Review: The Lazy Dungeon Master

The Lazy Dungeon MasterThe Lazy Dungeon Master
by Michael E. Shea

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Lazy Dungeon Master / 978-1073741113

This book was clearly a labor of love and I hesitate to give it a poor rating, but it simply was not helpful to me. Others might find my experience useful when considering whether or not to purchase for themselves.

Some background: I have been dungeon mastering for 10+ years. I have run official modules as well as completely homebrew worlds I made up myself. I have run in-person tables and online games, both in voice/video calls and in text-based forum formats. I am currently running the official Curse of Strahd module in an online game over Discord. I frequently find myself pressed for prep time, and I was hoping this book might help me optimize my preparation so that I could spend less time preparing and more time playing.

First, to start with, this book is VERY oriented around the expectation that you're DMing a completely homebrew world. A lot of the "lazy" guidelines basically boil down to not going overboard on worldbuilding, and to confine your efforts to things the players will actually see and interact with. This is true: if you're building an adventure in Texas, you don't need to nail down everything that's happening in Alaska. But this is also largely unhelpful for anyone running a prewritten adventure, as I currently am.

Second, and similar to above, the authors are extremely concerned that you may be spending too much time building homebrew monsters rather than using ones from published sources. Again, this is good advice but largely unhelpful to anyone already doing that. I don't think I've ever homebrewed a monster; they are correct that there are just so many already published ones. This might be a difference between the 2020s and the 1980s, but in the hundreds of games I've attended as a player, I don't think I've ever seen any DM pull out a homebrewed-from-scratch monster. My experience is that we usually take a prepublished one and tweak as needed. This particular advice may be a bit out-of-date.

Third, and continuing this theme, there is a LOT of emphasis on not spending too much time fleshing out NPCs. The authors recommend taking characters from popular books, movies, and other media and using them as templates rather than trying to build new personalities from scratch. This isn't a terrible idea, but it's overly belabored here: there are actual *lists* of characters that the authors like from popular shows. It feels like filler material to flesh out the book and (again) this isn't helpful to DMing a written module.

A lot of the advice is very geared towards short 3-5 session adventures, which is fine but definitely not necessarily the norm in this post-Matt Mercer world. (My own Curse of Strahd adventure has been going on for years.) Their key rules for "Five-Minute Adventure Preparation" is shortened to "three simple questions": "where does your adventure begin, to what three areas might your adventure lead, and what are your three notable NPCs up to?" These aren't awful questions when homebrewing a new world, but they are not useful for my prep session today, which is about finishing out a boss fight with a lich.

Moreover, a lot of the "advice" in this book is heavily centered around implementation gimmicks rather than concepts. The authors are obsessed with the number "3" and with 3x5 index cards. Instead of telling the reader to keep their NPC list short and manageable, for example, there are litanies of 3s: three notable NPCs, three adventure locations the PCs might discover, three scenes that they might encounter. Instead of "don't go overboard fleshing out the person/place/event and keep your notes short", there's an insistence that it all needs to fit on individual 3x5 card for each item. I've tried that method before, it's fine, but it's not for me (I will always prefer typing to handwriting) and having to wade through pages of implementation advice, rather than exploring the underlying concepts of simplicity and how to achieve it in all forms, is tiring.

I've mentioned that my prep session today involves finishing out a boss fight. The things I need to do for prep include: Remind myself of what happened in the first half of the fight, including damage dealt and initiative order. Brush up on monster abilities and what each character can do on their turn. Familiarize myself with the (premade) dungeon map in case the PCs want to explore more after finishing the fight. Reacquaint myself with the existing NPC personalities so that I can improvise when the PCs talk to them. Have at hand my DMing tools: dice, initiative tracker, calculator, and damage counters.

All of the above can take me anywhere from one to three hours, which is why I was hoping a "lazy DM guide" might help me. But nothing in this book helps to condense this work; heck, nothing in the book even acknowledges that prep time *contains* this stuff. If I were a new DM reading this book, I would think that 95% of weekly DM prep work was making NPCs and monsters and rooms and places and events and scenes from scratch. If you're running an official module, almost all of that stuff is already done for you; if you're running a homebrew, all of that stuff still isn't 95% of the weekly prep for me. It's very strange to me that the book not only doesn't have advice for the "nitty-gritty" of the weekly prep I've done for 10+ years, it doesn't even *mention* it. DMing is so much more than putting, ahem, "Walter White from Breaking Bad" on the NPC cast list under a new name.

I am confused who this book is for. The advice to not go overboard on worldbuilding is useful for new DMs but the introduction says "This book is intended for experienced dungeon masters who had run dozens, if nor hundreds, of Dungeons and Dragons games. This is not a book for a novice." The introduction also includes an inspirational quote from Chris Perkins (credited here as "senior producer of Dungeons and Dragons and dungeon master for Acquisitions Incorporated") saying "I don't have to do much prep at all, I just kind of wing it", with the implication that this is an ideal way of DMing and, with a little practice, you can too. But to be honest, I don't see how any advice in this book addresses the concept of games that aren't short sessions designed to either be a single 1-shot or maybe 3-5 sessions at the most. Improvising and "winging it" works fine for snappy dialog, but it's not going to familiarize you with how, for example, Night Hags interact with the Ethereal Plane and whether they can take people and objects with them and whether the PCs will be able to use the Heartstone to do the same. I suppose the 1980s answer would have been to just make up an answer on the fly (rather than grind the game to a halt to consult the manual), but again in this post-Matt Mercer world, plenty of people at the table have a decent enough understanding of The Rules and The Lore that they might well find this off-putting and immersion-breaking. Most of the players at my table are *also* DMs, and they understandably expect me to know my stuff and not just "wing it" all the time.

Maybe that means this book is just a product of an older era, I don't know. Obviously a lot of folks have found the book to be incredibly thoughtful and useful, so take this opinion with a heavy gallon of salt. I hope my experience helps you to determine whether this book is for you. Happy gaming!

~ Ana Mardoll

December Newsletter (2023)

I am sick!

That's actually pretty normal. I usually get sick in the winter. I'm actually really pumped that it doesn't seem to be a bad illness, more just a sort of rattle in the lungs and chest, with a lot of drainage. Seriously, I could single-nosedly power an extremely gross spacecraft or deep sea submarine with the right sort of mucus-based engine. I'm taking a lot of sudafeds and nyquils and whatever else you can't get on shelves anymore. That stuff. And staying hydrated and as far as possible from new drywall because the "allergic to drywall mud" has been upgraded to include "and dust?" so we're trying to be careful about that and not exacerbate it. Suggestions welcome on this one, if anyone else has a drywall allergy. I've never heard of one before, and Google results are mostly about workplace hazards rather than merely living in the midst of post-flood construction.

And/but/so my projects have been a bit delayed thanks to this illness, BUT I wish you a happy holidays and a good new year!

Open Thread: December Oak Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the December full moon is the Oak Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.

Open Thread: November Snow Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the November full moon is the Snow Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.

Narnia: One Small Step For Man

[Narnia Content Note: Threats and Bullying]

Narnia Recap: Digory, Polly, Jadis, Andrew, a Cabby, and Strawberry the Horse have all traveled from London to a magical world which is experiencing creation.

The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 9: The Founding of Narnia

When we were last in Narnia, the children and those accompanying them were observing firsthand the creation of Narnia, which so far mostly involves Aslan singing in a tuneless deep voice while other things (stars, light, et cetera) leap into existence at the call of his song. But the song has just now "changed" and there are indications that something especially Important is about to happen.

It is probably worth noting in passing that Lewis isn't adhering exactly to the order of creation given in Genesis, probably because the order in Genesis doesn't feel narratively satisfying. Genesis gives Light (Day 1), Sky (Day 2), Ground and Plants (Day 3), Sun and Moon and Stars (Day 4), Birds and Sea Animals (Day 5), then at last Land Animals and Humans (Day 6). The problem with this is that we're leaping from sky (Day 2) to ground (Day 3) and then back up to the sky again for the celestial bodies (Day 4). So Lewis is shaking things up a bit in a way that I agree is more satisfying to follow in a narrative.

   THE LION WAS PACING TO AND FRO about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer. The light wind could now be heard ruffling the grass.

I've given Lewis a lot of flak over the years for his sometimes-sloppy writing, so let me be the first to praise this part. The imagery of the grass rippling up out of the ground and flowing with the wind like a rippling green sea is genuinely vivid and beautiful. Combined with the music, it reminds me of the parts I like best about Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where you just stand in a plain while the music tinkles prettily and watch the wind play in the grass. I've read first-hand accounts from white settlers of the American plains and how the land seemed to stretch out for infinity under the boundless sky and how the long tall grass moved like water under the invisible wind. Most people greeted it with awe; some folks felt so insignificant in comparison that their brains broke a little, like a real-life version of Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex.

   The nuisance of it, as Polly said afterward, was that you weren’t left in peace to watch it all. Just as Digory said “Trees!” he had to jump because Uncle Andrew had sidled up to him again and was just going to pick his pocket. It wouldn’t have done Uncle Andrew much good if he had succeeded, for he was aiming at the right-hand pocket because he still thought the green rings were “homeward” rings. But of course Digory didn’t want to lose either.
   “Stop!” cried the Witch. “Stand back. No, further back. If anyone goes within ten paces of either of the children, I will knock out his brains.” She was poising in her hand the iron bar that she had torn off the lamp-post, ready to throw it. Somehow no one doubted that she would be a very good shot.
   “So!” she said. “You would steal back to your own world with the boy and leave me here.”

Since we started this book, I've really struggled with the fact that Jadis, as written, just does not work the way she should. We are repeatedly told that Jadis is overwhelmingly powerful, possessed of a strong will, and takes decisive action when she feels threatened. We know she is strong; she wrenched the lamp-post out of the ground and threw Digory's aunt across a room. We know that she follows through on her choices; she destroyed an entire world because she would not yield the throne to her sister. And we know that she feels threatened in this world; she has announced that this world holds her "doom" and the narrative told us that she hates and fears the singing voice. Given all this: why isn't she trying to leave??

There have been exactly two attempts to leave this world so far, and both of them have been instigated by Uncle Andrew. Jadis has stopped both of the attempts, ostensibly because she doesn't want Andrew to get away and leave her behind. But why stop him so thoroughly? She knows the rings can take an entire group, and she's perfectly comfortable seizing control of the situation and ordering Andrew around. Why, then, is she helplessly standing by and waiting for Aslan to finish his song?

The Doylist reason, of course, is that Lewis needs to maneuver Jadis into this world so that the events of LWW can take place. I supposed the Watsonian reason is that Digory has threatened to maroon all the adults here if they push him, and Jadis would rather keep him around in order to have a future chance to escape. But... she has a weapon, is within ten feet of the children, and can move inhumanely fast. She's also not one to act in an over-abundance of caution; see, again, her willingness to *destroy an entire world* if she didn't get 100% of all her wishes all the time.

I think this bothers me so much because it makes Jadis seem weak and helpless, when she shouldn't be, and because feels so unnecessary. Jadis is supposed to be this world's Satan, its Lucifer. I can see no reason why Jadis should be *afraid* of Aslan's voice, other than Lewis' weird ego-bolstering theology where you can tell the good guys are good because they're the strongest and meanest and bestest at smiting. If she needs to stay here as an adversary to the lion, why not have her hate him with a passion? Let him remind her of all the good warm things she hated in Charn, or even the things she *misses* about Charn. He could be a subtle living rebuke, a reminder of everything she selfishly snuffed out when she spoke the world-killing word. That would be so much more interesting to me, I think, than this situation where she's literally about to run off shrieking in fear and, presumably, flailing her arms above her head like a distressed muppet.

Uncle Andrew takes a moment to berate Jadis which again feels a bit like everyone's character sheets have been mixed up--is he meek and cowed and afraid of Jadis, or is he reckless and pompous and mouthy--but none of it contains new information or is interesting so it's safe to skip over. Uncle Andrew is silenced by the Cabby who tells him to "stow it" because he wants to listen to the song. Jadis says nothing in response to this underling wretch telling her off because... I don't know why. Seems like she would, but she doesn't. This entire portion honestly feels like an unnecessary repeat of earlier--Andrew tries to use Digory to leave and Jadis stops him--and I think should have been cut because nothing new is revealed.

   All this time the Lion’s song, and his stately prowl, to and fro, backward and forward, was going on. What was rather alarming was that at each turn he came a little nearer. Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. [...] When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them. This was so exciting that she had no time to be afraid. But Digory and the Cabby could not help feeling a bit nervous as each turn of the Lion’s walk brought him nearer. As for Uncle Andrew, his teeth were chattering, but his knees were shaking so that he could not run away.

I'm pretty sure that the fear described here is supposed to be spiritual in nature. Andrew, as the worst and most sinful of the group (except Jadis, but we'll get to her in a moment--and it's already been established that she's afraid of the lion and his singing) is shaking in his boots. The Cabby and Digory, better men but still possessed of some sin, are mildly nervous. Polly is too enthralled by the lion to be scared, which would indicate she is the most sinless of them all, approaching the innocent child-like state of Lucy who of the four original children was always the closest to Aslan.

But spirituality aside, it's odd that the narrative so blithely lays out that it's "rather alarming" how the lion is coming closer as he sings. I mean, yes, he's a huge lion but this situation is already so far from the norm that it's hard for me to consider being scared of him as a normal occurrence that doesn't require explanation. The lion is *singing the universe into existence*, there's no real reason to assume that he's dangerous in the way earth-lions are, that is to say, in the teeth-and-claws sense. Even on earth there are photographers who are pretty chill about hanging out next to lions, because it turns out that lions aren't particularly dangerous to humans if you behave yourself. Less so than, say, hippos anyway. Hippos will fuck you up.

Lewis probably didn't know that lions aren't bloodthirsty monsters that attack anything which moves, but again I have to stress that the lion is *singing the universe into existence*. At this point, I would just accept that the thing which looks like a lion probably isn't an actual lion and I should not make assumptions about its future behavior. (And if Digory is scared, isn't escape as easy as putting a hand in a pocket?) But this is probably a nitpick when it seems clear that the fear in this scene is presumably meant to be spiritual, not practical, in nature.

   Suddenly the Witch stepped boldly out toward the Lion. It was coming on, always singing, with a slow, heavy pace. It was only twelve yards away. She raised her arm and flung the iron bar straight at its head.
   Nobody, least of all Jadis, could have missed at that range. The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes. It glanced off and fell with a thud in the grass. The Lion came on. Its walk was neither slower nor faster than before; you could not tell whether it even knew it had been hit. Though its soft pads made no noise, you could feel the earth shake beneath their weight.
   The Witch shrieked and ran: in a few moments she was out of sight among the trees. Uncle Andrew turned to do likewise, tripped over a root, and fell flat on his face in a little brook that ran down to join the river. The children could not move. [...] When [the lion] had passed them and gone a few paces further it turned, passed them again, and continued its march eastward.

Insert muppet arm-flailing.

Uncle Andrew continues to berate Digory and demand his ring, which makes this the third (or fourth?) time this has happened without advancing the plot or revealing character. Vonnegut is rolling over in his grave in frustration, as am I. Digory reminds Uncle Andrew that he wanted to see other worlds, which isn't actually true. If we look back to Chapter 2, we receive this exchange:

   “You will keep on looking at everything from the wrong point of view,” said Uncle Andrew with a look of impatience. “Can’t you understand that the thing is a great experiment? The whole point of sending anyone into the Other Place is that I want to find out what it’s like.”
   “Well why didn’t you go yourself then?”
   Digory had hardly ever seen anyone look so surprised and offended as his Uncle did at this simple question. “Me? Me?” he exclaimed. “The boy must be mad! A man at my time of life, and in my state of health, to risk the shock and the dangers of being flung suddenly into a different universe? I never heard anything so preposterous in my life! Do you realize what you’re saying? Think what Another World means—you might meet anything—anything.”

Back to the scene, Uncle Andrew counters Digory's statement by pointing out that he is filthy from all the shenanigans, but admits that this place is "interesting" but that he would rather send a "big-game hunter" with a gun than explore it himself. The Cabby wanders off to tend to Strawberry the horse, which I thought he had already done / had been doing, while Polly and Digory castigate Andrew for wanting to shoot the lion, questioning whether the lion can even be harmed. They point out that the lamp-post hadn't done any harm to the lion.

   “With all her faults,” said Uncle Andrew, “that’s a plucky gel, my boy. It was a spirited thing to do.” He rubbed his hands and cracked his knuckles, as if he were once more forgetting how the Witch frightened him whenever she was really there.

Kinda feels like Lewis seems to be forgetting that the Witch "frightens" Uncle Andrew, given his behavior towards her in this chapter.

Polly, Digory, and Andrew notice that a lamp-post is "growing" in the ground where the iron bar fell. This is cute, I suppose, and works as an origin story for why there was a lamp-post in the forest where Lucy entered in LWW. I'm not sure it works very well logically as it raises questions when you think about it too hard. Why isn't anything else "growing" from the intruders, such as cotton from their clothes or goodness knows what when the Talking Animals later "plant" Uncle Andrew? Why is the creation guided by Aslan's thoughts and song, but then the land is so fertile that anything "planted" becomes an actual plant? (Later the children will plant toffee and grow a toffee tree.) But, again, this works on a very "vibes" level.

   It was a perfect little model of a lamp-post, about three feet high but lengthening, and thickening in proportion, as they watched it; in fact growing just as the trees had grown.
   “It’s alive too—I mean, it’s lit,” said Digory. And so it was; though of course, the brightness of the sun made the little flame in the lantern hard to see unless your shadow fell on it.
   “Remarkable, most remarkable,” muttered Uncle Andrew. “Even I never dreamed of Magic like this. We’re in a world where everything, even a lamppost, comes to life and grows. Now I wonder what sort of seed a lamp-post grows from?”
   “Don’t you see?” said Digory. “This is where the bar fell—the bar she tore off the lamp-post at home. It sank into the ground and now it’s coming up as a young lamp-post.” (But not so very young now; it was as tall as Digory while he said this.)

Uncle Andrew immediately sees opportunities the flavor of Capitalism.

   “That’s it! Stupendous, stupendous,” said Uncle Andrew, rubbing his hands harder than ever. “Ho, ho! They laughed at my Magic. That fool of a sister of mine thinks I’m a lunatic. I wonder what they’ll say now? I have discovered a world where everything is bursting with life and growth. Columbus, now, they talk about Columbus. But what was America to this? The commercial possibilities of this country are unbounded. Bring a few old bits of scrap iron here, bury ’em, and up they come as brand new railway engines, battleships, anything you please. They’ll cost nothing, and I can sell ’em at full prices in England. I shall be a millionaire. And then the climate! I feel years younger already. I can run it as a health resort. A good sanatorium here might be worth twenty thousand a year. Of course I shall have to let a few people into the secret. The first thing is to get that brute shot.”
   “You’re just like the Witch,” said Polly. “All you think of is killing things.”

This is nonsense, of course. Narnia doesn't work this way (as Aslan will explain later) and it's unclear how Andrew would bring the items back. (Obviously the rings have a limit on how the ripple effect works, since they only brought people--and a horse--over and not the carriage, the street, the homes, or anything else touching the children when they donned the rings in London.)

But it's... interesting nonsense, at least? I've been repeatedly frustrated by Andrew's sketchy characterization throughout the book. What motivates him? He earlier told Digory--and I think Andrew was the truth--that a mysterious relative gave him a dangerous box which contained fine dust. Andrew didn't know at first what the dust would do and had to teach himself a bit of magic, which involved a lot of unpleasant things done to him by unpleasant people. He's here now at the peak of this quest and... what has motivated him to do all these things?

We know he doesn't want to explore; he shuts down that idea multiple times. We know he isn't motivated by trying to make life better for people; he's dismissive later when Digory asks if Narnia might have something that would cure or at least alleviate his mother's (Andrew's sister) illness. Here it seems that he's motivated by the search of profit? Or, at least, the prospect of sudden material profit was enough to cause him to abandon or forget his previous motivations... whatever they were.

If all these years of preparation have been in search of profit, I guess that would make sense from Lewis' point of view. He's writing in the 1940s and 1950s from England, which has an extensive history of profitable colonialism. It's not like he knows that in 1969 men will walk on the moon for the first time without setting up health resorts and factories there. I can object that spending years of studying mysterious dust and learning magic from scratch--extremely unuseful magic, since we never see Andrew use his "magic" in any way except, presumably, to make the rings--seems like an onerous and unlikely source of profit, but clearly Andrew isn't supposed to be *smart*, so I guess that's the sum of his characterization: greedy, foolish, and cowardly. Why is he here? Well, I'm sorry to report that he will be the comic relief later. Oh dear.

Open Thread: October Hunt Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the October full moon is the Hunter's Moon or the Hunting Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.

Review: Depraved

by Harold Schechter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer / B0036QVPJ0

How is it that I live in Chicago and like learning about historical serial killers, but had never heard of H.H. Holmes until he was mentioned in a very terrible movie we watched while sick? Inconceivable, but Schechter is here to rectify my ignorance with "Depraved".

I say this every time but it bears repeating: I am a big fan of Harold Schechter's historical true crime books. While the questionable covers and book subtitles seem sometimes a little over-the-top, the actual contents of the books are top-notch in my opinion. Schechter writes in a very engaging style that is accessible to the audience, and handles the facts of the case in a chronological order as an easy-to-follow narrative. He is careful to cite his sources as he goes and is very clear when we encounter gaps in the record where we don't know what happened. Any speculation on his part is marked plainly and we are walked through the logical steps. I appreciate that in a crime author, as too many authors are willing to blur fact and fiction.

This book covers the life and death of H.H. Holmes, the first official serial killer of America. He was contemporary to Jack the Ripper (but not the same person) and you may have heard of him because he built a "castle" in Chicago that had all kinds of trapdoors and gas vents and acid pits until the city had to tear the thing down on account of it being (a) a notorious murder-pit and (b) so badly designed it was about to fall down anyway. They turned it into a post office, I think, which is kind of a delight to me: from about the worst possible building you can imagine to one of the most useful and good.

This book is fascinating for all the usual reasons a Schechter book is good: lots of historical detail and background and I learned a lot about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which I was not expecting to learn about. Very interesting stuff! But Holmes is also interesting from a serial killer perspective because he doesn't really fit the usual mold. A lot of his victims were close to him before their deaths, mostly mistresses and various business associates. His motives tended to be selfish ones that centered around money, either keeping it (from the mistresses) or making it (at least one business associate was murdered as part of a life insurance scam). He is a very different sort of serial killer from, say, Earle Nelson and the usual image of a stranger who picks out someone to die merely for personal gratification.

All the usual trigger warnings apply here: Holmes was a serial killer who targeted people who were close to him, especially women, and did not hesitate to kill children if he thought they would be a witness against him or a loose end. He additionally liked to make money off his victims by selling their skeletons to medical colleges, which was horrifying to read about. (If I understand correctly, all the skeletons were eventually recovered and given a proper burial when he was caught, which was a relief.) There's also discussion of alcoholism here, since Holmes' business associate struggled with alcohol abuse.

If you're interested in historical true crime and/or serial killers, you definitely want to read this book. There's a lot out there about Holmes but since he was a grandiose liar who liked to exaggerate his own misdeeds, the truthfulness is hard to gauge. Schechter does the hard work of sifting through the claims and presenting what is definitely true, what is completely false, and all the in-between claims and how likely they are.

~ Ana Mardoll

Review: Fatal

Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial KillerFatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer
by Harold Schechter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer / B009NHBJJ2

I am a very big fan of Harold Schechter's historical true crime books. While the questionable covers and book subtitles seem sometimes a little over-the-top, the actual contents of the books are top-notch in my opinion. Schechter writes in a very engaging style that is accessible to the audience, and handles the facts of the case in a chronological order as an easy-to-follow narrative. He is careful to cite his sources as he goes and is very clear when we encounter gaps in the record where we don't know what happened. Any speculation on his part is marked plainly and we are walked through the logical steps. I appreciate that in a crime author, as too many authors are willing to blur fact and fiction.

This book covers the life and death of serial killer Jane Toppan, an "angel of death" serial killer who targeted her patients as a nurse, as well as occasional friends and family members. On the topic of female serial killers of the time period who used poison as their weapon of choice (who knew that was such a large category? Not me!) the book also devotes some time to the chronicles of Lydia Sherman and Sarah Jane Robinson, in order to set-up commonalities and compare and contrast their methods and motives. (And we get to read the newspapers' breathless comparisons to Lucretia Borgia, which was of course terribly unfair to her since she probably never poisoned anybody! #historical pet peeves, I guess.)

The usual trigger warnings apply for this book, being about serial killers after all, including sexual assault of victims and child death. There's also the added aspect here of patient-nurse abuse and targeting sick and elderly victims. I really appreciate Schechter as an author because he treats these delicate topics with care and respect, and affords the victims dignity; he isn't crass or irreverent or flippant like some crime authors are.

One of the things I enjoy about Schechter's books is the historical context. Toppan operated in a time when arsenic was available over-the-counter at general stores as rat poison, and when autopsies after death were the exception rather than the rule. A shocking number of her victims were chalked up to various illnesses--even ones that hadn't previously been diagnosed in the patients before--and it's a wonder whether or not she would have been caught if she hadn't gotten sloppy and started going after young healthy people in the prime of their lives. The details on how bodies were examined for poison in the early 1900s were especially interesting to me; her victims were autopsied *after* the bodies had been embalmed, which complicated the situation since the embalming process used arsenic.

If you're interested in historical true crime, or if you'd like to read more about female serial killers (which are of course considered a rarity... but this book convincingly argues that maybe they shouldn't be) then this is an excellent read that I highly recommend. Oh! There's also a really interesting dive into the assassination of President McKinley and how utterly terribly the medical personnel handled the situation, none of which I'd ever heard of before, so that was VERY interesting to learn from this rather unexpected source.

~ Ana Mardoll

Review: Bestial

Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American MonsterBestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster
by Harold Schechter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster / B00383YJFI

I am a very big fan of Harold Schechter's historical true crime books. While the questionable covers and book subtitles seem sometimes a little over-the-top, the actual contents of the books are top-notch in my opinion. Schechter writes in a very engaging style that is accessible to the audience, and handles the facts of the case in a chronological order as an easy-to-follow narrative. He is careful to cite his sources as he goes and is very clear when we encounter gaps in the record where we don't know what happened. Any speculation on his part is marked plainly and we are walked through the logical steps. I appreciate that in a crime author, as too many authors are willing to blur fact and fiction.

This book covers the life and death of serial killer Earle Leonard Nelson (sometimes known as Ferral instead of Nelson) and styled in the press as "The Gorilla Man" and "The Dark Strangler". Nelson is believed to have murdered at least 22 people and to have perhaps attacked twice that number, and holds the dubious honor of "third most prolific serial killer in American history." Most modern readers have never heard of him, and I certainly hadn't, so this was a very interesting and engaging read. (Wikipedia tells me he was a source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 film "Shadow of a Doubt". Who knew? Not me.)

I never quite know how to trigger warn on books that are about serial killers, because obviously the material in here is going to be pretty grim, but I should note that Nelson's crimes included sexual assault and he also killed a few children who crossed his path, so be aware of that if you have associated triggers. I will say that one of the reasons I like Schechter so much as an author is because he handles delicate topics with care and isn't irreverent or flippant or jokey about the victims. He gives them grace and dignity, which I appreciate.

Another aspect I like about this book is seeing the historical context of detective work. I hadn't realized that fingerprinting crime scenes was something already doable in the 1920s; for some reason, I had thought that came later in the timeline. It's interesting to see how serial killing of Nelson's sort was only possible once cars became widespread; he had to stay mobile and move from town to town in order to keep from being caught. The witness statements are surprising in their detail (people used to pay more attention to clothes back in the day, or police were better trained to elicit detail from memory??) and the police are... well, some of them are good, and some of them kept insisting that women were committing suicide and stuffing their own dead bodies into trunks. So, you know, a mixed bag of competency. I did find it interesting that Nelson might not have been caught if he hadn't fled to Canada: he didn't know the words and mannerisms to keep from being identified as an American, so he wasn't able to blend in the way he'd done in America.

If you like historical true crime at all, I really recommend this book as a fascinating deep-dive into a strange man who really did seem to be some sort of real life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

~ Ana Mardoll

Review: Gamedec

Recommendation: I was recently gifted a game on Steam called "Gamedec". I haven't finished it yet, but I can't speak highly enough about it so far. It's a sort of point-and-click adventure where you play a game detective, a futuristic private eye hired for cases that involve gaming. In 22th century Warsaw City, gaming is Serious Business and involves Virtual Reality couches. Gamedecs are a sort of amalgamation of medic, hacker, and influencer, and can be called upon to do things like find missing people in games (if someone cheated or ghosted you) or deal with game disputes or mediate other issues that might not be legal crimes but still need an expert problem-solver. The gamplay involves examining (very large) scenes and talking to people and making choices.

Your first case is: a rich man's 16 year old son went online in his private couch 4 days ago and hasn't logged back on. His system has been tampered with so you can't locate him by his unique login code, and you can't safely pull the plug without risking brain damage. Normally even a seasoned gamer would have surfaced by now, if only to eat some food. He is therefore either unable or unwilling to log out, and you have to find him and decide whether or not to save him. This actually ends up being a very difficult moral choice! There's a lot of moral complexity in the world, but not in a depressing way, at least not for me. More of like...of the two of these options, which one will improve the world best?

World-building-wise, there's discussion of people who've lost their body due to inaccessible healthcare and now can only "live" online as a disembodied consciousness. There's social stratification between the rich and the poor, and exploration of the social injustices of capitalism. The first area is a game called "Twisted and Perverted" and I was afraid it was going to be an anti-BDSM screed but actually the game is more of a "Mad Max Thunderdome" sort of setting where anything goes, and the BDSM people just moved in and made a little thriving subculture inside.

There are so many little details that rub me exactly the right way. For example: in one game, someone takes on an idealized white-imagined avatar of a Native American woman and you can point out that their choice is inappropriate. In another place, you can talk to a man and find out he is pregnant in real life. My character apologized and said, "Sorry! I didn't realize you have a uterus." NOT I-didn't-realize-you-were-a-woman, but just that HE (still male!) didn't have a uterus. The guy then corrected my character again and explained that his pregnancy is in an exowomb. He's just a cis guy who is really hyped about the upcoming baby he's buying diapers for. The womb is hooked into his online sensory system so the baby can "hear" him the same way a baby in a uterus would. That's so cool!

The second mission is about underpaid sweatshop workers being forced to farm lootboxes in Farmville. It's so so good. I don't want to spoil any more but it is really so good. Oh, and I'm playing a guy and I have had two VERY gay relationships so far. Although one of them ended tragically for plot reasons, so uh. Be prepared for that, because it made me sad. But when this game is sad, it makes me sad in a GOOD way, like a really good book or movie tugging just so on my heart-strings. I haven't beaten it yet, but I cannot remember the last time I got so immersed in a game. Like, hours went by without me realizing.

Open Thread: September Harvest Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the September full moon is the Harvest Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.

Open Thread: August Fruit Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the August full moon is the Fruit Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.

Metapost: Google Album and Blog Images

Recently I received an email from Google saying this:

Hi Ana, You’re receiving this email because you’ve viewed Album Archive recently or you may have some content that is visible in Album Archive. Starting on July 19, 2023, Album Archive will no longer be available. We recommend that you use Google Takeout to download a copy of your Album Archive data before then.

The thing is, this is confusing because (a) all I've ever used Google Albums for was Blogger images and (b) Blogger images directly upload to Google Album. There's not really an option to put them somewhere else, as far as I know. So... I have no idea what is going to happen to images on the blog when the 19th rolls around. I've backed up all my images with an exporter that Google sent me, so I'll still have the images, but if they break and stop showing, I'll need to update them manually each time. I guess just let me know if you see a post with an image missing? Thanks, and I know this is a pain for everyone.

July Newsletter (2023)

"We, uh, don't usually get repeat business," the Flood Team guy told me. "Not that we aren't grateful for your loyalty! But damn, I'm sorry."

So it's been an interesting July 2nd: "Records were set as Chicago's O'Hare Airport received more than 3.3 inches of rain, topping the highest total recorded for July 2, which was 2.06 inches set in 1982." Breaking a rainfall record that was set before I was born sounds pretty badass, but it's especially something when you look at the actual rainfall map.

See that really dark red area that got almost 9 inches of rain? That was us. This was our street at 10 am, and the rain continued until 6 pm.

At some point a drain outside our door backed up and water started pouring into the house. We ended up with just over 12 inches of water on the floor.

Skipping to the end:

1. We're safe. The cats are a little traumatized (Chip and Cheddar actually got caught in the water and Chip had to be carried to safety while Cheddar scrambled through it) but safe. Nobody slipped or fell or got electrocuted or infected with anything.

2. The computers are safe. We had to scurry to carry them upstairs, but we got them just in time. I didn't lose any writing or work.

3. Everything else is pretty much fucked. We lost a lot of books that had emotional meaning to us, including a collection of SNES game manuals that I'd been collecting since I was a child. We're pretty gutted about that. Kissmate can't really talk about the books yet without crying. It's rough. A lot of furniture and personal belongings are gone. A lot of stuff that was safe in the last flood (because the water only came to 1 inch) was lost in this one.

4. We have no idea if our insurance will cover this. We're going to file a claim, of course, but time will tell. It's possible that FEMA will declare this area an emergency situation and we might get relief funds that way, but we don't know yet.

5. Our mailing supplies, copies of my books, and Patreon bookmarks are all lost.

So. That's the situation as it stands right now. I'm sorry I don't have happier news to report. We're trying to take this a day at a time. If anyone wants to throw a few dollars our way towards the recovery effort, we have a PayPal at At the same time, please do not feel obligated to give; I know a lot of you are dealing with fires, floods, and various other natural disasters of your own right now. (I don't know if this flood was because of climate change, but it's hard not to imagine it's all interconnected.)

Thank you for being patient with us through this time, and I appreciate all your support. Sending you love,



Because I sadly do not have content to share this month (or at least right now), I come bearing this fascinating and maddening article from The New Yorker about the OceanGate Titan Submersible. This device should never have been allowed in the water.

Open Thread: July Storm Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the July full moon is the Storm Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.

Film Corner: They/Them (Part 1)

I have a new favorite movie and I very much want to spoil it for all of you because it's about queer trauma and I know that not everyone will be able to watch this movie, but I want everyone to be *aware* of it, if that makes sense.

Way back in the foggy past, I remember seeing a tweet about They/Them when it was first announced and my first impression was *oh no*. It looked like Friday the 13th but with queer kids, and my gut reaction was that this was part of the new trend where cishet people remake everything with queer kids as the powerful bullies (like that godawful Heathers reboot) without understanding that the idea of queer and trans kids as the new "popular" school caste is just a transphobic myth designed to "explain" why children come out as trans. (Supposedly to "fit in" and "gain popularity", which anyone actually trans knows is...not how coming out usually goes.) So I was expecting They/Them to be a trainwreck.

But I watched the trailer anyway, to determine how bothered I needed to be, and immediately noticed that it wasn't queer kids getting killed at this camp. It was the adults. And it wasn't just a summer camp with queer kids. It was a *gay conversion camp*, you know, the place where queer children are sent to be tortured into becoming cishet. Then I read an interview with the director, Kevin Bacon, in a queer publication (Pink News) about how very important it was to him that the movie be respectful to queer kids and realistic in telling the horrific ugly truth about gay conversion camps being places where torture happens. How they didn't want to make the camp seem in any way okay or candy-coated.

Now They/Them had both my interest and my attention.

The movie has been streaming on the service Peacock for months. I signed up for a free trial specifically to watch the movie, but have been steeling myself. I watched But I'm A Cheerleader last year without realizing that it was set in a gay conversion camp and that movie fucked me up really badly. Kissmate came home to find me crying on the couch and had to put me back together. I know the movie is important and influential gay cinema, and I don't want to imply that it was bad or shouldn't be watched, but it was hard for me. So I wanted to be in the right space for They/Them, and waited until we felt ready to tackle the material.

And...I loved it. This is legitimately my new favorite movie. I seriously considered just urging everyone to go and watch it, but I know that not everyone is going to be able to handle the material (just like I struggled with But I'm A Cheerleader) and may prefer a summary from a safe distance. Or there may be folks who want to watch the movie but want to read the summary first so they know what to expect!

Spoilers therefore abound below.

June Newsletter (2023)

I wanted to reach out and let everyone know how we're doing, since we've been in Chicago for 10 months now and things have finally settled down enough to write a real update about how things stand at the moment.

A little background: We were living in Texas when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022. In theory this decision should not have affected me personally; I'm not pregnant or trying to get pregnant, I'm medically infertile, and I'm a stone's throw away from menopause. But doctors and pharmacies in affected states (like Texas) have been forced to stop prescribing critical pain medications because those medications *could* be used in a home-abortion, and the doctors and pharmacists involved *could* face serious jail time and loss of license for being accessories, even unknowingly. There have been several news stories over this which I won't link here, but the pain medication stoppage has affected many chronic pain patients, even ones who don't have the medical capability to get pregnant.

Most of you know that I have had a lifelong struggle with scoliosis and chronic back pain. I've had two spinal fusion surgeries, both of which have made my situation worse, and I haven't known a pain-free day since I was a child. I require a cane in order to walk and I spend most of my days resting in bed. I'm lucky to have a work-from-home job that allows me to have flexible hours and which has medical insurance so I can see pain doctors and they can prescribe mitigating medications in order to improve my quality of life. I will be on opioid medication until I die, and I am very grateful that these medications exist in order to let me live, laugh, and love.

WELL. That was a long way to say that I need those medications in order to function, and suddenly I couldn't get them in Texas anymore. We had to quickly scramble to get to a blue state where abortion wasn't illegal, and therefore my pain medications weren't restricted as possible abortion-vectors. We ended up moving in August to Chicago and it has been an adventure. We have a beautiful house that has flooded with sewage once already (it shouldn't happen again, though!) and have learned this week that it needs a new roof, whoops! So there have been some ups and downs, but we're happily working through them all. The cats are ecstatic and love their new window view, and Kissmate is starting school at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) in the fall. We're considered "the Cat House" on our block and in the mornings when children walk to school we can hear them calling up "hi kitties!" as they walk by. It's adorable.

What is most exciting, though, is that I have a new pain doctor. He's... Well, you wouldn't LIKE him, probably, haha. He's very brusque and blunt and not easy to talk to. If you've ever seen the television show HOUSE M.D., he's a lot like that guy. But he's very passionate about pain mitigation. He's furious at how badly he feels my back situation and overall pain management has been "butchered" up to this point, and it's nice to find a doctor who actually cares about my situation and isn't just checking a box to get me in and out of the office. But he's limited in how much he can prescribe me, because of the whole War on Opioids that is going on right now (sigh) and that's been a source of fear and concern for me--how will I live if my medications get restricted or cut off?

Because of these ongoing threats to prescribed pain relief, he's been talking to me about non-prescription alternatives for my situation. There's a procedure he does called a "medial branch block" where he's able to poke needles into my back and locate the spinal nerves which report pain to the brain. You see, MY nerves are highly agitated all the time because of the metal that was screwed into my spine during my surgeries, so the nerves are ALWAYS reporting painpainpain to the brain, even though there's nothing I can do to "calm" the situation down--I can't just reach in and take the metal out. So my doctor wants to turn those nerves OFF for a while. He pokes around to find the nerves, then numbs them for a few days in order to test that he has the right culprits. When we're sure which nerves are the problem, he can actually BURN the nerves for a few months. The burning lasts anywhere from 6 to 18 months, and during that time the nerves can't report pain to the brain. Once the nerves have repaired themselves from the burning, you have to go back in and do it again. So the good news is that it isn't permanent (if something goes wrong) but the bad news is that it isn't permanent (if everything goes right).

This isn't an easy process, which is probably why my Texas pain doctor never pushed me to try it. (If I could just stick with my pain medication forever, I would.) There are four numbing appointments to test that he has the right nerves, and these appointments are AGONY. I have been through some interesting pain spikes in my lifetime, and these numbing appointments take the cake! He has to poke a bunch of spinal nerves with a needle over and over and ask, "Does THIS hurt? Does THIS hurt?" until we find the nerve that makes me scream. Fun!! Then the actual burning appointment has to be done TWICE because medical insurance is ridiculous and wants to force me to be sedated and opened up TWICE so that they can separate the Left Side and the Right Side as two different treatments they can try to deny. FUN.

BUT. I am sitting here typing this after my third test and... I don't feel any back pain. My nerves are still screaming at me because it takes them about 24 hours to calm down after they've been needled, but the constant regular back pain that I've felt for as long as I can remember... is just gone. And it's been consistently like this for the tests we've had so far: I have one day of agony because my nerves are all jiggled up and angry, and then I get to experience this pleasant heavenly numbness that I can't describe as anything but the absence of pain. After the first test I actually cried four days after the procedure when the pain came back, because it was just so NICE to live without pain for the first time ever. Once I finish all these tests and can do the full nerve-burn procedure, I should be able to feel that numbness for MONTHS instead of days. I cannot WAIT.

My burning procedures are scheduled for the last week of July and the first week of August, almost a full year since we moved here. I won't be Superman after this, to be clear. My back doesn't feel pain when these nerves are numbed, but I still get tired and my spine feels "heavy" if I start to overdo my limits, and then I have to rest. I'll still need to walk with a cane, and I'll still need to park in my handicap parking spot. (I am getting a handicapped state ID card today! Dealing with the Chicago DMV has been a dream! It's so efficient and polite that I feel like I'm in another reality! It's like THE GOOD PLACE, if you've seen that show!) But I'll be able to live without constant pain, and I can't tell you how exciting that is. I'm so hopeful and happy, and I never even knew this procedure existed. What a miracle this has been!

I know this has been A Lot, but it was important to me that I catch everyone up on my medical situation now that I have some solid Good News to share. I hope everyone is doing well and I'm sending my love.

Open Thread: June Berry Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the June full moon is the Berry Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.

Live-Read: A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear

[Content Note: Animal Cruelty, Animal Injury and Death, Animal Attacks, Libertarians, Awful Hitler References]

A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear

I have begun reading the book by the guy who wrote the article about the town of Libertarians who were being attacked by bears and it is *surreal*. If you haven't read the article about the Libertarians and the bears and the woman feeding them piles of donuts everyday, it is an absolute must-read. I'll wait.

[The Town That Went Feral]

Film Corner: Sherlock Holmeses (Holmsi?)

This isn't a live-watch, but a recommendation: we've been using a free trial of Brit Box on Amazon Prime to watch The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock and it's wonderful. Brett was born to play the great detective. And they ramp up the love between Watson and Holmes! These men are married the way Crowley and Aziraphale in Good Omens were married. (Watson's wife doesn't even exist in this version!) And the stories are the real published ones and done very very well. I highly recommend marathon-ing the series on a Brit Box free trial.

We also very much enjoyed the 2002 Hound of the Baskervilles with Richard Roxburgh as Sherlock Holmes, aka Moriarty in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen aka Dracula in Van Helsing. The sudden and very intense awareness that the actor playing Mycroft in the Jeremy Brett Holmes series is Charles Gray from Rocky Horror Picture Show as in "It's just a jump to the left" scholar-guy with lots of books and binders telling us a cautionary tale about Brad and Janet. He has apparently also been Blofeld in a Bond movie.

May Newsletter (2023)

I feel a need to apologize in advance for being inactive on here for the past week or so. I've been somewhat ill (something to do with sinuses and dust in the state?) and it hasn't left a lot of time for posting or live-watching or just writing in general. I've spent the last 18 hours or so asleep and plan to return to that state again shortly. I'm only awake at the moment because I woke Kissmate up by thrashing about and saying something about being "lord of death and pain", and he decided that it was time for another round of my pain pills, washed down with raisin toast. He is very good to me and I love him so much.

However. NEWS:

1) CATS. Cheddar has decided to let us pet him. He has taken head-strokes and nose-strokes from me, and chin-scritches and chest-scritches from Kissmate. This was very new and accomplished with a hefty salmon-puree bribe.

2) REWARDS. We have finally finished cleaning up from the flood! This means I can get to my postage stamps and the little printer that prints mailing labels. And THAT means I can start sending out patreon rewards again!! I plan to start messaging everyone in batches to double-check your mailing address (since it's entirely possible everyone has moved) so please check your patreon messages. I'm very excited about this and I appreciate everyone's amazing patience.

3) MOVIES. Tubi, which is one of those "free television and movies, but with ads" has some new offerings which may be of interest to folks here:
- Pacific Rim
- V series (I remember this being fun in a really weird way)
- Columbo
- Kubo and the Two Strings
- Men in Black 1-3
- Animorphs series (haven't seen this, but aligns with some of y'all's interests)
- Pandorum (goblins in spaaaaace!)
- The Monkey King 1 & 2 (I love these live-action adaptations)
- The Monkey King Reborn (an excellent animated Monkey King)
- Knight of Shadows (extremely good)
- Overlord anime series

We've been watching Yu-Gi-Oh abridged on YouTube (hilarious!) and Overlord. As far as Overlord goes, I loved Season 1 very much as it was wholesome and sad and poignant and touching and scary and deeply satisfying. Season 2 took a sharp turn into "why aren't people using their words" and "I don't like villainous heroes and this is reminding me why" so we're taking a bit of a break before we dive back in for Season 3. I admit I would prefer to be writing than to be watching television, but it's getting increasingly hard for me to compose while lying in bed, because there's been some new shooting pains in my arms when I try to do that. My pain doctor is going to try some treatments with me that will, I think, burn the nerves into behaving. I'm a little nervous but at the same time very much looking forward to that.

I hope to be posting for for you all very soon. Sending you love. ♥

4. SOCIAL MEDIA. Oh! I completely forgot to mention: I have joined Mastodon now. Here is my account. It looks a little bare, I know; I haven't been able to really sit up and flesh the profile out with words and pictures. I'm going to try to resume doing live-watches and live-reads there, since I think a lot of people miss those. And I'll of course cross-pose everything to patreon, so you don't need to worry that you'll miss a thing!

ChatGPT & Transgender Fairy Tales

I have a personal interest in computer-generated outputs and have been hearing a lot about ChatGPT, including concerns about how it replicates human gender biases and why that is not great! (Dr. Damien Williams has a good thread on Mastodon Social about how ChatGPT assumes that "doctor" means male and "nurse" means female, and how these known human gender biases should not be replicated.) I created an account in order to be able to chat with ChatGPT and asked it to create "transgender fairy tales" for me.

Why? Well, obviously I have an interest in transgender fairy tales! Moreover, we have a wealth of public domain fairy tales to learn from (indeed, *most* fairy tales are public domain!) so I felt this was a relatively safe use of AI learning and would not be ripping off living artists in the way that many *art*-generating programs do. I was performing the request as a test only (i.e., not planning to publish the material as my own work), and wanted to see how something largely programmed by cis people, on examples made by cis people, for the enjoyment of cis people would interpret my request.

Here are the results, but the short version is that ChatGPT could use some work in this area.



I asked ChatGPT for a transgender fairy tale, then provided some feedback of my concerns. (ChatGPT was very polite in response to my feedback and certainly said the right things in response.) I waited a week for the feedback to (potentially) be incorporated into the system. The reason for this pause is that the system states that a human staff reviews human inputs and takes feedback on board, but it's unclear how long this process is. It's also unclear to me whether the chatbot itself is capable of "learning" directly from the user. So this was the best I could do in terms of "waiting" for the chatbot to learn. I then asked ChatGPT for 5 more transgender fairy tales, for a total of 6. (One with feedback, five without.)

These tales are labeled Tests #1-#6 in chronological order of request.

Goddess of Trans Men

[Mild but possibly necessary content notes: Talking about transness as a function of change rather than an "always knew" narrative (which are of course totally valid!), wild and rambling speculation on ancient Greek culture and literature, toxic masculinity and narratives about women as deceivers]

This isn't so much a post as it is an extended advertisement for you all to join my new obsession which is EPIC: THE MUSICAL, a new musical about Odysseus. When this came into my orbit I was a little skeptical because I was afraid that the musical might cover up a lot of the more complicated and difficult parts of the Odyssey but I've listened to the material that's been released so far (it's an ongoing project) and I'm really impressed and love it very much. Note that it does go the route wherein Odysseus kills Hector's infant son (rather than Pyrrhus doing the killing, which is the alternate version we have depending on which Illiad you're reading) so there's a major trigger warning for that in the first song.

"Warrior of the Mind" is a song from Athena's perspective where she's counseling Odysseus not to let down his guard; the war may be over, but they're not home safe yet and he needs to stay on his toes. And the Genius annotations on the lyrics are really helpful, especially if you're like me and haven't read The Odyssey in ten years or so. There's a line about how, with Odysseus' help, "then they'll see" and the annotations talk about how the Greeks (who were far from a cultural monolith) were really culturally torn on the question of what qualities make for the "best" warrior.

This is basically why we have TWO gods of war for them: you have the beefcake one (Ares) who tries to be the best by just... putting in the work. He never skips leg day, he masters all the weapons, he goes to all the battles, and when it's war day (and for him, EVERY day is war day) he stands on the front lines and screams with the best of them and runs into the enemy and he OWNS by virtue of just being badass. And he favors whichever side has the strongest warrior, because that's how war *works*: the strongest guy wins. Right?

Then you have Athena who, sure, is competent in battle because if you want to win a war you DO ultimately need to be able to swing a sword or spear as needed, but she's not the best because she's the best swords-swinger; she's the best because she's the best strategist. She uses her brain and she embraces the concept of battle maneuvers. She considers a good strategy *better* than having the strongest beefcakes on her side, and to a lot of Greeks that's... wrong? even borderline cheating? To a lot of Odysseus' contemporaries *within the context of his own story*, he was considered dishonorable and kind of a cheater because he used "tricks" rather than superior force and "honorable" man-to-man combat. So you have this musical where Athena sings about her hopes that his story will make them see she's right.

I'm telling all this to Kissmate because I'm a big nerd who loves gushing about ancient Greek stuff, and I end up on a tangent that this might well be partly WHY Athena is a woman. Because women were historically considered (by toxic Western men; I can't really speak for other cultures here) to be the "sly" gender, the "clever" class who gets her way not by brute force but by clever manipulation of the brutes around her. You don't complain because at the end of the day she (Athena) gets you home alive, but there's a sense of aloof mystery there: Athena, the virgin woman, is untouchable and unknowable. You can sit down and have a beer with Ares, but you don't become "best friends" with Athena (in the song Odysseus enthuses about this possibility and she coolly and with careful distance pushes him back a step with "We'll see where it ends". Beautiful.)

Because everything always comes back to gender in our house, lol, I started thinking that, oh man, the ancient Greeks might well have *loved* the idea of Athena as a trans men and goddess of trans men. Because you could have this person who "started" life as a woman, collected all of women's sly secrets and clever ways of thinking, but then transitions to a warrior (traditionally male!) and used all that forbidden knowledge to proceed to kick all the ass. And there are, of course, so many stories waiting to be written about Achilles to almost-kind-of did *exactly that* in the sense that he was disguised as a woman and placed among King Lycomedes' daughters in order to protect him because his mother didn't want him to go off to war. At which point Odyssues (Athena's chosen!) showed up to recruit Achilles, who then went off to be one of the best warriors among the Greeks. (Even though he did end up dying in battle, there was a prophesy that the Greeks could ONLY win the war against Troy if Achilles came with!)

And, of course, this isn't necessarily a totally great narrative in the sense that it's still shaped by toxic masculinity and the idea of women as both deceivers and fundamentally different from men! But still I do like imagining how earlier societies might have explained modern trans people, rather than just assuming (as the Evangelicals like to do) that they would've just shunned us completely.

Self-Promotion: GoodReads Reviews

I think some of you have mentioned reading and enjoying Cinder The Fireplace Boy. If you have, could you consider taking a moment to positively review the book on GoodReads? I hate to ask, as I know everyone is so busy and everything asks you for a review these days, but it's always a little saddening to me to see my work brought down by this sort of thing (below). Thank you so much in advance!! ❤

Narnia: Much Ado About Nothing

[Narnia Content Note: Mention of Alcoholism & Gun Violence]

Narnia Recap: Digory and Polly returned home, but brought Queen Jadis with them. Now the children have managed to take the Queen, their Uncle, and an innocent Cabby (and his horse) into the Wood Between Worlds.

The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 8: The Fight At The Lamp-Post

It's been a while since my last post, so I'm going to quote the opening of that prior post because I feel it works well as a summation of what has come before: When we last left Narnia, the Empress Jadis was taxi-surfing through the streets of London after having burgled a jewelry store. She has returned to Digory's house not because it is considered a safe haven to Andrew or a source of escape to Jadis but merely through narrative chance. Digory has been considering whether he should do something protagonisty, while Jadis has introduced herself to the crowd. Lewis wants to take Jadis down a peg or three, so the crowd is about to react unkindly.

That pretty much sums up the last post. The crowd is rude to Jadis, she whips the cab-horse up into a frenzy because her character keeps careening between stately self-control and wild unfocused fury, and the children teleport themselves, and the Queen, and their Uncle, and the Cabby, and the cab-horse into the Wood Between the Worlds.

   As soon as the Witch saw that she was once more in the wood she turned pale and bent down till her face touched the mane of the horse. You could see she felt deadly sick. Uncle Andrew was shivering. But Strawberry, the horse, shook his head, gave a cheerful whinny, and seemed to feel better. He became quiet for the first time since Digory had seen him. His ears, which had been laid flat back on his skull, came into their proper position, and the fire went out of his eyes.
   “That’s right, old boy,” said the Cabby, slapping Strawberry’s neck. “That’s better. Take it easy.”
   Strawberry did the most natural thing in the world. Being very thirsty (and no wonder) he walked slowly across to the nearest pool and stepped into it to have a drink. Digory was still holding the Witch’s heel and Polly was holding Digory’s hand. One of the Cabby’s hands was on Strawberry; and Uncle Andrew, still very shaky, had just grabbed on the Cabby’s other hand.
   “Quick,” said Polly, with a look at Digory. “Greens!”

There are a few things here to note, some of which don't make much sense. The most obvious detail is that in addition to the Witch being helpless in this Wood, Uncle Andrew seems also to be affected adversely. Are they afflicted because they are evil or because they both practice the wrong sort of magic? Meanwhile, the cab-horse--which we will hereafter call Strawberry--seems to be invigorated. That would appear to be a natural opposite of how Jadis and Andrew are feeling, until we remember that previously the Wood made Polly and Digory feel sleepy. None of the "good" people (Polly, Digory, Strawberry, and the Cabby) seem sleepy now, and it's unclear why not. Is it because their adrenaline is more kicked up than Polly's was when Uncle Andrew kidnapped her and sent her here? We do not know.

The second thing to note is that Polly and Digory are very keen to pop into another world. I find this confusing! In their previous visit, they had the presence of mind to move slowly and with sensible clarity: they made sure to mark the pool which led back to Earth, for example. Yet they do not pause here to check that those markings still exist. They just hop into the first pool anyone touches, which is strange. In the Wood, the Witch is helpless; yet they know that when she was brought to Earth, she immediately reinvigorated and regained a portion of her power. (Not all of it, as she was not able to blast their aunt with magic, but she did possess dangerous physical strength.) Why not just leave her to rot in the Wood, and possibly Uncle Andrew too? The only answer appears to be "because plot" but that's far from adequate, especially when numerous plot points up to this point have *also* been implausible coincidences (like Jadis ending up in front of Digory's house whilst he speculated whether or not he should Do Something).

  So the horse never got his drink. Instead, the whole party found themselves sinking into darkness. Strawberry neighed; Uncle Andrew whimpered. Digory said, “That was a bit of luck.”
  There was a short pause. Then Polly said, “Oughtn’t we to be nearly there now?”
  “We do seem to be somewhere,” said Digory. “At least I’m standing on something solid.”
  “Why, so am I, now that I come to think of it,” said Polly. “But why’s it so dark? I say, do you think we got into the wrong Pool?”
  “Perhaps this is Charn,” said Digory. “Only we’ve got back in the middle of the night.”
  “This is not Charn,” came the Witch’s voice. “This is an empty world. This is Nothing.”

Okay, so, apparently the children thought they were going into the Charn pool? And their plan was to return Jadis to the world she came from? That's not a terrible plan, but it was already noted long ago that the pools are so thick on the ground that without a marking there is no way to tell one from the other. The children were wise to mark the Earth pool but did *not* mark the Charn pool, and there's no reason to believe Strawberry was trying to drink from the Charn one. (We will soon find that he was not, and later we will learn that the Charn pool is now a dry grassy depression with no water because that's what happens to dead worlds.) If the plan was to return the Witch to her home world, that was very badly planned out. Furthermore, they know that the Witch is physically and magically powerful in her world, and she knows how to hitchhike on the rings. So how, exactly, were they planning to take her to Charn and leave her there against her will? Once again, it seems much wiser and safer to just leave her to rot in the Wood. Push her off the horse and just go home!

  And really it was uncommonly like Nothing. There were no stars. It was so dark that they couldn’t see one another at all and it made no difference whether you kept your eyes shut or opened. Under their feet there was a cool, flat something which might have been earth, and was certainly not grass or wood. The air was cold and dry and there was no wind.
  “My doom has come upon me,” said the Witch in a voice of horrible calmness.
  “Oh don’t say that,” babbled Uncle Andrew. “My dear young lady, pray don’t say such things. It can’t be as bad as that. Ah—Cabman—my good man—you don’t happen to have a flask about you? A drop of spirits is just what I need.”

The Cabby does not have any alcohol about him, but instead suggests that they all sing a "harvest thanksgiving hymn" in order to keep their spirits up while they wait for rescue or death in this dark place. (He thinks they've fallen down a dig-site for a new London Underground metro station which... I don't know where to start with that. He's supposed to be a homey down-to-earth figure in this fantastical world, but he *saw* the Wood Between Worlds? but sometimes people forget the Wood after leaving?

Meanwhile, Uncle Andrew draws Digory off into the darkness and asks/tells him to put on his ring so the two of them can go home. Jadis overhears and vaguely threatens him, while Digory tells him off for even considering that he might abandon Polly and the Cabby here. Jadis is present and hears this, so just... hold onto that fact, okay? It will be important several chapters from now. I'm just going to quote the relevant bit so we can all be on the same page as to what Digory said and what Jadis heard.

  But the Witch had very good ears. “Fool!” came her voice and she leaped off the horse. “Have you forgotten that I can hear men’s thoughts? Let go the boy. If you attempt treachery I will take such vengeance upon you as never was heard of in all worlds from the beginning.”
  “And,” added Digory, “if you think I’m such a mean pig as to go off and leave Polly—and the Cabby—and the horse—in a place like this, you’re well mistaken.”
  “You are a very naughty and impertinent little boy,” said Uncle Andrew.
  “Hush!” said the Cabby. They all listened.

Alright, gentlethems, here is the part you've all been waiting for: the Genesis of Narnia.

  In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. The horse seemed to like it too; he gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar.
  “Gawd!” said the Cabby. “Ain’t it lovely?”

This is a little random, but fuckit, it's my blog and I can do what I want. I am going to strongly recommend you go to YouTube and search for "Geoff Castellucci" of VoicePlay fame. He has the deeeeeeepest voice and it's really the only voice I can at the moment imagine pulling off this fantastical feat: the voice is so beautiful you could weep to hear it sing, but there's no tune to the singing. How? Through the magic of Geoff! Obviously it's going to turn out to be Aslan, but let me have this for a moment longer.

  Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.

This is a Biblical reference to Job 38:7, which says that at the dawn of creation "the morning stars sang together". Every so often an astrophysicist will point out the extremely cool fact that all stars produce acoustic waves that are too low-frequency for human ears to hear but which can be picked up by telescopes and reconstructed with instruments to make eerie "music" from the vibrations. Then some Christians will get really excited and use this as "evidence" that the Bible was right about the singing stars and how could primitive peoples have known that without divine inspiration and therefore the Bible is fact, et cetera, whilst carefully not engaging with the fact that (a) stars can't really sing in a goddamn vacuum that doesn't carry sound ("In space, no one can hear you sing.") and (b) the "sound" from the stars had to be thoroughly manipulated in order to turn it into anything resembling music. Not quite as described in Job. I don't know, I guess I get my hair in a twist about this because the idea of stars singing at their creation is so poetic and beautiful, and it feels like something truly lovely is lost when someone tries to jam that poetry into Realism and insist that it's factual fact. Like trying to mathematically prove that a rose by any other name would, in a survey of 9 out of 10 respondents, smell just as sweet. Anyway.

  There was soon light enough for them to see one another’s faces. The Cabby and the two children had open mouths and shining eyes; they were drinking in the sound, and they looked as if it reminded them of something. Uncle Andrew’s mouth was open too, but not open with joy. He looked more as if his chin had simply dropped away from the rest of his face. His shoulders were stooped and his knees shook. He was not liking the Voice. If he could have got away from it by creeping into a rat’s hole, he would have done so. But the Witch looked as if, in a way, she understood the music better than any of them. Her mouth was shut, her lips were pressed together, and her fists were clenched. Ever since the song began she had felt that this whole world was filled with a Magic different from hers and stronger. She hated it. She would have smashed that whole world, or all worlds, to pieces, if it would only stop the singing. The horse stood with its ears well forward, and twitching. Every now and then it snorted and stamped the ground. It no longer looked like a tired old cab-horse; you could now well believe that its father had been in battles.

Battles, Lewis? Really? I remain deeply frustrated that he has to bring everything good back to the martial arts. His father can't have been a proud race-horse or a mighty farm-horse or a wild stallion on the plains; he has to have been in battles, the most manly of arts.

  The eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose.
  Digory had never seen such a sun. The sun above the ruins of Charn had looked older than ours: this looked younger. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up. And as its beams shot across the land the travelers could see for the first time what sort of place they were in. It was a valley through which a broad, swift river wound its way, flowing eastward toward the sun. Southward there were mountains, northward there were lower hills. But it was a valley of mere earth, rock and water; there was not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of grass to be seen. The earth was of many colors; they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.
  It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song and it was about three hundred yards away.

I will give Lewis this: the actual creation parts are pretty. In the next chapter we'll get to the creation of the animals, which is extremely fun, but this part is good too. The vivid image of a young laughing sun is a delight. Jadis and Uncle Andrew are horrified at the sight of the Lion, with Jadis wanting to "fly at once" back to the Wood and Andrew wishing he had a gun to shoot the lion. Andrew tries to collect both the children and their rings, intending to leave Jadis behind. Jadis lunges for the children but Digory is faster and... sort of takes Polly hostage. Lewis probably didn't intend for me to laugh at this, but it reminds me of that scene in Blazing Saddles when the sheriff takes himself hostage. [Content Note: N-word, Racism]Link is here, at 2:30.[/]

  “Oh, it’s rings, is it?” cried Jadis. She would have had her hands in Digory’s pocket before you could say knife, but Digory grabbed Polly and shouted out:
  “Take care. If either of you come half an inch nearer, we two will vanish and you’ll be left here for good. Yes: I have a ring in my pocket that will take Polly and me home. And look! My hand is just ready. So keep your distance. I’m sorry about you” (he looked at the Cabby) “and about the horse, but I can’t help that. As for you two” (he looked at Uncle Andrew and the Queen) “you’re both magicians, so you ought to enjoy living together.”

Let the record show that Digory is, at least, sorry about the Cabby and Strawberry. The Cabby, however, either does not care what is happening right now or is so lost that he can't follow the action; it's genuinely unclear which.

  “‘Old your noise, everyone,” said the Cabby. “I want to listen to the moosic.”
  For the song had now changed.

And thus we get another of Lewis' baffling chapter breaks in the middle of an ongoing scene wherein nothing has yet been resolved. Chapter 8 is dead, long live Chapter 9.