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Vampire Retrospective: Joshua Alan Doetsch

Posted on November 28, 2011 by Flames

The Vampire Retrospective Project continues today with an essay from Joshua Alan Doetsch, author of the novel Strangeness in the Proportion for World of Darkness. Joshua tells us about discovering Vampire: the Masquerade in 1995, exploring the World of Darkness and how his novel is “my love letter to The Masquerade and all of its ghoulish siblings.”

A Beast I am…

    “A Beast I am lest a Beast I become.”

    I was eight or nine when the slashers came for us. They lurched in with their sharp-sharp things to take us from our beds, stab us, rip us, decorate the lawn with our insides, deglove our heads, and wear our faces. But they found us ready, with our own sharp-sharp things, and on a school night, amidst laughing screams, we decorated the lawn. We wore their faces.

    Wait. Fast forward. 1995. High school. Sixteen. The day I met Vampire: the Masquerade (2nd ed.), I wore a white dress shirt and black tie, both splattered in oily popcorn gore. On my way home from work, I stopped at a tiny B. Dalton bookstore–these were the days before the larger outlets swallowed them and choked. I worked with a cool crew at the movie theater, and the most interesting individuals talked about Clans and Disciplines and used sexy words like “obfuscate”. The undead were not new to me–Dracula, Nosferatu, a much worn copy of The Vampire Encyclopedia checked and rechecked out from the library. I had to know what this was about. I wanted to impress the girl that said “obfuscate”.

    A rose! Green marble!

    “A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror”

    This was different. This was a tome. I knew, then, that this was an important moment–heavy inertia on the hard cover. Some books are like opening a door.

    Rewind. Grade school. My first roleplaying group (though I didn’t know words like “roleplay” or “LARP” then): Nick, my little brother by two years–Mike and Brian were brothers, and their ages staggered with ours so that we fit together like the interlocked fingers of a secret handshake–and there was Brad, my best friend.

    Our backyards connected, joined by other friendly neighbors, side to side and back to front, making a giant play space. Except for Mr. Butts’s yard. That was no man’s land. The rest was ours, with no fences to cut off our Never-never-paradise.

    The slashers crept in sneakier than September. I had not seen the movies–Brad had seen one–Brian too. My dad let me watch some horror films with him. I could watch aliens burst from chests, but my parents were wary of the masked men and their knives. Still, we knew the slashers, knew them like the medieval peasant knows the devils in the woods.

    Brad and Brian shared what they’d seen. We added our own bits. When my Mom shopped, I studied the VHS movie rental boxes on the horror rack–that familiar, dusty wall of hieroglyphs to a forbidden mythology. The pictures. The story fragments. We stitched it all together with threads of urban legend, cautionary tales of Satanists who sacrificed cats and dogs by the river, and with the dripping-charcoal horror of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. We built an entire mythos. And we were terrified.

    We did the only sensible thing. We armed ourselves. We played Slasher. All it took was a spooky old coat from the Deep closet, a plastic knife or axe, and a ski-mask or Halloween mask–and then off and away and latex rubber was the smell of cackling catharsis–ha-ha-ha! We’d take turns becoming the slasher, but never the iconic movie maniacs; we made up our own. The rest of us tried to survive, armed with our own plastic arsenal. We shot, hacked, and ran-ran-ran, diving behind bushes, dashing up the slide to the safety of the playground fort. Sometimes we got the slasher. Sometimes he got us.

    It took gallons of imaginary blood, but we learned the rules of how a psychopath becomes an indestructible inevitability. Not hard-chiseled rules, but floating, intuitive patterns, like knowing Superman needs his cape to fly–knowing you can run on air if you don’t look down. There are rules as to why some rippers refuse to die: improper burial, desecrated grave, committing a heinous crime before death, making/receiving a curse while dying, an innocent meeting a bad end, toxic levels of humiliation, falling into a bog and brewing into a leather mummy. A thing can be too evil or mean to die, like Mr. Butts–who yelled at us kids, who did not hand out Halloween candy, and who killed hatchlings in his birdhouses, Childermas style, if they were the wrong species. The rules for slaying a slasher were unique to each one: staking to the ground, decapitation, fire, acid, laying a crucifix on the bullet-ridden body, blowing him up and burying the pieces in separate graves.

    We conjured bucketfuls of macabre glee in our backyard sanctum, under autumn’s gift of early dark, that planetary loophole in the laws of bedtime. We had the night or at least a peace of it, on lone till spring.

    Children have shaman wisdom. If something disturbs them, they have nightmares, and then they put that thing into their games. Children have masks. They can transform themselves into the monster and play until they understand how to beat it. Children know that it is alright to love the things they fear.

    Adults have clumsy tools to deal with fear: self-help books, pills, and horrible questions like, “What does this say about me?” They lose their masks.

    Fast forward. 2007. I found out I won a novel contest from the company that gave me that wonderful tome over a decade ago. Top of the world, ma!

    Fast forward. Now. My first novel is about to be released. Strangeness in the Proportion may be set in the New World of Darkness, but it’s my love letter to The Masquerade and all of its ghoulish siblings. Vampire was as important an epoch in my creative development as discovering Ray Bradbury or Poe. It let me play so many games, dress up for so many LARPS, become so many characters, tell so many stories, and make so many friends. These days, I am blessed to be able to make a living with my gaming and storytelling. Maybe someday, I’ll find that girl who said “obfuscate” and impress the hell out of her.

    Here’s to the monsters who gave me so much. I’m terrified of them. I love them.

    I don’t know what became of my first roleplaying group. My brother and I lost touch with them after moving to another part of the neighborhood, before high school. I remember Brian and Mike moving away–family problems, a divorce, and their sister’s suicide attempt. The last I heard of Brad were sketchy rumors that he’d gotten some girl pregnant and had been arrested for bringing a gun to school. I don’t know if life devoured my friends–those things that creep in sneakier than September and cut us down. I don’t know if they still have their masks.

    I still have mine.

    I visited the old neighborhood over the summer. On a 2 A.M. walk, I took a look at that stretch of backyards that had been our playing grounds. All the yards were dismembered by awful fences, sectioned into little cells.

    Right now, I’m looking at Vampire 2nd ed. I have my original copy, worn with loose pages, but I also have a spare I bought at a used bookstore. A note penned inside the cover says: “This tome belongs to Steve D—-.” Steve thought of it as a tome too. You don’t write a note like that in a book unless you loved it. Vampire is a tool that has helped people hold on to their masks in the transition from childhood to adulthood. A sentence printed on the very first page, just above Mark Rein┬ĚHagen’s name, reads:

    “By becoming a monster, one learns what it is to be human.”

    Joshua Alan Doetsch – 2011

    If you are interested in submitting an essay for the Vampire Retrospective Project please review the Submission Guidelines and let us know if you have any questions.

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