Strange Strategies

You might have noticed the subtitle of this blog is “Seventies Strangeness and Spookiness Meets Strategy.” The first part is pretty self-explanatory, but the “Strategy” might have you scratching your head. Allow me to explain.

In my day life, I work in the game industry, specifically the tabletop role-playing game corner of it. I write material and do game design primarily for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game published by Goodman Games. This all means I spend a lot of time thinking about and playing games, and they make up a large part of my recreational time. And not just tabletop RPGs, but all sorts of games. It goes with the territory when you work in the industry.

In addition to 1970s media, it’s my intention to cover games as well here, both those made in the ‘70s and those that evoke that era when it comes to form or function. For example, two treasured board games in my collection are the Bermuda Triangle game (produced by Milton Bradley in 1975) and the Alien board game (Kenner, 1979), both of which meet the first criteria.

Never have magnets been so scary.

Another game that I’ve recently gotten into is 7TV Inch-High Spy-Fi, a modern miniatures skirmish wargame that’s set in the world of 1960s and 1970s TV and movies. While of current vintage, the game allows players to play games set in or reminiscent of that time period’s popular culture, be it James Bond movies, TV cop shows, or even folk horror with their “Children of the Fields” expansion. It, too, would be perfectly at home here at Shivers & Shudders, and I’m sure I’ll have some words about it and similar games as well before too long.

“Commander Whiskers is displeased, Mr. Bond.”

Most of the games that I plan on covering will have some connection to the horrific, the paranormal, or the bizarre. Ultimately, if you find yourself enjoy the rest of the weirdness I’ll be writing about around these parts, you find the games I’ll be discussing right in your wheelhouse. Hopefully, much like the delve into the hexploitation paperbacks of 1970s, you find a few gems you never knew existed and might be motivated to seek them out and give them a whirl during Game Night.

The Hexploitation Shelf

As a child, I was fascinated by the uncanny, the mysterious, and the monstrous. I devoured books on the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, felt like a UFO sighting could happen at any moment, was convinced that science would prove the existence of ESP and telekinesis imminently.

It was only much later that I realized that this wasn’t the normal state of the world. While we as a civilization have never completely lost our fascination with the supernatural, the 1970s were a boom time for the occult, cryptozoology, and parapsychology, all born from the fertile soil of the counterculture and the space race.

With these new, widespread interests pervading popular culture, the publishing houses saw a potential market, and, like any business, exploited it without hesitation. Countless cheap paperbacks proclaimed to give the true facts about black magic, witchcraft, the Bermuda Triangle, and more, churned out the way the pulps and bodice ripper romances were. And just like those books, they found an audience. For those fascinated by the topics, these were the books that examined their deepest mysteries. To those fearful of such things, other books (published by the same printing houses) proclaimed themselves to be exposés into their most sinister schemes and goals. Books about the power of witchcraft lined the shelves next to those warning of the rise of Satanism and Black Magic.

The United Kingdom was ground zero for this focus on the dangers and wonders of magic, being the birthplace of what we now call the neopagan religions, but was then just “witchcraft.” Gerald Gardner, Dion Fortune, Raymond Buckland, and Alex Sanders emerged from the occult worlds of Britain during this time and the counterculture embraced their teachings along with Eastern religions and yoga. The church saw these new religions as just the latest mask donned by Satan to lure souls into his clutches—and not entirely without evidence. Black masses and Satanism had their own presence in the UK and in America at this time, powered by curiosity, boredom, and a desire to shock as much as a belief in a supreme force of evil and what it could provide to those willing to bend the knee to the Devil. This was the beginning of the “Satanic Panic” which would eventually spread across the Atlantic and grow to prominence here in the United States in the 1980s.

I never completely lost my fascination for this stuff and, as I quickly approach the half-century mark, I find myself with a bit of disposable income to build a collection of these aging, yellowing paperbacks. Despite their cheap production, the fact that so many of them were churned out means you can still acquire copies of the lurid tomes if you’re patient enough or cast a wide enough net.

The books are wonderful artifacts of a time now past, both in content and in graphic design. Many have lurid covers adorned with half (or fully naked) nubile women or sinister figures portending evil, or funky psychedelic-inspired imagery designed to evoke the aspects of an acid trip. Even if what was written on the pages within was junk, the covers alone make these relics worthy of preservation. Or at least coveting.

The covers and content of these books have earned them a most delightful nomenclature. Amongst aficionados, these books are said to be of the “hexploitation genre,” and I can’t think of a better name for them. Like the grindhouse movies that preceded them, these books are all about sex, violence, and horror; works of art to make old women clutch their pearls and preachers denounce them from the pulpit. For those of us with a slightly less uptight outlook on life, they’re delicious treats, adorned with sensational covers and reeking of the fine scent that only cheap paperbacks can produce.

I’ll be documenting my hexploitation reading from time to time here, providing brief book reports on them and acting as a catalog of the titles available out there for other fans of the genre. Even if you never read one of these yourself, I hope you find these future posts entertaining. May they be a crystal ball gazing into the strange supernatural 1970s for your enjoyment.

Growing Up in the Strange & Spooky ’70s

Carl Sagan wants his wardrobe back.

As this photograph can attest, I’m a child of the 1970s. Although I would come of age in the time of MTV, the end of the Cold War, and the Days of Day-Glo, my childhood was spent in that strange decade between the radical 1960s and the “Me, Me, Me” years of the 1980s. I was blissfully unaware of the many bad things happening then–the recession (although my father was regularly out of work due to the nature of his job, I never missed a meal), the gas shortage, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, et al.–but instead viewed it with the wonder (or naivete) only childhood can provide.

For me, the 1970s was a time filled with strange, exciting occurrences. It was an era when Bigfoot, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster could be discovered any day by turtleneck-wearing scientists who studied these things very seriously. It was an age when the wealth of King Tut was slowly making its way across America, and I got to see the Boy King’s funeral mask in a dimly-lit exhibition room in New York City. It was a time when imagination and reality shared a liminal space, and if you were an six-year old boy, anything was possible.

I’m much older now, looking down the barrel of 50 and, like most people, having had the not-so pleasurable experience of living through the worst pandemic our world has seen in a century. Both of these events induced a great deal of introspection on my part, and not a little bit of escapism. The quarantine months saw me looking back at my youth. I had time for revisiting movies and other media from the late 1960s and 1970s, much of it far more mature matter than I would have been allowed to consume the first time these things appeared on the scene. This winding path led me through the thickets filled with folk horror, hauntology, “hexploitation” paperbacks, British occultism, reruns of In Search Of…, and many other strange and spooky offerings that emerged during this time. They all served as a balm on my shredded nerves, a reminder that there was a time when science was respected and we looked to the future with excitement instead of dread. A time when anything could happen and life could only get more interesting. Only later did I learn that that’s true of any time, but I digress.

Now as the pandemic recedes (which is different from vanishing), I find myself still fixating on the strange, spooky years of the 1970s. Nostalgia, some of which is for something I never actually knew and may not have ever existed, is one of the driving forces behind this fixation. Like most people, I have the desire to return to the simpler time of my childhood, yet with the knowledge and tastes I’ve developed in the more than forty years since intact. And since doing so isn’t going to harm anyone, why not indulge that nostalgia? Which brings us here today…

As the title suggests, this blog is going to focus on the strange and the spooky aspects of the late 1960s and the 1970s. The things that send a shiver down your spine and your shoulders to shudder. I’ll be using is as my field journal, a place to record my notes as I excavate my childhood years for relics undiscovered the first time around. A catalog of curiosities I didn’t know existed then, but which captivate me now. Hopefully, this blog will showcase how strange a time the 1970s was for those who never experienced it firsthand and as a rose-colored telescope looking back to those who made it through that decade alive.

Won’t you please join me?