Despite the upheaval caused my my mother’s death, it didn’t take long for me to adjust to the new abnormal. My grandmother had the spare room done over into a proper bedroom, which I shared with Lil Bro and the one family cat we were allowed to keep.
The situation felt unreal and unsettling but it was predictable. I plugged along at school and my part time job, doing my best to act like nothing had changed despite all evidence to the contrary. I got some teeth filled and a new pair of clunky, Medicaid-provided eyeglasses. The shaggy locks that had been my mother’s job to maintain were surrendered to an old school Italian barber down the road whose default style was a Vaseline-spiked flattop. I hung out with my friends or played videogames during my spare time, and spend time with my father on Saturdays.
Because it was winter in New England, we spent a lot of time riding the subway and visiting various Dunkin Donuts locations and retail establishments of the geeky variety. My dad wasn’t crazy about the latter, but it gave us something to do besides freezing our asses off. Some point toward the end of January 1989, I dragged us all the way out to the Back Bay for a stop to the Compleat Strategist, even though my affections for the place had been eclipsed by the easier-to-get-to and better-stocked Excalibur Hobbies in Malden.
I’d been thinking of picking up a couple of new dice or a Champions scenario book, but my eyes immediately gravitated to the newly arrived copy of the Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness sourcebook.
Hinted at in the Warhammer Fantasy Role Play core rules but long in actually manifesting, the hardback tome was intended to be the be-all-end-all guide to the primordial entities which threatened to engulf the system’s fictional universe. The thirty-five buck asking price was staggering to my sixteen year old self. It cost more than most Sega Master System cartridges, for fun’s sake, but irrational desire won out over sober frugality. I emptied my wallet at the counter and walked away with my coveted prize.
The supplement turned out to be the first of two planned volumes spotlighting the chaos lords and their foul minions. Slaves of Darkness covered Khorne, the God of Savage Bloodlust (and Brassfist’s unstated patron), and his hedonistic nemesis Slaanesh, the God of Suggested But Not Explicity Stated Lasciviousness.
The sourcebook was supposed to be applicable for all three Warhammer-branded game systems, but WFRP only got some cursory conversion rules while the bulk of the text was dedicated to the Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Warhammer 40k miniature-based wargames. Even that utility was more than a little iffy, as most of the book’s contents were a sprawling mess of excessively detailed and marginally applicable rules, stats, and tables.
Despite its shortcomings as a practical supplement, the sheer density of Slaves of Darkness more than justified the purchase. Snippets of intriguing fluff, long sections of narrative backstory, and d1000 tables for mutations and enchanted weapons were crammed in beside detailed army lists, color guides for miniature painting, and all manner of luridly spiky illustrations. It was a scriptural text for teenage edgelords, and a hoot to just flip through and bask in the violently absurd atmosphere of it all. (The book’s long passage detailing the Horus Heresy was my introduction to the Warhammer 40k, in case you were wondering where to assign blame.)
The purchase of Slaves to Darkness also dovetailed perfectly with another recent personal development of mine.
Nearly all my male co-workers at the hospital kitchen were metalheads of the then-ascendant thrash variety. They’d play tapes of their music over the din of the industrial dishwasher, pan-cleaning station, and other greasy-grimy jobs they got assigned to during a shift. I wasn’t crazy about the stuff at first, but it began to grow on me over time. I had been a fan of the video-driven pop metal during my first year of junior high, but it faded after I moved away from North Woburn and daily contact with my circle of apprentice hesher pals in the old neighborhood.
A couple of days before buying Slaves to Darkness, I asked one of the metal dudes to dub me a copy of the album he was listening to, which turned out to be Flotsam & Jetsam’s No Place for Disgrace. I took it home, gave it a few plays, and realized I kinda liked it.
It’s not easy to go from a state of perpetual crisis to one of shellshocked blandness. The survival reflexes and constant spikes of adrenaline don’t just vanish overnight, but hover around the edges in the form of vague restlessness. I had gone from a state of guardedness at the fringes of the social fabric to having all my secrets laid bare and becoming a focus of unwanted attention. I subconsciously longed for a way to kick back and reclaim some psychic space, and so I latched on to thrash metal.
After I got home from visiting my dad that day, I tagged along with my grandma and aunt on a trip to the Bradlees across from the Burlington Mall. I asked for a tenner to “buy some stuff for school” and then slipped out to the Newbury Comics store around back, where I picked up the cassette tape of Flotsam & Jetsam’s Doomsday for the Deceiver. It was the first metal album I ever bought.
I threw the tape into my stereo that night as I continued to make my way through Slaves to Darkness. The synergy between the two gave me goosebumps — crunchy riffs soundtracking tales of galaxies on fire.
Then my brother and I got into a tussle for some (probably stupid) reason, and for a fleeting moment of panic I worried that all the subliminal message shit was real.