I mentioned elsewhere that I left twitter a while back, and was talking about how that decision vastly improved my ability to focus, read, and remember information. These days I am just at facebook, very occasionally on Mewe, and once in a while in a forum or two. And of course I am here at the blog. But somehow none of those are as demanding of time and attention as twitter was, and the simple removal of that platform from my routine has made enormous changes for the better. One area I see a noticeable difference is my desire to write. Normally I do a lot of game design and game writing during the day, but since I left twitter I found myself writing all kinds of things and wanting to blog more (which is a much more natural state of things for me: people may remember I used to blog about all kinds of things here in the past). Today I want to talk about body horror in our adventures and explain why I find the genre so appealing.
There is a story I have told before but haven't in a while, and many people following me were not here in the early days of Bedrock (back when all this happened). I want to begin here.
In 2009 I started Bedrock Games with William Butler, and about shortly after I got married. We didn't have a lot of money so I had to take a couple of jobs. I was working as a stringer for a news paper at the time, doing delivery at night and in the late evenings/early mornings writing, doing layout and learning the ropes of publishing. I was very active in combat sports too at this time, so I was generally healthy and energetic. But I started noticing some problems.
If I recall correctly, midway through 2010 it all began. About midway through writing Horror Show (many have observed there is something a little disjointed about a few parts of that book and this is the reason). My energy level dropped tremendously. I like to read and one of my favorite authors has always been Mark Twain. He was the sort of author I would go to to relax and recharge. And I distinctly remember sitting down to read Letters from the Earth and struggling to make it through even a single paragraph at a time. Lethargic, I couldn't get past a page without needing to fall asleep. Not wanting, but needing.
I started noticing other things as well, skin rashes that wouldn't go away, and even more troubling symptoms. I also started having extreme pain, like my body was being split in two. And my mind felt on edge. I always loved horror, and as I was working on a horror game I was watching a lot of it, but my nerves felt shot whenever I tried to watch something intense. I would go to cover stories for the paper, and have bouts of bleeding. I was training at a san shou gym at the time, and I would have the same problems there. Eventually the pain got so bad, I found myself on the couch, where I could do nothing but scream. I had to scream. It wasn't even a choice the pain was like being torn in half at the legs and radiant through my whole body.
I went to several doctors and the problem was misdiagnosed about three times over the course of a month. It wasn't until December that they finally gave me a scan (a process that involves drinking tubs of iodine mixed with ginger ale, until you inevitably vomit). They found an abscess, a perianal abscess. I was told these were known for being particularly painful, and that you needed to treat them before they lead to septicemia. This explained the pain, so it was a relief. I had been through months of mysterious symptoms and the news was welcome.
I went in for surgery. This was my first surgery. I had never had or needed surgery before. I made a point that I wasn't going to make a big deal of it, that I wasn't gong to be nervous or anxious. And that first time, it worked. I went in, got rolled into surgery and spent the night delicious in the hospital watching Monk (they must have been having a marathon because that is all I remember watching).
When you have that kind of surgery they give you heavy pain medication, which I took (at least I did for this surgery). The next morning I was called back to the hospital, but because I was medicated, I had to get a ride from family. My grandfather, who had been ill and losing his mind, passed away the Sunday I got home.
That year he had been staying at my parents house, growing weaker. I would usually go there early to make him some food. He was a hard man to cook for. You had to cook his pasta till it was mush because he had false teeth and no longer took the time to seal them to his gums. I remember towards the end, he was having visions of bears at the window. These sights would naturally make him very anxious. He would look at me and ask "Is that bear going to be a problem?". I found the best response was to accept the reality of the bear and just tell him "That bear is fine, he is just minding his own business." My grandfather, who we all called 'papa' for some reason, would turn over and go back to sleep (he slept most of the day at this point).
I remember vaguely seeing him about a day or two before my surgery, but I was in so much pain all I remember is him asking what was wrong with me, then commenting how much he liked my wife. That she was a good woman. But the rest is a blur.
After I saw his body and the hospital and we all said out goodbyes, I spent the next week at his funeral, serving as pall bearer (not advisable after surgery but I was particularly close to him and felt this was an important role to serve), and just being with family. It was naturally all a bit surreal given the surgery and the pain medication. The service was held at his church, an Italian Church along the city line. We then hurried him in Lynn. Like most men his age, he served in World War II (he was at the Battle of the Bulge) and I was surprised that the military sent two people there to play taps and hand my mother a flag to put on his coffin. After the funeral we went to eat at an Italian restaurant (all my grandfather's children and their children).
My grandfather had also been a boxer. In fact early on in the war he boxed to help provide entertainment. He had a long amateur career (nearly 100 fights I believe and he won all but 1 as far as I know). And he had a professional career which was successful but cut short when the war started (and a jeep accident ruined his hands for boxing---he could still train people, but he told me between that and losing all his conditioning during the war, going back to box professionally wasn't in the cards for him). Later I would discover just how good of a boxer he was when I was working on a boxing history project in my local area and was contacted by people who remembered seeing him fight, and I regularly heard the same thing: that he wasn't just a good fighter, but an amazing one. This was something he and I connected over, and also the reason for my interest in martial arts.
After he died, I spent the next week focused on recovery. And the recovery went well. I went back to work when they told me I was able (I think the doctor told me to take 1-2 weeks off). I didn't notice any problems when I worked for the paper in the day, but at night, I noticed pain while I was driving for delivery. Soon the bleeding started again. And this went on. I went to the surgeon and he said my recovery was fine, that the pain would fade. But the pain persisted, the bleeding increased, and things generally got very bad.
Fevers and chills were a frequent symptom (they had been from the start) and they got so bad my whole body would shake. At this point, my work on horror show was thoroughly interrupted and put it on hold. I found myself back at the hospital for tests. The abscess was back. They gave me more pain pills. The rest felt like a dream. I slumped in the couch and watched 70s crime films all night.
My surgery was scheduled at night. That felt ominous. It is different going into hospital at night, rather than the day, especially for surgery. The old woman at the desk told me she had a perianal abscess and I had all her symptoms (she described it as the worst pain she ever felt in her life). Thankfully she just had that one incident but I was subjected to it twice, which was why she felt so awful.
They rolled me in, and started the I.V. I had a new surgeon. The second I.V. is when the body horror of this story begins. They always ask you if you've eaten or drunk anything hours prior to the surgery (you are supposed to fast). I had some coffee which I told them about. They will sometimes give you a drug to clear your stomach. They said they were going to give me something. I felt it flow into my veins, and instead of cold liquid, everything felt prickly. My blood felt wrong. My brain instantly panicked. And I wasn't given to panic. This whole time, I'd been calm through it all. I don't remember much else. The surgeon was convinced this was an early stage of sepsis and insisted I go in. I was convinced I was having a reaction that needed to be addressed. They resolved the disagreement by taking any power I had to make a decision away from me. When you put down family members as contacts on those medical forms, apparently you also give them power to make decisions for you if you can't. And the doctor decided I couldn't make a clear decision now. My mother was the only person there at the time, and she was on my form, alongside my wife, so they told her I had to go into surgery right away, no delay, and, understandably, she okayed it. I still felt like my blood was hot and fuzzy. I think I was still screaming at people. It is all kind of a blur.
This surgery did not go as well as the first. I woke up and couldn't empty my bladder (this isn't uncommon after anesthesia). The struggle to empty it produced pools of blood at my feet. I remember feeling the blood under my foot on the tile. They tried everything, but I ended up needing a catheter for a week (I won't go into details on that, but I do not recommend them).
When I got home my personality was visibly different. I remember passing the time reading Dracula, Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These are books I had read many times before, and I was immersed in them like I always would be, but there was something gnawing at me this time. The fear felt a lot more real, not just escapist. I was uncomfortable deep in the pit of my stomach. When I returned to work this feeling persisted. Just a vague sense of doom hanging every where and realizing all the cars around me could crash and people could die in an instant. Each moment on the highway felt like it could go catastrophically wrong with one bad choice or mistimed turn. This was definitely not how I normally felt in the world.
A lot happened after this. I won't go deep into the details. But one thing to understand is I needed a total of seven surgeries in the next year. And each of these surgeries, produced fistulas, basically wounds or tunnels leading from my bowels where the abscesses stated to the outside of my body. And there were a lot of fistulas. The fistulas were all fitted with setons, which in my case were flexible blue strips of plastic, almost like hard string, to keep them from healing over (the fistulas need to remain open so they can drain). The problem seemed to be that no matter how many abscesses they removed, they would come back or appear in other spots. It just kept coming back, and by the end of the year I was barely functional.
I had somehow managed to finish Horror Show, to the point that I remember reading a review of it the day I went in for my fourth surgery (there was a months long gap between my 3rd and 4th procedure). But I was going in so regularly it felt routine. However once home, I wasn't able to do much. The fistulas took a long time to get used to, but it wasn't just the fistulas that were the problem. They were creating other problems themselves and I frequently ended up in the hospital because of those symptoms. I lost a tremendous amount of weight. Before it all began I was 170 to 180 pounds, with a healthy amount of fat and muscle. I was in the low 120s by the second round of surgeries.
The doctors knew they had to do something to keep me from getting abscesses. They decided to put me on two antibiotics long term. This isn't something you normally want to do all the time (antibiotics have all kinds of side effects and they are not good for you body if you take them too long, but there was not other choice). They eventually discovered the problem was crohns disease. They also found that I had vasculitis which explained a number of the other symptoms (though the vasculitis was pretty perplexing for a lot of reasons). They found celiac as well, which was at the bottom of my list of concerns (though it did mean not more Italian restaurants or eating pasta at family gatherings).
They decided to put me on immune suppressants. My mother has immune issues, and had been on suppressants, but I was wary because she went septic once as a result. But I tried them, and my body reacted very poorly. Infections started right away. I was getting them all the time. And I was getting all kinds of other reactions that made life hell for several weeks. We decided to stop the immune suppressant. I tried another with another doctor but it didn't go well either. So we stopped them and just stuck with the antibiotics.
One lingering effect was some kind of psoriasis. My skin had never been much of an issue for me (except those rashes when the abscesses first started). But immediately started having red scaly patches. Not really a big issue in light of all that had been going on, but just more changes to the body.
As a product of all this, my work options were becoming extremely limited. The best I was able to do was focus on Bedrock and make what I could there. I did some additional work as a stringer but this became an enormous challenge for me to pull off. Eventually it was just Bedrock, and as is widely understood, there isn't often a lot of money to be had in gaming (unless you come into with resources, or work for one of the big tier companies). With the fistulas, for the first five years at least, writing proved a huge challenge. I couldn't sit for long stretches. And sitting is how you normally write. I had to either write standing up (which was excruciating for the fistulas) or laying down. I wrote all of the game Slayers (published by Avalon) standing up for example. And I wrote almost all of Sertorius laying down (a set up that required tremendous innovation and open-mindedness on my part). Eventually I found ways to write sitting down, but it took me a long time. Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate was the first book I wrote from a seated position for many years (though this possibly began with Beneath the Banshee Tree). There isn't exactly a handbook on how to do this kind of thing when your body has undergone these types of alterations. And the doctors and nurses don't give much in the way of advice (though it is possible I was in such a haze, they gave it and I didn't notice). You just have to figure it out.
Exercise and martial arts were a whole other thing. I couldn't do martial arts anymore. It was important to keep my muscles healthy, but building muscle around a fistula can make them more active and lead to problems. So it was a balancing act. Occasionally I would get it into my head I could do more. Sometimes I was right, sometimes wrong. I spent time last year testing how far I could go by getting back into martial arts with full contact sparring. For a time it seemed like things were good, but malabsorption and fistulas have consequences you can only ignore for so long. Eventually they reassert their dominion over you. I had to stop, because of an injury and because was aggravating my symptoms. But I am hoping I can return when things get back to normal, even if it is on a much lighter schedule, because I really felt alive again sparring and training.
The last part is important because two things two things happened to me creatively during this time, and you can very much see them in our books like Sertorius, Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, House of Paper Shadows and Strange Tales of Songling. The first I have spoken about before, where I suddenly found myself, always a martial arts movie fan, watching much more wuxia than I normally would have. I liked wuxia, but tended to favor more kung fu and less flying swordsman stuff. But suddenly unable to do martial arts myself, I found the idea of swordsman who can defy gravity enormously liberating. The other thing was I had a new appreciation for body horror. I always liked stuff like Barker and Cronenberg. But I had never experienced body horror first hand. And I felt like I got the full range, from a sense of being mutilated to the dread of a creeping disease overtaking your body and changing you.
You see it in a lot of books I've written. In Sertorius you see both the wuxia and the body horror influence for instance. But House of Paper Shadows is almost all body horror. And it was my way of coming to terms with everything I had been through. Body horror is a reminder of the body's fragility and our mortality. It is also a reminder that your body, and the world, are not constant they are always changing. Sometimes that realization is good. But other times, like when you look down and suddenly see a part of you is irreparably changed, it can be horrifying.
This is also why I developed a fixation with 'maimed swordsman' films. Early in my recovery I was watching films like the One Armed Swordsman over, and over again. Because I identified with the protagonists. And I think maimed swordsman movies are a kind of body horror. The realization that no matter how healthy, how heroic, you can still just be meat and body parts can be lost.
A lot of these themes are evident in our art. Every book has some kind of emotional foundation. I won't go all the way back to the beginning with this, but most of them deal with my experiences of bodily transformation, fear of death and grief in some way. When we started Ogre Gate, William Butler passed away suddenly early on, and that whole book became about the venting of our grief. That is why midway through the book, the art shifts from idyllic and bloodless, to bloody, filled with lost limbs and heroes dying. I was still coming to terms with Bill's death and so were the other writers.
By the time I started House of Paper Shadows I knew I wanted the art to reflect the fragility of the body, in a way only body horror could achieve. Those were part of the conversations we had around the art. The end result is one of our better looking books in my opinion. And if House of Paper Shadows dwelled on the shifting and dying nature of the human body, Strange Tales focused on the decay of spirit that brings (again this was part of the discussion surrounding the artwork).
Don't get me wrong. These are games. I am not a big believer in the notion that games will change how people see the world. But I do think they can help enrich peoples lives and give them an emotional experience. So I have always tried to bring emotional weight into the art, the creative process and setting material. That is why listening to music before I write is so important to me. While these are still games about exploring worlds, being another person and defeating foes (or dying at their hands), each game still has a lot of personal meaning to me, and an emotional foundation that I think lends some weight to the settings and adventures. I am the furthest thing from a literary minded person. I do, however, invest a lot of thought in what I make, and treat it with the same awe I treated writing music. That only intensified after all my experiences with surgeries and fistulas.
I left a lot out of this account. Too much happens in ten years (or even in just a year or two of surgeries) to condense into a single blog post. There was an incident after anesthesia, involving a green dancing gremlin on my chest as I tried to sleep (which I realized was just my mind playing tricks with the glow of the AV light at night). There were countless trips to the emergency for symptoms I'd rather forget to be honest. Your mind definitely slips under those circumstances as well, so there ended up being a lot of work to do there. But the big thing was the body horror and the grief. Those shaped me in ways I couldn't have anticipated when Bedrock started. And the death of Bill Butler was an enormously unexpected development as he was not only my good friend but played a critical role: he was our mechanics maestro.
I am writing about this because sometimes I just need to write, and also I want people to understand that even thought these are still just games, they do have layers to them. This might be me giving too much of a window. I am a very private person. At the same time, I am not someone who enjoys the artificiality of being out there online and marketing. That is why I don't edit my podcasts for example. It is why I left twitter. I don't want to lose myself in the process of trying to promote the games I make. I don't want to create a glossy version of me that isn't real. I see that happen to people and I don't want to go down that road. And returning to these events, is a helpful way for me to remind myself of important lessons of my imperfections.