep in the foliage. He shivered. Saying nothing more, he moved to the strapping that stretched ahead of the heavy box and began to drag it through the dirt. The sooner they were out of goblin territory, the sooner he could relax.

As is often its way, the sun, once it reached its highest point, seemed to fall out of the sky with alarming swiftness, the shadows cast by the dense forest almost visibly sweeping the brown leaf-strewn ground ahead of the two weary men.
Digby had been walking behind Nurn ever since his companion had taken it upon himself to drag the box. He watched the nervous glances that Nurn shot into the denser, darker areas of green, scouting for goblins ready to pounce on his head. ‘I think we need to stop now and make camp, we need to prepare.’
Nurn halted, letting the straps slide from his hands. ‘If you say so.’
‘You don’t sound optimistic.’
‘I’m not.’
‘Me either.’
Nurn turned, his mouth hanging open. ‘What?!’
‘I’m just being honest. We might be okay, we might not, who can say?’
Digby watched Nurn stomp to the side of the track, wrap his arms around a tree and quietly begin to weep into the rough bark. He knew that he probably shouldn’t have been so blunt, he was just tired of babying Nurn. Why should he be the only one to have to shoulder all of the responsibility while Nurn got drunk and generally got in the way. He moved towards his friend. ‘Look Nurn, I’m sor-.’
The goblin hit the ground between them with a clumsy thud, its feet whipping out from under it on the leafy surface. Digby lunged forward in an attempt to grab hold of its neck. It rolled and babbled, its small frame and oily green skin soon covered with leaves and pine needles. It shimmied to one side as Digby’s fingers grasped thin air. It paused for a moment, its tiny mouth opening under its hooked nose, hobnail teeth glinting. It reached down and began to play with its green penis, shrieking in glee. 
It exploded. Not in that way, but by way of a heavy log being smashed into its body. One minute there was a masturbating goblin, the next, a different kind of wood occupying the space where its body used to be, a green smear leaking out around the edges.
‘I fucking hate goblins!’ Nurn screamed. ‘Dirty little fuckers!’
Digby was still looking down at the log. ‘I didn't know you had that in you!’
‘Yeah, well...’ Nurn muttered, his usually cherubic expression showing hints of red and dark anger.
A great chittering began in the trees, like a flock of birds all practising their ventriloquy acts at once.
‘The box! Get into it now!’ Digby yelled.
They both ran to the metal shape, heaved the lid and consecutively entered. The lid slammed shut above them. Digby, who happened to be laying on his back, reached around Nurn and fastened the locks. Nurn, who was laying face down on top of Digby, did his best to shift around so that Digby could finish his task.
‘Okay. Okay. They're all secure,’ Digby said near Nurn’s ear.
‘Now what?’
‘We wait it out.’
Nurn blew threw his clenched teeth. ‘Fucking goblins!’

The goblin assault on the metal box went on for hours. Just as it sounded like it might be abating, the clangs and bangs started up again, almost deafening the two travellers.
‘Digs, is this thing airtight?’
‘No, there are some tiny holes in different places along its edges.’
‘Oh. That’s good then.’
‘We’d be dead by now if it wasn’t.’
A thud inches from Nurn’s head made him flinch.
‘How long do you reckon we’ll be in here?’
‘Well, some more travellers might come and chase them off. It might rain, they don’t like water. Anything could happen really.’
A shrieking cackle sounded off to the right somewhere.
‘If anything could happen, what’s the worst that could happen?’ Nurn asked.
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Balance I guess.’
‘Well...anything that results in the box being opened would go badly for us. Or, they might muster enough brain power to push us off a cliff or something, maybe into water... or...’
‘I think I’m balanced now.’
‘Or they might get help. Sorry, I know you said you’d had enough but shit, I hadn’t thought of that.’
‘Yes. Maybe a troll or something. They’d have to lure it here, keeping well out of its way, and they would have to resign themselves to not having complete bodies to violate after it had cracked the box and torn us apart.’
‘Shh Digs! It’s all gone quiet!’
‘I know.’
‘Digs, what’s that sound?’
‘That bellowing roar? Like someone gargling a mouthful of boulders?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘A troll is coming.’
‘That’s why you floated it as an option?’
‘Mmm hmm. I heard it in the distance awhile ago.’
They both listened as heavy footsteps vibrated through the ground, making the walls of the box hum and creak. Then they stopped, all falling still once more.
‘What’s it doing?’
‘Nothing good for us.’
With a tremendous bang the box shot sideways, its two occupants grasping each other tightly as it jolted and flipped along the ground. Neither screamed, shouted or cried, it was enough of an effort to not throw up. The direction changed with a twisting sense of vertigo as the box bounced off something, before it came to rest with both passengers lying on their sides. A roar sounded again, supported by tinny goblin voices cheering from on high.
‘Oh blow this!’ Digby shouted. ‘I’m not going through another round of that!’ He began to squirm.
‘What are you doing?’ Nurn cried.
‘I’ve an idea.’
Digby groped behind himself and, with a small ‘Aha!’ slammed his hand against the box. A flap in the wall behind him swung slightly on hits hinge. ‘Stay here!’ With that, he rolled backwards and disappeared from Nurn’s sight.
Nurn heard the troll roar, then, Digby’s yell. The footsteps thundered in an uneven rhythm this time, a new sound now emerging. It sounded like mewling. Nurn screamed as the flap half-lifted, Digby’s voice hissed: ‘Out! We’re running, right now!’
Nurn rolled out and ran. He ran like he’d never run before, his friend and companion panting and dashing next to him. He risked a glance back and saw the massive troll swarming with green bodies. He made a mental note and then put all his effort into keeping up with Digby, who was beginning to stretch his lead. The sun dropped further, the twilight of dusk urging them on, and they obliged.
After some time, Digby slowed his pace, checking around and behind and noting that they were not being pursued.
‘Alright Nurn, we can probably just walk quickly now.’
Nurn blew out a lungful of air, partly to relax, partly in anticipation of sucking in more sweet oxygen. His heart hammered like a drunken blacksmith at the anvil.
‘What the hell happened back there Digs?’
‘A calculated risk.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I remembered that trolls wear trousers.’
‘I rolled out of the box and managed to wend my way around the dumb beast. When I got behind him, I yanked his trousers down.’
‘I’m still not getting it.’
‘I was betting that the randy goblins would soon overcome their fear if they were turned on enough, if they were given a big enough target. Between the big arse and hanging low fruit between his legs, they frenzied and launched at him. That’s when I snuck around, got you out, and you know the rest.’
‘Wow! Just wow!’
‘I know. Crazy stuff.’
‘I wonder who’ll win?’
‘Well, he was popping them like zits, but I saw a fair few latching onto his, err, delicate parts. I’m not going back to find out!’
‘I don’t blame you! But what are we going to do now?’
‘We keep moving and hope we don’t meet any more. There’s nothing else for it, we have no other options.’
‘Do you think we’ll make it to the city?’
Digby stole a look at Nurn. ‘I’m sure we’ll be fine.’ He saw Nurn smile.
‘That’s good Digs, that’s really good.’
They shuffled on as the night approached, the moon beginning to rise in the distance, its pale cratered face looking down on a forest in which the shift was changing, the daytime creatures winding down, the night-time denizens licking their razor teeth. Oh, and a troll with a very sore backside.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Dark Book Review: Nod

Dark Book Review: Nod

Review written by Casey Douglass

Nod Book Cover

As a sufferer of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with sleep. The hate part is that it no longer refreshes me as it used to, the love aspect comes from it sucking eight or more hours out of my day, hours that I’d have no idea what to do with, and bugger all energy to do it with. When browsing the Kindle Store a week ago, I saw that Adrian Barnes’ Nod was on offer for 99p. I read the blurb (below) and promptly bought it.

Dawn breaks over Vancouver and no-one in the world has slept the night before, or almost no-one. A few people, perhaps one in ten thousand can still sleep, and they've all shared the same golden dream. A handful of children still sleep as well, but what they're dreaming remains a mystery. After six days of absolute sleep deprivation, psychosis will set in. After four weeks, the body will die. In the interim, panic ensues and a bizarre new world arises in which those previously on the fringes of society take the lead. One couple experience a lifetime in a week as he continues to sleep, she begins to disintegrate before him, and the new world swallows the old one whole...

Paul is a lover of words, an author and etymological explorer who likes nothing more than to spend time alone away from most other people, studiously writing and quietly living his life. His latest project is a book about the history of sidetracked words, words that have seen their use changed or forgotten. He thinks about calling it Nod in reference to the biblical tale of Cain being sent there when he was expelled from Adam’s domain. He lives with his partner Tanya, and they carve out the best life they can. Then the world stops sleeping, and the tiny differences between them soon open up into breezy gulfs, as she succumbs to madness from lack of sleep and he has to watch it happen.

I was impressed with the way Nod showed the world going to hell, when something as everyday as sleep is taken out of the equation. From the experts on TV spouting guesses and opinions as fact (hmm, wonder what that reminds me of), to humanities chimp-mind emerging as panic takes over, it all seems very feasible. People turn on each other, power and water supply goes the way of the dodo, and psychopaths rule. The sleeper vs non-sleeper thing also gives rise to some great detail, such as people who sleep having to pretend that they can’t, or risk being attacked. This is a situation Paul soon finds himself in, Tanya having to use make-up to blacken the bags under his eyes.

Alongside the scenes of society dozily tearing itself to shreds, there is all the weirdness that goes along with it, particularly in relation to Paul’s book Nod. Let me put it this way, the wrong person sees it and three realities end up colliding, the remembered “normal” reality, the current sleep-deprived, end of the world one, and the reality of Nod and its disciples. Paul, understandably, finds his mind flitting between all three, particularly when he is running at the edge of exhaustion.

There is more to the narrative than I’ve revealed above but I really wanted to save some things for the reader to discover if they decide to read Nod (the real book, not Paul’s inadvertent world-builder). It was a supremely easy read, the more trippy/reality-bending elements not really slowing things down or making me pause to scratch my head. If you are a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, maybe someone who enjoys the kind where the humans are the biggest threat rather than zombies, some kind of plague, or whatever, Nod might just be the book for you. I give Nod 4/5, it was a very enjoyable read and it’s a book I’d happily recommend.

Nod Book Cover © Copyright Titan Books

Book Title: Nod
Author: Adrian Barnes
Publisher: Titan Books
ISBN: 9781783298228

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Dark Film Review: Agatha (2016)

Dark Film Review: Agatha (2016)

Review written by Casey Douglass

Agatha Film Poster

Much as short stories strive to tell something interesting in a shorter period than a novel, the task of creating a short film sees the luxury of time thrown out of the window and the creator having to effectively condense key information and emotion into minutes rather than hours. Horror writer and director Timothy Vandenburg has managed to do just this with his 8 minute short horror film Agatha, which debuted at Screamfest a few months ago. I was kindly given the chance to watch it myself, and you can find my thoughts about the film below.

The film description is as follows:

The orphan train comes daily, spilling hundreds of children onto the streets of Pennsylvania in the late 1800’s. Desperate and alone, the penniless 7 year old Sophie, entrusts an older woman who hires her to bring food each night to someone living in her attic. There is just one rule: Do not pass the serving table….EVER. As time passes, the child’s curiosity grows bold; drawing her closer to discovering the truth behind the prisoner.

The first thing that impressed me with Agatha was the soundtrack. Horror films often have soundtracks that appeal to me, and this is probably the reason why, alongside heavy metal, the dark ambient genre is a staple of mine. The opening screens of Agatha feature some truly ominous swells of dark sound design, the kind that actually deepens the scene rather than sounding like something ill-fitting and superfluous. While I’m on the topic of sound in general, Agatha has a genuinely succulent sound-scheme, creaking stairs and toothy crunching sounds all adding heft to the events unfolding in the narrative. There is also some ungodly singing, which is genuinely very creepy.

Agatha Film Still

There is little dialogue in Agatha, and what there is comes quickly after the film’s start as Sophie is questioned, and then lectured, by the woman who is about to employ her. The job is to carry food to the room at the top of the stairs, place it on the table, and leave. This is where the rules are laid down: The order not to speak, not to make a sound, and not to pass the serving table. I’ll admit I had mental visions of the rules being laid down in Gremlins at this point, but only because that is such a “go to” film when you might think about rules and cinema. It definitely left me curious to see what might happen if the rules were broken. A plate of meat is duly placed in Sophie’s hand and her journey to the top of the house begins, accompanied by the aforementioned lovely creaking stairs. When she enters the top room, a wheezing figure is seen laying on a bed behind the serving table, the one that must not be passed. Sophie leaves the food and exits the room, and it is after this that we see that the figure is chained. To say much more would tempt the gods of spoilerville, but suffice it to say that it’s a chore that she carries out again and again, until the film reaches its grim conclusion.

Any gaps in the narrative left by the absence of speech are artfully filled by visual storytelling cues that linger in shot at various intervals in the film. While being a short film no doubt increases the necessity for this kind of storytelling, it is used in Agatha to inform, hint at time passing and provide emotional flavour to the film’s conclusion. It also leaves some questions unanswered, leaving you wondering why this is all happening and who these people really are. Agatha also managed to subvert my expectations on a couple of occasions which also left me appreciating the direction that it had taken.

Agatha Film Still

Agatha is now beginning its fest journey, and efforts are also afoot to turn it in a feature length film. If the feature length version is any bit as interesting and well designed as the short, I very much look forward to seeing it, and I recommend that anyone who finds themselves with the chance to view Agatha in the coming months to take it, it is 8 minutes well spent. I give Agatha 5/5.

Fangoria was exclusively given the trailer for Agatha which is something you can watch from their YouTube channel below:

Friday, 9 December 2016

Trucking Along With Depression: Why I Find American Truck Simulator to be a Valuable Tool

Trucking Along With Depression: Why I Find American Truck Simulator to be a Valuable Tool

Written by Casey Douglass

American Truck Simulator

The concept of space is an important one. Whether physical or mental, without space around the things that we perceive, think or feel, we lose sight of the complete picture. The glass that is always proverbially half-full or half-empty is actually always full; the air sitting in the water-free part is often overlooked. When someone is feeling depressed or struggling with their mental health, a feeling of space or distance can sometimes be helpful, as being too close to something is also not a great way to see the big picture. What has all of this got to do with playing American Truck Simulator? I’ll try to explain.

SCS Software’s American Truck Simulator is a game that puts the player behind the wheel of a truck, gives them a slice of America to travel through, and a list of possible jobs to take on. I know next to nothing about trucks, American or otherwise, and I have no desire to become a truck driver. I don’t even particularly like to travel, except in the realms of my imagination, or the occasional trip to the shops (Not sure if I’ve ever been to any imaginary shops). So why in the world do I find myself regularly driving a big rig in a game that, on the surface, I probably shouldn’t enjoy. The simple answer is space. The more complex answer is space, the correct mixture of tension and relaxation, and the minutiae of driving.

American Truck Simulator
Expanded horizons.

Let’s start with space. Whether moving around in the real world, or some digital representation of it, the feeling of leaving home and going out into areas that you don’t control is a different mental experience to staying inside, surrounded by your own belongings. When we leave our homely surroundings, our thoughts will, to some degree, focus on where we are and what we are doing. I say to some degree because if you have a mental illness, a good proportion of your thoughts will still quite likely be ensnared in your awareness of self, or any of those worries and fears that seem to follow you around wherever you might go. American Truck Simulator gives a fairly good impression of what it’s like when moving from one place to another, seeing a new town or city loom on the horizon as the old one fades in the rear-view mirror. This helps me feel a sense of space.

American Truck Simulator
Driving into the Sun.

Another way that the game serves up a dose of space is in its day and night cycle. Anyone that has spent too much time grappling with their own inner-states usually tends to lose the awareness that thoughts, moods and feelings come and go quite naturally, given enough space and time. Anger at the knock of the postman waking you up soon diminishes when he puts that parcel you’ve been waiting for in your hands. When you are trapped in your more upsetting moods and feelings, it’s easy to lose this sense of things ebbing and flowing (Practising mindfulness is very useful here, and is also quite useful in general). As far as ATS, driving along with the setting sun in your mirror, the sky ahead darkening and the cars driving past you lighting their way with headlights... it just gives a feeling of moving on, of things progressing. There is also something quite lovely about driving through the night and witnessing the sun begin to rise, the golden hues of everything giving eyes that are used to darkness and headlights something to feast on again. I personally find this invaluable when I’m at my lowest, and ATS serves up this feeling with a dependable regularity. 

American Truck Simulator
Traffic and red lights at twilight.

The next aspect that I want to talk about is the mixture of tension and relaxation. This concept seems integral to so much in life, whether it’s the contraction and relaxation of your heart beating comfortably in your chest, or your concentration being held firmly by a task for a duration of time before you let go and relax with a coffee-break. This seems to be the pattern for a well-balanced life well lived. Once again, if you suffer with anxiety, depression, or are undergoing a particularly trying time, your period of tension might stretch on and on, your body and mind hardening around the issues that brought it on, eventually leaving you unable to unwind or relax to any great degree. American Truck Simulator, by way of approximating the act of driving, provides a framework in which you can start to feel this tension/relaxation process, even if it’s only in the context of a game. Once felt in this more minor way, it sometimes leads to the loosening of other emotional or mental sticking points, as if the mind just needed a way to remember what letting go feels like. As an example, driving your truck through the desert on long, lonely roads is fine... for awhile. Just as you start to feel a little bored with it, you will likely come to a large city, somewhere where you need to be more “on your game”. The comfortably sparse roads are soon replaced with busy junctions, more road users and traffic lights. There will be many periods where you will be held up by red lights, queues and slow speed limits. Ah Las Vegas, what a pain in the arse you can be, with your many lanes and streets with traffic light after traffic light. Just as you begin to feel a bit annoyed, you are away, free, out in the wider countryside again, and can let go a little bit more. This is how the game provides tension and relaxation, and it is pretty low level, which is about right if you aren’t feeling your best. Other games provide tension and relaxation too of course, but trying to evade the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation provides a far higher level of tension than accidentally bumping a pavement in ATS.

American Truck Simulator
Rainy Vegas.

Finally, we get to the minutiae of driving, which also straddles the tension and relaxation section above. In American Truck Simulator, you have the rules of the U.S roads to follow, along with other actions that make driving... well, driving. In the course of your travels, you must obey speed-limits, indicate when changing lanes, use your headlights at night (and reduce high beams when other traffic approaches), and other things like turning your wipers on when it starts to rain. You also have the technicalities of managing your rest periods, fuel levels and how you can squeeze a long trailer around certain intersections without clipping anyone. To some people, this might sound like a pain, but to someone looking for gentle diversion, I find that there is just enough going on to keep my mind focussed on what I’m doing in the game, rather than having too much free time to ruminate or reflect too much on how I’m feeling. A counter to this, for me at least, is Candy Crush Saga. I’ve recently taken up playing it again on Facebook and it’s fine, as far as games like that go, but even though it’s puzzle based, I find myself with plenty of time to ruminate and feel like crap as I force the sweets to mate with each other and disappear in puffs of colour. No doubt it’s a very personal and subjective thing when it comes to how an individual game affects someone, but as far as keeping me gently attentive, ATS wins again. 

American Truck Simulator
A nice drive by the beach.

We’ve reached the end of my little ramble around the topic of why I think American Truck Simulator is my perfect depression game. You don’t need to be depressed to play it of course, but in the context of how I’ve been feeling lately, I just wanted to think about and share why it seems quite useful for me. I don’t mean to present it as a cure or treatment, but as one enjoyable tool that fills a gap for me when other games seem overwhelming, or my energy levels are low. A twenty minute digital delivery job that takes in some simulated scenery and maybe gives some experience of the day-night cycle is a pleasing buffer between what ails me and the stresses of the things I am trying to do in other areas of my life. If you like the sound of American Truck Simulator, be sure to check it out here. It’s only £14.99 too, so it shouldn’t break the bank.

If you are suffering with any form of mental illness and have yet to seek help, please do, there are plenty of places out there that can and will help, from doctors to other organisations. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

Dark Music Review – Nyarlathotep

Dark Music Review – Nyarlathotep

Review Written By Casey Douglass

Nyarlathotep Album Art

A 190 minute dark soundscape album recorded by 25 ambient artists to pay tribute to H.P. Lovecraft.

Field recordings from the deepest dark corners of 4 continents. Dusty tapes out of forgotten archives. Strings through crackling amplifiers and distorted drone combine into a sea of pitch black.

Nyarlathotep is a manipulative being in the Lovecraftian Mythos. Unlike Cthulhu, or Azathoth, he delights in cruelty and deception. Causing madness is more important than destruction to him. Smell the burning embers as you kneel outside the sunken temple before Nyarlathotep. Feel the raspy touch of the faceless pharaoh as he leads you to the ancient Pyramid. Hear his inhuman summoning call to gods beyond reality.

Ah Mr Lovecraft, where would the world be without your own particular brand of creeping horror? Probably still in the current state it currently resides, but with less tentacles I guess. As always, anything that takes Lovecraft’s creations as inspiration, be it audio, video or game, instantly has my interest. When it comes down to music however, it just might be one of the most visceral ways of creating that sense of the eldritch that Lovecraft himself so excelled at. Nyarlathotep is a dark ambient album that uses the creative juices of no less than 25 ambient artists, working and bouncing sound off each other, going ever deeper into what Nyarlathotep might sound like or embody.

Nyarlathotep consists of 3 tracks, all around an hour long, give or take five or ten minutes here and there. For the most part, each track is a quieter visit to the dark ambient genre; plenty of echoing notes and deep rumblings that, while prominent, don’t particularly loom with any great threat or menace. I guess what I'm saying is that it is a pretty slow burner, the languid strings and electronic creakings and trills creating an undeniably dark space, but one in which you can let the echoes carry you away, rather than anything too intense.

That is quite a simplistic view and doesn't quite take into account the host of other sounds and tempos that emerge as you make your way through the tracks. There is a variety of chant-like vocals, some deep and satanic, others high and angelic. Static and distortion play their parts too; a static-fuzzy sound becoming a beat at one point, or later dancing around the soundscape like some digital insect fluttering its wings. Oh and there are chimes and bells and other metallic sounds, along with distant thumps and shufflings, I mustn't forget the shufflings.

Highlights for me were the distorted lightening strikes that emerge about eleven minutes into track two, and a bit later in the same track, the dark soundscape that features the sounds of someone breathing as they seem to be exploring wherever they have found themselves. I also enjoyed the metallic clattering that begins track three, a harsh electro-drone rising, soon to be joined by voices that either sound pleading or worshipping.

I enjoyed the time I spent listening to Nyarlathotep, although for me, there is a tentacled beast in the room that I haven’t addressed yet, and that is a previous Cryo Chamber Collaboration that goes by the name of Cthulhu. Cthulhu really blew me away, I think maybe because the soundscapes were more active. Nyarlathotep is a smooth, dark listening experience, but it didn’t get its hooks into me in the way that Cthulhu did. I’m going to give Nyarlathotep 4/5, but if you like your dark ambient at the smoother, more introspective end of the spectrum, you could easily add at least half a point to that score.

Visit the Nyarlathotep page on Bandcamp here for more information, and check out one of the tracks from the album below:

I was given a free copy of this album to review.

Album Title: Nyarlathotep
Artist: Cryo Chamber Collaboration
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: September 27, 2016

Monday, 31 October 2016

Book Review – Overcoming Depression

Book Review – Overcoming Depression

Review Written by Casey Douglass

Overcoming Depression

If you suffer from depression you are far from alone. Depression is very common, affecting over 300 million people around the world. Written by Professor Paul Gilbert, internationally recognised for his work on depression, this highly acclaimed self-help book has been of benefit to thousands of people including sufferers, their friends and families, and those working in the medical profession. This fully revised third edition has been extensively updated and rewritten to reflect over ten years of new research on understanding and treating depression, particularly the importance of developing compassionate ways of thinking, behaving and feeling. It contains helpful case studies and new, easy-to-follow, step-by-step suggestions and exercises to help you understand your depression and lift your mood.

It occurred to me recently that even though I’ve read countless books on anxiety, OCD, CBT and other topics, I’ve not read nearly so many on the topic of depression. As someone who dips into depression with some regularity, I’m not sure why this use for dead trees has eluded my book collection. After a particularly crappy few weeks, weeks in which my usual health struggles were added to by a creeping despair that left even the posting of a tweet seemingly beyond me, I decided to look for a book on depression that might prove useful. I saw that the Overcoming series of books seems to be highly recommended, and as luck would have it, it was the Overcoming Depression flavour of the book that I opted for one drizzly day in Waterstones. There were others on the shelf that seemed like they might be worth considering, another one mentioned mindfulness and had a suitably nature-based cover, but I’ve had my fill of mindfulness-based books for this year at least, maybe more. That being said, Overcoming Depression: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques does feature mindfulness, but along with a heck of a lot of other things.

A few pages shy of 600, it’s no brief flirtation with the subject, but an in-depth look at the many sides to depression: what can cause it, the purpose it might serve, how we can start to leave the depressive state and other issues that might just have a bearing too, such as how other emotions and feelings like anger and shame play their part. An early chapter looks at how evolution might have shaped our minds for depression, and how the things that happen to us in the modern day might hook into these old brain systems. This is particularly fascinating with regards to the purpose depression might have served in the earliest times of humanity, when a poor cave-person’s emotions might have been such that they went to the back of the cave and stayed there until things improved enough to come out again. The book says that viewing depression in this way is far more useful than simply viewing it as a disease.

As you might expect from a book with so many pages, it doesn’t stop there. It looks at the social and psychological aspects of depression too, before heading into the issue of what the relationship between our thoughts and feelings really is like, and how depression can skew our thoughts to a more pessimistic or rigid point of view on life. This naturally then leads us into the next section of the book, which deals with how the reader might be able to begin to cope with having a mind that is working this way. Mindfulness is described here, and also the practice of being compassionate, to yourself and others, as well as why we might want to try this and what benefits it will bring us and the people around us. It is in this section that the book goes into the depressive styles of thinking, pointing out that we often view the world in unhelpful ways, such as with all-or-nothing thinking, acting as if we “know” what other people are thinking about us, over-generalization, and others that will be familiar to anyone that has read about, or been treated with, cognitive behavioural therapy.

One of the biggest takeaways I had from the book was an improved understanding of the various emotion systems that regulate our minds. Coming from an anxiety background I was fully aware of the nervous system and how the sympathetic and parasympathetic sides of it play their part in our fight-or-flight and the rest-and-digest responses. Overcoming Depression added a third state to this duo, the drive and achievement system, the one behind our vitality and urge to do things. Depression disrupts the balance between these three systems, leading us to experience far more threat-linked feelings and fewer positive emotions such as happiness and contentment. The book, as you work through it, describes the ways that activating our contentment/rest system, via compassion meditation and other exercises, can help us to restore a more healthy balance in these three areas, also suggesting ways we can tackle our lack of motivation and the issues that come along as part of it.

Paul Gilbert writes in a warm and friendly manner, and does a very decent job of conveying a whole range of information in a clear way. I didn’t really expect to find anything particularly new or groundbreaking between the book’s covers but I came away with a few new tidbits of information and a decent understanding of things through the focussed lens of an author who clearly knows his subject and how to explain it. I can fully imagine myself referring to this book again and again as I try to internalise more and more of what he says, in an effort to manifest changes in my own life. If you suffer with depression, or know someone that does, Overcoming Depression: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques is well worth buying and I’d definitely give it 5/5.

Overcoming Depression bookcover Image © Copyright Constable & Robinson

Book Title: Overcoming Depression: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques
Author: Paul Gilbert
Publisher: Constable & Robinson
ISBN: 978-1849010665
RRP: £12.99

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Dark Book Review - Children of God

I review Children of God, a poetry book that showcases some of the poems from survivors of a cult-based mass suicide. It reveals their conflicted emotions and thoughts in a bid to help with their therapy. Click here to go to Geek Syndicate to read my full review.

Children of God book-cover image © Copyright ZING Communications, Inc.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Why I Think that Korn’s “Rotting in Vain” Music Video is Amazing

Why I Think that Korn’s “Rotting in Vain” Music Video is Amazing

Written by Casey Douglass

Every once in awhile, I find a music video keeps pulling me back for repeat viewings. It doesn’t happen that often, but lately, I just can’t stop watching Korn’s music video for “Rotting in Vain”, a song from their upcoming album The Serenity Of Suffering. At various times in the last few weeks, I have been thinking about the video and what exactly it is that I like about it. These musings got funnelled into this semi-introspective piece of writing, which you may or may not find interesting; I just wanted to write it.

First up, I like Korn. I haven’t clicked with every one of their albums but there are a good number of songs that would probably sit high if I ever had to write a personal top 100 metal songs chart. I guess what I’m saying is that I am not predisposed to like something just because it’s Korn, but I do generally like their stuff.

The first thing a viewer of the video for “Rotting in Vain” will see is none other than Mr Tommy Flanagan, an actor that I have come to rate very highly, particularly for his role as Chibs in Sons of Anarchy. He does the “steely-face but twitches of inner turmoil” thing very well, and seeing him in a video such as this really adds to the video’s effect.

Up next we see some strange steampunk contraption with lots of bulbs and a strange gas mask attached via a bendy tube. It isn’t long before Tommy’s character rams this mask onto his face, and, whether inhaling or screaming, triggers the appearance of the band members in various rooms, emerging from leaves and other debris as the track’s heaviness comes out to play.

I could probably search the internet to see what the video really means, but finding your own meaning in things is much more fun. To me, the run-down house is likely the rooms of Tommy’s character’s mind, the dark spaces where his troubles and agonies roam. The strange steampunk machine puts me in mind of the old fashioned opium dens seen in other steampunk settings, facilitating his reflections, but also a kind of an addictive drug too, likely keeping his pain going or even making it worse. The video ends with him slashing the tube with a razor, which seems to be another sign of an addict, but this time one who is deciding that enough is enough. I think most people will be able to relate to having to give up some addiction or vice, for the sake or their mental or physical health. Mine seems to be eating too much, but slicing a cream-cake in two simply makes it easier to eat, rather than look like a grand gesture.

Of course, the other half of the equation is the music, and with this video, the effect of the two seems doubly amplified. The chorus hits all the right notes with me, tapping into my recent moods and feelings, which is no doubt where another large part of my affinity for this video comes from:

“Digging deep inside of me,
getting past this agony,
I can’t seem to get away,
Another day rotting in vain.”

These four lines sum up so much about how I currently feel about life, it’s kind of uncanny. Add in the hoarse screaming of “vain” and the ear-hammering riffs, and this song is enough for me to buy the new album, even if I don’t hear a single one of the other tracks before hand. I don’t often say that about the music I buy.

I think that about sums it all up. I’ve linked to the video below so you can see it and hear it in its full glory. Korn’s new album The Serenity Of Suffering is released October 21st and is from Roadrunner Records.

Rotting in Vain Video Images © Copyright Roadrunner Records

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Who Listens to Dark Ambient Music?

Who Listens to Dark Ambient Music?

Written By Casey Douglass

"Who listens to dark ambient music?" is a question that I’ve come across a good many times while browsing the web. Another variation is “What kind of person listens to dark ambient music?” often by someone who listens to ten seconds of a track than promptly spits out their incredulity dummy as they fail to click with it. I can’t answer for anybody else, but I have spent some time reflecting on my own reasons below. 

If someone asks me what dark ambient music is, I tend to describe it as resembling the score to a horror movie, but that glosses over the more peaceful or sci-fi varieties. Dark ambient is a kind of music that touches uncomfortable feelings and features harsh, often cold soundscapes, that bring you out of your safe mental space and into something more melancholy or challenging. As far as I am concerned anyway. As far as why I listen to it, read on.

The first thing that comes to mind is the variety of dark ambient out there, and that’s if you ignore the larger parent genre of ambient music. One dark ambient artist might use the kinds of drones and bassy rumbles that might accompany the summoning of Satan himself, another might use field recordings of cars passing in the rain and birdsong, mingling in a little melancholy piano for added effect. Yet another might revel in creating massive fuzzy walls of noise that trick the ear into conjuring other sounds deep within the staticy mass. It is always a great pleasure to find a new artist, or to hear a new release from an existing artist, that makes you sit back and go “Wow!”

With the mentioning of Satan in the previous paragraph, I suppose I'd better address the perception of dark ambient listeners. There are certain genres of music that just bring out the hysterical in some people, people who might think that heavy metal fans are Satan worshippers, all rave music lovers are druggies etc. Dark ambient is very dark, and I have no doubt that there will be some Satanists listening to it, along with a whole heap of Atheists, Buddhists, Pagans and whatever-ists. Personally, I don’t mind the fact that people might be shocked by the darkness contained in a dark ambient track. I’m a horror writer after all, it adds to my cachet. I also don’t particularly care how people view the things that I enjoy, be it the music I listen to, the books I read or the TV series I watch.

Speaking of writing, dark ambient is a tremendous tool for a horror writer to find some inspiration. Even the most directed of tracks (e.g. something called “journey into the forgotten temple”) can send me on a totally different tangent, maybe into space, hell or a strange reality of bog creatures. If you are a writer of fiction that has even the smallest amount of darkness to it, it would be well worth your while investigating dark ambient as a genre. I’ll mention a range of artists at the end of this piece.

While we are delving into the mind, dark ambient serves another purpose for me, and that is one of catharsis and relaxation. I have suffered with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for decades, an anxiety condition that floors me at times. I also have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an illness that leaves me exhausted 24/7. Most days are a teeth clenched struggle for me, even with various therapeutic approaches in play such as CBT, ACT and mindfulness. When everything is turning to shit around me, tension building in my neck and shoulders, heart hammering; listening to a bit of dark ambient while resting on my bed gives me a mental holiday when few other things will. This gives the stress response in my body time to ease off, lets the anxious thoughts drift away, and very often, gives me a little sleep too. When I was younger, I dabbled with the New Agey types or relaxation music, whale song, birds and that kind of thing. It was okay but nothing great. I did notice that I clicked more with ones that had darker undertones. Phil Thornton’s Shaman is one that comes to mind: wolf howls and drum beats the order of the day. When I discovered dark ambient, it was like “This! Holy shit this!”. For the record, the first dark ambient I knowingly heard was one of Atrium Caceri’s early albums.

So there we have it, my reasons at least, for why someone might listen to dark ambient music. There are countless other reasons, I have no doubt, but these are the main ones for me. I’d love to hear the reasons someone else might have too, so if you are reading this and feel compelled, feel free to comment or just find me on social media and say hello. Oh, and before I go, here is a small collection of dark ambient artists you might like to check out. Many of them will have a Bandcamp page where you can freely stream some, or all, of their tracks. Others might be on Soundcloud or even YouTube. Wherever you look, if the website has the feature, like YouTube, pay attention to other suggested videos or sounds if any are recommended beside what you are watching, you never know where it will take you.

Okay, here are a few artists that you might like to check out: Atrium Carceri, CryoChamber (a dark ambient music label), Hoshin, Randal Collier-Ford, Terra Sancta, Lustmord, Cities Last Broadcast, Creation VI, protoU. Dronny Darko and Zalys.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Dark Game Revisit – Should you go back to Aliens: Colonial Marines?

Dark Game Revisit – Should you go back to Aliens: Colonial Marines?

Written By Casey Douglass

Aliens: Colonial Marines Logo

I am more than happy to be alive in a time where I can say that the last Alien/s game, Alien: Isolation, was a corker. The blend of sneaking around trying to avoid a prowling xenomorph and the filmic atmosphere made it one of the most intense gaming experiences I’ve ever had. This was also no doubt due to the love I already had of the films/graphic novels/books etc. If I delve back further however, memory butts up against another game: Aliens: Colonial Marines, one that was greeted on launch with a gnashing of teeth and a whipping of wagging fingers that almost mimicked the movements of the black shiny predators that the game featured. People felt that the game’s graphics compared badly to the pre-launch trailer, there were doubts about the narrative, and the game was just viewed as pretty shonky. I remember seeing one YouTuber show that you could run through one part of the game without actually needing to attack anything, even though you were clearly meant to be fighting for your life! It was with all this rattling around in my head that I decided to give the PC version of the game another go, having previously played a few hours and called bullshit on it many years ago.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
No, he's not bursting into song.

The first few hours were again, a period in which I found myself tempted to give up. While the game has likely been patched since I last played it, the A.I is still a pain in the arse at times, and the number of times all of the attacking xenos seemed to have a hard-on only for me, ignoring my teammates, got a little annoying. I also experienced a few frustrations with the save game check-pointing, a few instances occurred where I died and had to replay 5-10 mins of the game to get back to where I had died again, one including an unskippable character dialogue exchange. I’m not sure if this is a relic of when the game was released (2013) and modern games are a little better at that kind of thing, or if it was pretty bad in comparison to other games even back then. All I know is it annoyed me more than a few times.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
Give us a kiss beautiful!

Graphically, the game is serviceable. Dark corners and dripping vents all look suitably menacing, and the xenos rushing at you certainly tickle that “Holy shit we are fucked!” feeling. Until they get in your face and you see that the textures and animation is, once again, simply serviceable. Audio wise, things fair a little better, the screeches of the creatures and pips of your motion tracker increasing the tension and foreshadowing more confrontation in a pleasing, horror-like way.

I found the gun-play to feel a little disconnected though. The weapons feel like they have little “heft”, your gun seeming to float about easily in front of you, click to kill, click to kill, click to kill. I can’t fault the variety of weapons though, from pulse rifles and grenades to more legendary weapons like Hicks’ shotgun, the player certainly has options when it comes to death dealing. Weapons can also be improved via a ranking upgrade system, letting you add new types of sight or extra capabilities like an under-slung shotgun or grenade launcher. Ranks are in both single and multiplayer, but I didn’t try the latter as I just wasn't interested. 

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
A costly trip and looming death. I like this pic.

I came back to Aliens: Colonial Marines because I’m going through a period where I really don’t know what games I feel like playing. After finding that I didn’t enjoy replaying Alien: Isolation once I knew how it ended, I was left with a xeno-void that had me looking back at this game. It was with this in mind that I gave it another go, and I have to say that it did scratch that xenomorph itch. Whether the narrative sits well with the main story of the films and other media or not, it was enjoyable enough in a pulpy way. While the combat was lacking, it was still satisfying mowing down waves of insect-like death with shotguns and pulse rifle blasts, and the environment was truly threatening and interesting to negotiate at times.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
A xeno queen misbehaving in a steam filled room. Sounds like a new porn category.

Looking back on Aliens: Colonial Marines, it is still sad to think how it might have been better, but viewed as a guilty pleasure when you just want to visit that hostile universe again, it does the job. It did for me at least. If you have it sitting in your game library and have only played a short distance into it, maybe think about giving it another go at some point.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia page for Aliens: Colonial Marines. At the bottom there are tens of articles referenced that go into all the hoo-ha it caused when it was released.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Images © Copyright SEGA