Haunting the Dead

... might not be Clive Barker, {but} it isn't Death Metal lyrics, either. The stories are definitely good enough to make you want to play or run a game, and open several mysteries for astute players and STs alike to puzzle over ... I would have given it a higher score if most of the stories had been a little better ...

Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

The primary task of game-based fiction - other than making money for the parent company - is to inspire people to run or play the game that fiction is based upon. It can also be used to expand upon parts of the game's mythos or metaplot, or at least play them up. Every once in a while it might even transcend its normal strengths, and turn out to be the sort of thing that everyone - even people who aren't into rpgs - can appreciate. But that's a long shot, right there.

Keeping that in mind, I didn't come to Haunting the Dead - Orpheus' fiction anthology - with great hopes of being knocked on my ass by amazing feats of literary excellence. As a result I wasn't terribly disappointed when I remained standing, and was instead pleasantly surprised at some of the gems included within the book.

The stories are a bit uneven, and the entire book probably isn't going to win any awards for excellence in gaming fiction. However, I'd say Haunting the Dead forms a suitable introduction to the world of Orpheus, and is worth picking up for that reason alone. And there is one story amongst the four that absolutely must be read by anyone remotely interested in the game.


{Note: since this is a work of fiction, I'm not going to go into too much detail as to the stories' contents. I feel that would spoil the fun of reading them, not to mention give away some of the surprises. All the same, a few minor details will pop up here and there, and may ruin your total enjoyment of the book. So, if you want to come into Haunting the Dead fresh and unaware, you might be better off jumping ahead to the review's conclusion.}


Haunting the Dead's art is, of course, fairly minimal; This is a fiction book, not a game supplement. That said, it has an eerily-effective cover by Christopher Shy, and neat "wall o' skulls" pages for the story titles. It also makes effective use of faded fonts, misplaced strips of label-gun writing and the like.

The editing is pretty good, though there's a few spots of it's/its confusion scattered throughout the text. There is also a rather amusing - and foreboding - typo on the back cover: see if you can spot it...


The first story is The Grass is Always Greener, by Stephen Petrucha. A small number of college students gather to attend a pill party, hosted by a person of dubious motives. Tonight's drug of choice will be pigment, and the host wants to conduct a little experiment in high-tech parapsychology once the pills kick in. But things start to go awry as soon as they're down the hatch...

I hate to start the review on a downer, but this story was ultimately disappointing. I had to make myself read past the first paragraph, and the rest of the first chapter was a real drag, too. Now, once the story got going, things livened up quite a bit: it was spooky and freaky in the right amounts, and my jaw dropped right onto the page at a certain spot. But once we got past the meaty, good stuff in the center, the climax turned out too talky and dragged-along, and the ending wasn't as satisfying as I'd have liked as a result.

I also had a problem with the focal character: I couldn't make any real connection to her, as a reader, and by the end I was hoping she might also... well, I shouldn't spoil it.


Next in the queue - and a definite improvement - is Seth Lindberg's Eurydice. A Sleeper on the beach receives a dire warning from Radio Free Death, only to have a major part of his life fall out from under him. After that, layers of corporate deception become all too visible, leading him to questionable allies and a looming showdown...

Eurydice stays fairly even throughout, and succeeds in illustrating what a truly fucked-up environment Orpheus Group can be to work in. This might have been laid on a little too thick in some spots, but it's okay, given the circumstances. It also opens one of those worm cans I spoke of, and I think you'll agree with me that it's a damn freaky one - and well done, too.

The major problem I have with the story is that, once again, I couldn't connect to the focal character. While I can understand why he might react the way he does to what happens, given the nature of his job, his behavior is still somewhat blasé for my liking. As a result, I found myself really unable to care about what happened to him, which...

*ahem* Never mind.


Then we have Dia de Los Muertos, by Allen Rausch. Two agents from the USA - one living, one dead - respond to an emergency call from Orpheus' branch in Guadalajara, Mexico. Once there, they are handed an assignment from someone too powerful to disappoint. What might otherwise be a standard case of neutralization is complicated by more than a few factors, as is the portentous trip to the scene of the disturbance...

I found this story to be spooky and creepy fun. While the climax came across a little B-movie for my tastes, the denouement was spot-on Orpheus: tackling a problem at its roots, rather than through brute force alone. The focal character was one I could empathize with, for a change. And I also loved the atmosphere of the setting; I wish Wraith: the Oblivion had gotten around to doing a book on the Dark Kingdom of Obsidian, and this might give STs some pointers in that direction.

On the other hand, as you might guess from the title, the story suffers from gratuitous bilingualism. I don't mind the occasional "hey," "my friend," "yes" and "no" in a foreign language when I'm reading a story, but when we're getting song lyrics that might be relevant, I want a translation. When we consider that the main characters are Spanish-speakers, I don't see the reason to confuse the reader by slapping on the Espanõl.

{I also think the ending of the story is too much too soon, and should have been downplayed, somehow. But I won't go into that here, saying only that there's yet another can of worms opened here, too.}


Finally, we've got Rick Chillot's Corridors, and the best has truly been saved for last. The story is perhaps best described as... well, that'd give it away. Let me just present this snippet of the story to puzzle over:

"...Think of time as being like this hotel. It has an overall architecture, but you can never see all of it at once. So most of us move from room to room, moment to moment. Starting in the basement, say, and ending at the top floor, never going backwards, never skipping over the next room in the sequence. But imagine if you could move freely through the corridors, from room to another, one floor to another, re-visiting some spaces, skipping ahead to others."

I think that's the best way to set this one up without spoiling it.

Corridors is, without a doubt, the best story in the book, and probably one of the best pieces of gaming fiction I've read in a long time. It's freaky and immediate, dropping us into the deep end and slowly bringing us up to speed with what's going on. We also get a focal character that we can empathize with - and therefore root for - as well as some very evocative bit players.

Oh, and speaking of cans of worms, a few really wet and wiggly ones get opened up in this story. It also has another bang on-target Orphesque {can we say that?} handling of the root problem, along with the added bonus of playing right into the events of Crusade of Ashes, too. Orpheus players and STs will love this one, and so will folks who dug Wraith: the Oblivion.


If the primary task set before RPG fiction is to inspire you to play, then Haunting the Dead succeeds fairly well. It does a good job of presenting the world of the game, and a bang-up job of expanding its mythos, too. It's not anywhere near the level of literary brilliance needed to foist it upon unsuspecting strangers and tempt them into the fiendish world of RPGs, but Storytellers wanting to set the mood for their Chronicle could do far worse than hand over a few of the better stories to their players.

At the same time, I have to say they could do better, too. The first story was a real disappointment that could have been cured with some major changes to the opening and closing. And while the two stories immediately following it were much better, they also had a few problems that detracted from their overall enjoyment. Fortunately, the last story is a masterpiece that more than makes up for the problems with the first one; I'd say it's almost worth reading the book in reverse order just to start it all off with a bang.

But, while the majority of Haunting the Dead might not be Clive Barker, it isn't Death Metal lyrics, either. The stories are definitely good enough to make you want to play or run a game, and open several mysteries for astute players and STs alike to puzzle over, so I'd say it does what it has to do. I would have given it a higher score if most of the stories had been a little better, but the touches of brilliance to be found throughout it - not to mention Corridors - led me to hand it 3.5 Skulls out of five.

Reviews on the Wraith Project are the opinions of those reviewers, and are not necessarily those of the Wraith Project themselves. If you disagree with this review, send in another one. If you still feel like strangling the reviewer, see an analyst.