Wednesday 30 January 2019

Dark Book Review: Screaming for Pleasure – How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy

Dark Book Review: Screaming for Pleasure –
How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy

Review by Casey Douglass

Screaming for Pleasure

I’ve always known that horror was good for me. Except when I was so scared that I struggled to sleep at night for fear of nightmares. I was young then though, and once I became interested in dark things, the fear was replaced by fascination, and also, the courage to look more closely. S.A Bradley’s book: Screaming for Pleasure – How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy, as you would imagine, is focussed on the notion of horror being beneficial, but as in most good books, its scope is wider than you might imagine.

A quick perusal of the chapter headings soon shows the various areas into which the book delves, from the mechanics of horror, what it actually is, the way that horror handles certain themes such as sex and gore, all the way to the various forms it takes, from film to books and music. I must admit that going in, I didn’t realise how broadly the book would roam, and it was a pleasant surprise to be confronted with such a range of topics.

There were plenty of areas that I hadn’t really thought too deeply about before, such as what the communal experience of watching horror on a big screen brings the viewers, and also the way that we get into horror, the often illicit “your parents say you can’t” kind of thrill that watching a “video nasty” might provide. Ah VHS, you little plasticy bastards, with your cute plastic windows that let greedy eyes feast on your coiled insides, wondering what you might throw onto the screen. Good times. Each section of Screaming for Pleasure also ends with an info-box of recommendations or interesting facts, from notorious sacrilegious horror movies, to a list of horror movies and the phobias that they play on. This is a nice touch to round off the chapter, and a great way to learn about horrors that you may not have heard of.

Even though I enjoyed the author’s analysis of the more intellectual/mechanical sides of horror, it was his own stories about how it helped him that I found most gripping. From helping his younger self deal with the turbulence in his early home life, to the time in later life when the horror community proved to be a valuable tonic to his feelings of isolation. In my own experience, I know the sanctuary that a good horror can provide at those times that life seems especially shit, be that by way of book, film or music, so it was really interesting to see how it helped someone else in the same way.

Screaming for Pleasure – How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy is a worthy read for anyone that views themselves as a horror fan, or anyone that would just like to understand what draws people to horror itself. The variety of sections and horror suggestions it contains, married to the author’s personal experiences of it enriching his own life, all add up to make a book that has been lovingly produced, and I am sure, will be lovingly read by those that read it.

Visit Hellbent for Horror at this link for more information and purchasing links.

I was given a review copy of this book.

Book Title: Screaming for Pleasure - How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy
Book Author: S.A Bradley

Thursday 24 January 2019

Dark Ambient News: Cryo Chamber Field Recording Sale

Dark Ambient News: Cryo Chamber Field Recording Sale

Cryo Chamber Field Recording Sale

I nearly always love dark ambient music that features plenty of field recording, whether it's the sound of the wind rustling leaves in a forest, or the rumble of traffic on a rainy day, it just deepens the soundscape so much.

Cryo Chamber has just shaved 50% off four albums that are field recording heavy: Eximia - Visitors, Creation VI - Deus Sive Natura, ProtoU - Khmaoch and SiJ & Textere Oris - Reflections under the Sky. As they are all albums that I've previously reviewed, the links are to said reviews.

If you want to take advantage of these offers, head to Cryo Chamber's Bandcamp page here.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Dark Game Review: The Council (PC)

Dark Game Review: The Council (PC)

Review by Casey Douglass

The Council

Recent years have brought gamers some fantastic episodic adventure games, but for me Big Bad Wolf’s The Council has to be the darkest I’ve encountered, both in the characters’ deeds, and in the game’s aesthetics. I’m a big fan of Dennis Wheatley, particularly his Duke de Richleau character, the intelligent occultist gentleman who always has some piece of arcane knowledge that will get the characters out of trouble. The Council felt very “de Richleauian” to me, and about half an hour into the story, I knew that I felt at home.

The player character is Louis de Richet, a young man who in 1793, is invited to the island of Lord Mortimer, a powerful and mysterious figure who seems to know pretty much everyone mighty and powerful. Louis’ mother is also on the island, but she has gone missing, with no one knowing where she is. Both she and her son are members of a secret society, a society that wields its own power across the world. As Louis, you must find out what happened to your mother, deal with the intrigues of your host and his powerful guests, and also grow as a person in your knowledge and abilities.

The CouncilThe Council is a third person narrative adventure game. As you walk around Lord Mortimer’s island, you can interact with the characters and various other objects in a number of ways. When speaking to a character, you will often see a variety of conversation options to choose from. Some won’t be available to you, because Louis might be lacking the ability to use them at that time. As you complete tasks in the game, and collect various manuscripts, you can boost Louis’ abilities in a number of areas, from occult knowledge, to detective abilities such as logic and agility. If you have enough Effort Points and the correct ability unlocked, you can use that particular tactic during the conversation.

There are a variety of items to collect in the game world, from the hard to see collector’s coins, to useful potions that restore Effort Points or highlight other things, such as someone’s vulnerabilities for a short time. Getting information out of your conversational partners, and their trust, is key to achieving your aims in The Council, so anything that boosts your abilities in this area is a welcome thing. Even with the variety and number of pick-ups, things are still scarce enough to mean that you will likely have some conversations the old fashioned way, that is, without extra help. If you overuse certain potions or make a blunder, your character can be hindered by a de-buff that makes certain actions more costly. But hey, wouldn’t you know it, finding and drinking some Golden Elixir will remove any negative status effects, so things are golden in more ways than one.

The Council
The conversations are where The Council truly shines. Each character has their own personality, complete with vulnerabilities and immunities to particular manners of approach. Trying to manipulate someone who is immune to manipulation isn’t going to end well. Conversations are used to probe and test, the dancing around the subject at hand just as valuable as finding out what that character knows. There are times when you will have to lie, others where brutal, risky honesty might win the day. Slapping Napoleon Bonaparte to end a risky “what are you doing?” conversation chain is just one of the ways that you can deal with the challenges Louis faces. As the description on the game’s Steam Store page says, failing an encounter isn’t game over, but it will have consequences later.

The CouncilAs the characters are so central to The Council, it is no surprise to see that they are presented in
lovely detail, particularly their faces. I must admit that Duchess Emily Hillsborrow was my absolute favourite because she was dark, sarcastic, and seemed to channel Eva Green, both in look and attitude. Her particular elements of the main story were some of the most interesting too, a couple of “reveals” genuinely twisting things to a new level. All of the characters were fun though, out for themselves, scheming and duplicitous. The location too, a grand mansion with room after room of obscure relics, mystical artwork and books of knowledge, was a pleasure to explore. The blue-sky view from the guest room was a particular highlight, and later, the hidden places that aren’t visible unless you know their secret entrances.

The Council
The game gives Louis a fair few environmental puzzles to solve, from decoding the cryptic clues needed to open a combination lock, to using books and artwork to deduce how to find a rare artefact. The puzzles were for the most part very enjoyable. I did get stuck on a couple of them, but given enough time I was able to get to the bottom of things. This proved very satisfying, as the game made me feel like I had actually earned my progression. A couple of puzzles near the end of the game were a bit tedious however, but still relatively fun. I must admit that the game certainly gets great mileage out of its mansion location, but traversing the corridors and various rooms never seems to take too long, which is a fine balance to achieve.

My first play-through of The Council lasted around 12 hours, and the ending I achieved was so dark that I couldn’t help but smile. Before playing, I had seen a number of people say that they loved the game until the final episode or two, when things slipped a little. For my play-through, I don’t really recognise this. The story is layered, and as you play and reveal more and more of what is going on, the things you previously thought you understood sometimes shift, or sometimes solidify. I didn’t feel the rug was pulled out from under me, nor was I confused about what was going on. The only reason I can see for the comments of the people who didn’t like the way it went is that it somehow confounded their expectations of what the game would be like. Go into The Council with occult-detective in mind and I don’t think you'll be disappointed. I wasn’t.

The Council
I really want to play The Council again, taking the other options that I either messed up or ignored the first time. This is also something that is very rare for me, as when it comes to “your decisions have consequences” narrative games, I nearly always only play once, get my own version of the story, and move on. This is mainly because I like feeling that my outcome happened, and replaying over and over to get “all the endings” just lessens the impact of that first enjoyable jaunt through the game.

The Council has planted the urge in me to learn more about its world and characters, and to try and “better” the first ending I got. There is something about its dark mansion, masked servants and conversational combat that is trying to drag me straight back in, and I know it is a call I will answer soon. That being said, I am reasonably sure that my next attempt at the game will be my last, as thinking ahead with the knowledge I already have, the amount of repetition in a third play-through would be too tedious for me to fancy. Still, two journeys through the story will likely equal around 20 hours of play time, in a game world with characters I enjoy interacting with, so I’m more than happy enough with that.

If you know that you enjoy the Telltale or Life is Strange episodic adventure variety of game, but fancy something more layered, dark and RPG-esque, I highly recommend that you pick up The Council.

Game Title: The Council
Developer: Big Bad Wolf
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
RRP: £25.99 (on Steam)
Available on: PC, Xbox One and PS4.
PEGI Rating: 16+

Sunday 13 January 2019

Dark Ambient News: Cryo Chamber Charity Bundle for Tinnitus Research

I'm not feeling very wordy of late, but I wanted to do a little post about a charity bundle that helps a worthy cause, and is also a fantastic way to boost your dark ambient music collection. Dark ambient label Cryo Chamber has put up 10 albums (with another to unlock shortly) for sale in the usual bundle fashion: the more you pay, the more you get.

Cryo Chamber American Tinnitus Association Bundle

Currently, in the $2 minimum category: 2145 by Sabled Sun, Winter Restlessness by Mount Shrine, The Old City OST by Atrium Carceri, Visitors by EXIMIA and Cthulhu by Cryo Chamber.

In the $4 category, as well as receiving the above, you currently get: Dredge Portals by God Body Disconnect, Be Left to Oneself by Keosz, Exoplanetary by Ruptured World, Markland by Northumbria and Heralds by World Clock.

Once the $2000 milestone has been reached (and it almost has), Miles to Midnight by Cryo Chamber will also be thrown into the mix for everyone.

The charity that is benefiting from these sales is the American Tinnitus Association, a body that has already funded tinnitus research to the tune of over $6 million since 1980, and most of this has been as seed grants into new promising areas of study.

The Cryo Chamber bundle ends 23 January 2019, so if you are interested, head over to the Groupees page here to purchase yours now.

Monday 7 January 2019

Dark Ambient Review: Maal Niir

Dark Ambient Review: Maal Niir

Review by Casey Douglass

Maal Niir

Some dark ambient albums just seem to ooze threat, the soundscapes they contain seeping and glooping around the thoughts they create in the listener’s mind. Oestergaard’s Maal Niir is one such album, containing four tracks of lurking peril that drag the listener into the dark happenings of another reality. They also created a bit of a dark mental narrative for me as I was listening, which is something that I always enjoy.

Maal Niir gets things going, a track with a staticy rhythm and swells of dark tone. The interesting thing for me was that near the midpoint, the static sound became more akin to a flag flapping in the wind. Coupled with the other sounds, this conjured a mental impression of a crumbling city in a glowing fog, the only visible thing being a high tower with said flag fluttering in the breeze. I also felt that a massive leviathan shadow encircled the tower, a giant thing barely visible as a darker shade of fog. Gentle piano notes begin to sound nearer the end of the track, along with a squeaking grinding noise as the flag pole falls to the ground.

Next up is Niirbrôtn', a track that dragged me to a tunnel in the ground at the foot of the tower. The track begins quietly, with a breathing-like swelling of sound. A high tone occurs, like a bird call at distance, or it might be a scream. Then a crackling, like a boot stepping on a bone-strewn floor. A wave of static-distortion pulses along the tunnel at intervals, creating the impression of flickering red light bathing the walls before fading. This track, to me, was the entrance to hell, and I mentally walked straight in.

Rásiirat darkens things even more. The sounds at the start of Rásiirat begin like breathing, but soon turn into what could be a guttural demonic conversation or chant. A little later, a higher tone appears, the guttural demon words pausing around that point. The image this track created in my mind was that an angel (the high tone) might be dashing through hell for some reason, to give the poor souls there hope. The demon listens and then continues its chant, knowing that the intruder will soon be snuffed out by the watchers that guard the realm.

The final track is Kullméija', and I felt that this track contained the sound of the angel becoming trapped and having a long wait for the end to come. The opening music has a dark "om-like" quality, with juddering on-rushes of pressure. The soundscape caused me to think of the angel becoming caught in some kind of demonic fly-trap, stuck to glue-paper that melts the wings and scorches bone. A lonely track, one that ends with a quiet male-voiced monologue, speaking words that I couldn’t understand.

Maal Niir then, is a dark ambient album that I very much enjoyed. When an album causes my mind to create a narrative, and each track seems to progress that narrative, I often come away feeling quite the connection to it. Maal Niir did this, but I think that even if it hadn’t, I would have appreciated the darkness and bleakness it contains. The tracks have a pulsing quality, the low tones breaking against the mind like dark waves on a barren beach, each one helping the grimness to push into the brain that little bit more, but gently, calmly and patiently. If you like your dark ambient deep, dark and ominous, check out Maal Niir on Bandcamp here. You can also listen to the first track, Maal Niir, below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Maal Niir
Album Artist: Oestergaards
Released: 28 December 2018

Thursday 3 January 2019

Dark Ambient Review: Primal Destination

Dark Ambient Review: Primal Destination

Review by Casey Douglass

Primal Destination

If you walk into a travel agent and ask for a primal destination, you’ll probably get a baffled look and end up with a ticket to somewhere with no toilet. In an ideal world, you would get a brilliant smile and a ticket to an untamed planet somewhere far far away. Sadly, this world is far from ideal, but just such a planet is envisioned in Dead Melodies’ dark ambient album Primal Destination.

The listener takes on the role of planetary explorer as the various soundscapes Primal Destination contains unfold around you. There are technological sounds such as static and electronic tones. There are also field-recordings of nature, from the quiet dripping of water to bird and animal calls that are twisted into something unusual and unfamiliar. Both of these elements meet to conjure the ‘feel’ of the album, which for me, was a chilled feeling of wandering among strange vistas.

I think my favourite track is Subterraformed, a track that kind of channelled a feeling of Lovecraft to me. It begins with dripping water echoing in what seems to be an underground cavern. The bubbling water that joins this a little later hints at the idea of a vast lake stretching into the distance. Add in the distant drone and pulses of ominous bass tone, and my mind was set to thinking about the entrance to the abyss hidden deep under the Mountains of Madness.

Another track that I really enjoyed was Pearlescent Dawn. Beginning with sweeping birdsong and snatches of wind, the track creates a breathing landscape, one with buzzing insect-like sounds and a mechanical feel. For me, the “pearlescent” in the title made me bring to mind the shimmering rainbow colours on the surface of an oil puddle, so I kind of viewed this as a scrapyard of alien technology. Actually, the previous track, Somatic Mutation made me think of a robot graveyard, so the technological feel of these tracks was clearly quite strong for me.

Glades is also an intriguing track, containing a soundscape tinged with swampy glugs and wind-swept threat. The strange animal/bird calls feature here too, some of them even sound a little like the howling of a wolf, but distorted into something a little different. There are wading sounds a little later, and while this probably was meant to suggest explorers pushing through, I had visions of a strange cluster of creatures holding lanterns and walking through the mist in a sombre procession. Both ways of viewing it are equally fun though.

Primal Destination is just what its title suggests, an album containing raw and alien soundscapes that takes the listener’s mind on a smooth, calm journey through unknown valleys and caverns. The interplay of technology and alien creatures adds a lovely amount of novelty to things, and the soundscapes can all be enjoyed at an unhurried pace. If you are a fan of sci-fi-based dark ambient / space ambient, you should take a look at Primal Destination’s Bandcamp page here.

Check out Pearlescent Dawn below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Primal Destination
Artist: Dead Melodies
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: 1 Jan 2019

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Dark Film Review: Bird Box

Dark Film Review: Bird Box

Review by Casey Douglass

Bird Box

I heard about Bird Box in an almost incidental way. I saw a few pictures of Sandra Bullock’s Malorie with her blindfold on, and had a friend recommend it to me as a bit like A Quiet Place, but with blindfolds instead of sign language. I managed to miss the apparent hype that has taken place since its release, but having seen it today, I’m glad I took the time to give it a look.

Strange entities are causing breakouts of mass suicide around the world, and these creatures or beings only seem to trigger this impulse when looked upon by humans. Bird Box follows Malorie and her two young children as they try to get to sanctuary, while also filling in the backstory of what happened by way of jumping forward and back in the timeline. The “current” time-frame is their dangerous blindfolded boat journey along a river. The older time-frame shows the day the outbreak reached Malorie’s city, and the path her survival takes as civilisation grinds to a halt around her. Both have their own challenges.

Bird Box
Bird Box is mostly a siege-type horror, the survivors having to barricade themselves into their houses, blocking windows with newspaper and keeping the doors locked The necessity of venturing out at different times does add a bit of variety to things, even if it’s just a case of exchanging one secure location for another. The “not being able to look” aspect is done very well, the entities being alluded to by shadow, movement and sound, as well as various interactions in the environment, from technology to bird song. It’s interesting to watch the various ways in which the characters try to use what is at hand to work around this peril, and like any decent tale, not everything works out in the way that they hope it might.

Bird BoxBird Box seems to be a film very much about connection, or the lack of it. In the early flashback scenes, Malorie is painting a picture of lonely people and talks about not having to leave the house. There is also an eerie hospital corridor populated by people wholly engrossed in their phones. Yet once the mass suiciding begins and people find themselves thrust together, there is almost too much connection, especially as it becomes apparent that you have to be wary of who you open the door to. John Malkovich’s Douglas is a good example of someone who straddles this line, but in many ways, trusting an honest arsehole might just be better than putting your faith in a friendly stranger. There is also the literal connection between the blindfolded people holding hands and trying to get to where they want to go, which happens on more than one occasion.

Bird Box
Bird Box is a creepy, rather than scary film, one that taps into the fear of the unknown and unseen, rather than falling into the common trap of showing too much of the threat. The suicides are both varied and realistic, but none felt overly gory or gratuitous, which is a nice surprise. I’m certainly a fan of gore, but when it’s kept on the down low, I can respect that too. The central “not being allowed to look” idea certainly contributed an extra dimension to the tension on screen, especially when people become separated, and the simple act of others looking for them becomes an almost impossible task. There’s that connection theme again.

I enjoyed Bird Box, the two or so hour run time didn’t feel like a drag, and that’s a rare thing for me when watching a film, so it must have had something about it. If you have Netflix and this pops up on your suggestion list, give it a watch.

P.S. I’d love to see a cross-over film where the entities of Bird Box team up with the creatures of A Quiet Place. They would each seem to cover the other’s weaknesses and between them, might actually achieve wiping out humanity, rather than falling prey to stubborn upstarts who don't know when they are licked. A Quiet Box. I like the sound of that.

Film Title: Bird Box
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich.
Director: Susanne Bier
Genre: Horror, Post-apocalyptic
Rating: 15
Released: Dec 2018 on Netflix