The Baron’s Eyrie at 26

Dungeon March/April 1996

At the Dungeons & Dragons forum ENWorld, contributor (un)reason has been systematically filing through old issues of Dungeon and reviewing the adventures within. This week, he/she reached issue 58 containing my initial publication in the magazine, “The Baron’s Eyrie,” and had only good things to say about my work from… *does math* twenty-six years ago!?

Things get more interesting once you get inside the castle itself, as the infected lycanthropes hate their master, and would love for you to destroy him & free them, maybe cure them as well, but their magical compulsion means they can’t do anything directly against him. This does still mean they’ll be surprisingly civil if you don’t attack everything on sight, giving you the option to play the adventure in a more political way with various twists and turns as you uncover the various personalities of the place and their secrets. Some of those twists are sufficiently sneaky that I’m not going to spoil them here, and there’s enough of them that it’s unlikely your group will discover all of them, making this both an interesting read and of well above average replayability too.

Whole review here.

“The Baron’s Eyrie” was my first big sale. I was paid $580, which was more than my monthly rent — an enormous sum of money for me in 1996. I would go on to contribute two more adventures to Dungeon in the late 90s.

I fell away from D&D for decades before starting a pandemic group in 2020 that includes my sons, my nephews, and my brother. As a DM I generally try to provide an avenue for the players to resolve encounters by talking their way out of it, even if nine times out of the ten they wake up and choose violence. Having forgotten the particulars of “Eyrie,” it’s gratifying to see I was using that same approach last century too.

The Last Stand of Sassacus House

Love Letters to Poe Volume 2: Houses of Usher

Because the first was so nice we had to do it twice, Love Letters to Poe, Volume II: Houses of Usher is available today.

The anthology features 19 short stories and 11 poems of the Gothic and macabre inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

My contribution, “The Last Stand of Sassacus House,” revolves around one man’s greed not for a house but rather for its absence:

Rueben Tolbridge coveted Sassacus House long before he coveted the woman who owned it. For years Tolbridge slowed his shay past the old Sassacus place in admiration — not for the ramshackle manor itself but rather for its position high above the gray waters of the Sound. Set back from the road, partially screened by tall weeds and braided tree limbs, it staggered his imagination that no one bothered to knock down the decrepit structure and develop the parcel.

Whoever took the trouble of clearing its overgrown acres, Tolbridge told himself, could build the mansion of his dreams, a magnificent home to spoil its owner, then net him a sizable profit when he sold it. If he sold it, and didn’t live out his life there.

Love Letters to Poe, Volume II: Houses of Usher is available in ebook, paperback, hardcover, and large-print formats.

Houses of Usher is the second volume of Poe tribute fiction by editor Sara Crocoll Smith. Meanwhile, the initial entry has been nominated for a Saturday Visiter Award in the category of “Original Works Inspired by E.A. Poe’s Life and Writing.” The winner will be announced in October at the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival & Awards in Baltimore, MD.

How to Win Frens

A few weeks ago I was approached by a potential client to write a project. The client was very specific about what she wanted — always a good thing — but her biggest demand had nothing to do with deadlines or my previous credits or, in fact, anything to do with writing.

Said client was a big fan of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. She only wanted to work with a writer who’d read and internalized the book.

I bluffed, of course, but clearly I failed to win or influence her: she went with someone else. Yet by the time the rejection came down the intertubes I’d already grabbed Carnegie’s book from the library. So I went ahead and read it anyway.

First published in 1936, the book should be more properly titled How to Win Clients and Close the Deal because so much of it is aimed at how to sell yourself and whatever product you’re peddling. The original foreword was buried in the back of the edition I read, and the revelation that Carnegie based it on a public-speaking course for businessmen that he taught at a YMCA is not at all surprising.

This isn’t a book about being the best bestie you can be. It’s a book about hustling.

Still, How to Win Friends launched the modern self-help genre, notoriously known for its bestselling fluff. Carnegie hit a nerve writing when he did. As the Chautauqua movement gasped its last in the 1920s, Carnegie stepped in with his seminars, which eventually morphed into a line of books. Nowadays Chautauqua lectures have been reincarnated as TED Talks and Nantucket Projects, but in-between there’s been Rich Dad Poor Dad and The Secret and entire dead forests of flimflammery, all of it inspired by Carnegie.

Cracking open its covers, I wanted to be cynical about How to Win Friends. But I confess I don’t disagree with everything Carnegie wrote.

Carnegie starts with a pair of truisms I already knew. Don’t criticize or complain to others because it never changes their behavior, he says, and be sincerely grateful for others.

I say I already knew these things but they took me the better part of four decades to learn. I wonder how much trouble I would’ve saved myself if I’d read this book and started practicing them earlier. Put another way, it took me a long time to recognize that simply being nice and appreciative of others costs me nothing, and while that attitude is usually paid back immediately, even when it isn’t it makes the vexations of life much more tolerable.

Damn it, Carnegie. I couldn’t help warming to him.

He goes on with further advice. People are flattered when you remember their name. Be friendly. Soften bad news with good news first. In business relationships, convince others that what you want is beneficial to them. And so on. Basic tenets everybody knows but worth repeating in black and white.

Some other suggestions are tougher to stomach. Smile a lot, writes Carnegie. Don’t argue. Respect other people’s opinions.

Hoo boy. I’ve lived more in the past five years than I have in the preceding 45 and let me tell you, these days my bar for horseshit is real low. Sitting here watching the Select Committee hearings about January 6, wondering if in 2025 I’m going to be a private in the First Connecticut Volunteers of the Union Army, does not make one open-minded and tolerant of every opinion. I have zero patience for your crackpot conspiracy theories about elections and masks. You don’t want to get vaccinated? Fine, as long as when I roll into the emergency room I go to the front of the line and you and your case of covid goes to the back.

I’m not in the mood to smile and not argue and respect whatever fever dream the five neurons in your rhesus-monkey brain have conjured. I don’t want to be everybody’s friend.

This, I think, is the big flaw in Carnegie’s system: he dances around conflicts, and when they invariably occur, he approaches them indirectly. His strategy is one of deescalation rather than straightforward resolution. There’s an unspoken implication that when a disagreement reaches loggerheads, the participants are not friends, they remain uninfluenced, and they part ways as indifferent to each other as Bengal tigers. I much prefer a system that allows one to navigate conflict deftly but directly.

Some of Carnegie’s method is outright manipulative, like his technique of seeding others so they believe your idea is their idea, which is then pursued with all enthusiasm. Both Charles Manson and the Nazi Party were fans of How to Win Friends. But such is the nature of salesmanship: you can use it to push an order for 5,000 oil gaskets or a cult ideology. It’s not Carnegie’s fault some people are suckers.

There’s definitely something quaint about How to Win Friends and Influence People, something historically funny in the countless anecdotes of Bill Smith of Poughkeepsie selling typewriter ribbons or Janey Jones of Rancho Cucamonga convincing the bank president to promote her. But there’s some useful insight too, not the least of which was buried in that foreword-turned-afterword.

“The way to develop self-confidence, [Carnegie] said,” wrote Lowell Thomas in the original 1936 preface, “is to do the thing you fear to do and get a record of successful experiences behind you.” Carnegie doesn’t talk much about self-confidence in his book but it’s certainly the subtext: what holds most people back is not a lack of technical skill at their profession but rather social awkwardness. By equipping them to navigate the social sphere, Carnegie helped his readers and lecture-goers better realize their goals and dreams.

In a lot of ways, How to Win Friends and Influence People is about conquering social anxiety, something just as prevalent in our current era. Maybe it’s due for a post-pandemic edition.

The Half That Matters

A little diversion of mine appears in the latest issue of the Australian anthology series Thuggish Itch.

Titled “The Half That Matters,” it’s a story of two fellows on an unsavory errand to dispose of something into the sea.

This one’s a favorite. Not only is it the first time my fiction has been published south of the equator (some of my nonfiction was reprinted in Oz years ago), but it’s also the first time I’ve published a piece of flash fiction.

I wrote “Half” almost back-to-back with “A Tour of the Ramses,” which appears in Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World. Both stories use a similar first-person perspective in which the action is verbally narrated to an audience, but in the case of “Half,” the narrator is even less trustworthy.

Some of the setting’s description is based upon a real place. There’s a hike I enjoy along a sea wall to a lonely peninsula which terminates in an automated lighthouse. I almost never meet anyone out there except for the peninsula’s inhabitants: a handful of feral cats who live among the rocks and dunes. Occasionally schools of bunker (menhaden) are stranded by the ebb tide on the beach’s mud flats, creating a feast for the cats; meanwhile pools of rainwater collect in the natural bowls of the landscape.

The cats and I observe each other from a safe distance, neither sure about the other. I suspect they live better lives than some humans.

You can pick up Thuggish Itch: By the Seaside over on Amazon.

Sweet Land of Naivete

The word immature reverberated in my head last week when I read about a Tennessee education board banning the graphic novel Maus from its schools, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less.

Art Spiegelman’s memoir, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is an absolutely stunning masterpiece. It’s the true story of the artist and writer trying to come to terms with his difficult father Vladek, a Holocaust survivor crippled by PTSD.

The book (or books — originally Maus appeared in two volumes) juxtaposes Spiegelman’s modern-day frustrations with Vladek against flashbacks of his father’s experiences in Europe. I read it first as a teen, then reread it while preparing this post. There are parts that are hard to read without my eyes watering.

One scene has always stuck with me. Mouse Artie and mouse Vladek are walking down the street, and Artie is enraged because his dad rummages through the trash barrels they pass. The dad finds some wire which he keeps, mentioning it might be useful later. You always pick up trash! mouse Artie shouts. Can’t you just buy wire?

But Vladek is mystified by his son’s reaction. He scavenges because he’s a survivor. He’d be foolish not to take the wire!

That scene, emblematic of Vladek’s entire life, hits even harder with me now, some thirty-odd years after first reading it. That’s what good art does. Good art sticks in the head decades later. Good art you never forget.

Let’s assume the members of the McMinn County Board of Education aren’t anti-Semites or Holocaust deniers. Let’s assume their banning of Maus from their schools because of “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide” is sincere. Let’s assume that when the Board wrote in their statement, “We simply do not believe that this work is an appropriate text for our students to study,” they were totally serious.

Most of those McMinn County eighth-graders have game consoles at home and already know worse words than the very few swears printed in Maus. Likewise those kids know more euphemisms for penis than there are hollows in the Tennessee hills, let alone what penises or women’s breasts, cartoon or otherwise, look like. They have phones.

And because it’s impossible to teach the Holocaust without discussing violence, I don’t know what would be an appropriate text to study that would meet the board’s criteria. Even The Diary of Anne Frank doesn’t end with a happily ever after.

You have to wonder at the callowness of people too immature to look past a few bad words and cartoon peens — how do they survive in this world of ours? The characters Spiegelman depicts were real people with real names who actually existed, but by the board’s logic their stories and memories are invalidated by the same violence by which they died. In their naivete, the horrors of the Holocaust fade in relevance to a belief in their children’s moral chastity, a virtue as nonexistent as Santa Claus.

I wish I could say this childishness is something new, something that’s appeared in the past few years, but I’m old enough to remember the Satanic panic of the 80s and the time Tipper Gore’s freakout over a Prince album led to congressional hearings. For my entire lifetime America has been a nation of thumb-suckers, some of them in charge.

The only response is for the rest of us — the grown-ups — to push back every way you can, in any small way you can.

Coda: When I first read Maus, I assumed it was the Holocaust that made Vladek Spiegelman who he was, that his experiences shaped him — that he was, as I said above, “a Holocaust survivor crippled by PTSD.” At one point in the narrative, when Artie’s wife Francoise empathizes with Vladek by suggesting that very idea, Artie is unconvinced, commenting that he knows many other Holocaust survivors who aren’t like his dad. There’s something harder and more extreme about Vladek.

For many years I agreed with Francoise — after all, it’s presumptuous to expect everyone to process trauma in the same way.

But now I’m not so sure. Not too long ago I wrote a book in which the protagonist encounters relatives from his mother’s estranged side of the family, all of whom are wealthy and successful. They’re not bad people (well, most of them aren’t) but they are, to varying degrees, obnoxious and difficult to get along with. It’s fiction but the story is based upon my observations from decades of rubbing elbows with prosperous people in which I’ve realized the same traits that drive some to succeed also make them intolerable. Is Elon Musk evil? I very much doubt it. Is he a prick? Sounds like it.

Likewise I now suspect Vladek was who he was all along; the reason he survived the Holocaust was precisely because of his character. His traits are what led to his success — and during the Holocaust, success was measured by survival. Those same qualities that grated on Artie’s nerves are what allowed his father to live. That’s not to say other survivors had those same manners or that all survivors are somehow obnoxious. But the skills that preserved Vladek were often not so easy to turn off afterward, much to his son’s exasperation.