Sunday, June 16, 2024

Caleb Meyer (pt. 3): This Sequel To A Feminist Murder Ballad Embodies Male Entitlement

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This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Caleb Meyer


For the past two weeks, I’ve discussed folk musician Gillian Welch’s song ‘Caleb Meyer’ and why the public has reacted the way it has to this feminist murder ballad over the past twenty years. (If you want a refresher, check out parts one and two.) ‘Caleb Meyer’ recounts a story about an Appalachian woman named Nellie Cane who kills her titular neighbor when he tries to rape her. While the verses are a straightforward narrative, the chorus takes place later in time, Nellie Cane reprimanding his ghost, as she struggles to sleep at night.

Male critics revealed what I call their ‘patriarchal non-survivor privilege’ when they reviewed ‘Caleb Meyer’. Essentially, men overstepped their place when it came to a song about a trauma that has always been gendered. They revealed their privilege as men within patriarchy, in relation to trauma and rape culture, by downplaying and/or rewriting the song, as it’s a story about a woman surviving sexual violence. Male musicians have done this too, whether in covers or in original compositions. For example, I recently discovered that in 2012 a male folk artist wrote an unofficial sequel song, simply titling it ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’. The artist, Jason Tyler Burton, created a backstory for the attempted rapist. This scenario makes me very uncomfortable and frankly frustrated on Gillian Welch’s behalf, as Burton encroaches on a story that is not his, or really any man’s to alter. Because Burton does alter the story, in a sense, by adding ‘depth’ to a rapist character who functions more as an archetypal expression of women’s relationship to male violence. 

I support art building on itself, creators almost forming a dialogue via the genealogy of inspiration. The problem lies in the fact that Burton expropriated an inherently feminine story and redirected it back to the misogynistic narrative and tropes that shaped the genre. By doing this, he revealed why Welch’s song struck a chord (pun not intended) with so many listeners, while also undermining her work in the process. He also seemingly knew that he was playing into such a history, to a degree. This becomes apparent when considering the history of American murder ballads, how they developed into a steaming sh*t pile of misogynistic narrative tropes, and how women too often have received backlash for their writing, particularly if they explore female revenge.

Toning Down the Trauma:

In three instances, I’ve discovered that male artists have reinterpreted ‘Caleb Meyer’ in a way that dulls the narrative, stripping away the messier elements of Nellie Cane’s trauma. Conor O’Donnell covered ‘Caleb Meyer’ in 2010, and his lyric changes echo similar themes of patriarchal non-survivor privilege that define Burton’s sequel song. And surprisingly, different folk musicians for the band South County also wrote a song from Caleb Meyer’s point of view in 2012. While this article will focus primarily on ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’, I wanted to first talk about O’Donnell’s cover, since when comparing the parallel themes and creative decisions, the problematic nature of ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’ crystallizes. Overall, the similarities between these songs reveal how men can express their patriarchal non-survivor privilege when confronted with a woman’s trauma in fiction by claiming the story for themselves.

Burton’s song embodies this entitlement most clearly, this need to speak for the male character and to musically speak over the female artist’s intentions.

Credit to dailyswiftgifs on Tumblr

To start, O’Donnell performed the cover for a live show, and as far as I could find, he never officially recorded it. Music site SingOut! mentioned his version in its second piece on ‘Caleb Meyer’, having written three articles on the ‘Caleb Meyer’. O’Donnell sanitized the story to a degree, as he omitted or changed key details. And it didn’t have to do with time, as one of the biggest changes was rewriting two lines, rather than cutting them altogether. 

Significant changes started immediately with the second stanza of the first verse. Welch wrote: “And he called my name ’til I came out/With no one else around.” O’Donnell changed it to, “Asked, ‘Is anybody there?’/No one else around.” This first change foreshadows O’Donnell’s diminished presentation of Nellie Cane’s trauma. Caleb Meyer calling Nellie Cane by her name, luring her outside, is a central part of her trauma because she references it herself in the chorus, demanding his ghost to not call her name (again). Welch seemingly wrote this chorus as if in response to the first verse, which makes sense, since the conceit of the song concerns Nellie Cane during and after she survives a sexual assault. O’Donnell not including the detail about the name, before the chorus, breaks that connective chain of memory, trauma, and sensory details.

Then, in Welch’s version, she mentions in the second verse that the character of Caleb Meyer throws his bottle down before he attacks Nellie Cane. This detail is the classic Chekhov’s gun as Nellie Cane later grabs the broken bottle neck in the song’s bridge, cutting Caleb Meyer’s throat, instantly killing him. O’Donnell swaps out the line about the bottle for an ad-libbed line about Caleb Meyer grabbing Nellie Cane’s dress. While Welch references Nellie Cane wearing a dress in the bridge, it’s a less important piece of information than the bottle, since the latter figures into the song’s climax.

And speaking of the bridge, that is where O’Donnell butchers most of the song. The bridge consists of three stanzas that follow as action-exposition-action, because the second stanza puts listeners in Nellie Cane’s head as she prays to God. O’Donnell starts by entirely deleting the first stanza that describes how Caleb Meyer throws Nellie Cane to the ground and pins her hands above her head. He then rewrites the moment of Caleb Meyer’s death, cutting the sensory details that heighten the horror. Welch makes clear the image of a Nellie Cane trapped beneath the dead body of her attempted rapist, singing: “Then I felt his blood pour fast and hot/’Round me where I lay.” 

O’Donnell erases this, singing instead, “Caleb Meyer lay on the grass/Dead where he lay.” He avoids singing too closely within Nellie Cane’s perspective, repeating ‘lay’ twice in reference to Caleb Meyer’s body, rather than putting listeners in her position. While he does not sexualize Nellie Cane’s character in this cover, as creators have a history of doing to trauma survivors in media, his omission of certain details further removes listeners from her experience. The lack of physical presence strips away some of Nellie Cane’s personhood, the narrative more voyeuristic being removed from her pain.

His censorship of ‘Caleb Meyer’, and men’s re-interpretations of the song in general as we’ll see with Burton, reminds me of something that documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox mentioned in an interview for her 2018 film, The Tale. The Tale is a semi-fictionalized, still mostly autobiographical story about when Fox reevaluated the “relationship” she had with her forty-something running coach when she was thirteen years old. It’s a story about an adult woman grappling with recontextualized memories, a fragmented narrative, and just how young she really was. 

The Tale is a difficult watch because Fox refused to turn the camera away, as she intentionally showed scenes of the sexual abuse, using an adult body double so as to not traumatize her lead (child) actress. When asked about this, she mentioned how media has traditional softened the edges of trauma depictions, thus making it more palatable for the general audience:

“When I approached the story, I knew I wanted the physical scenes in. For me it was a deal-breaker — if I couldn’t have those scenes, there wasn’t a film. Now that I’ve made it, I think the reason why I needed them in was I’m so tired of the fade to black, or door closing, in films so the audience can walk away with this vagueness of what happened and fog out the truth of it.

I wanted to show the ordinary horror of it[.] […] We cannot pretend this is a “Lolita moment” of seduction. As uncomfortable as they are to watch, we can no longer turn away from what this really looks like.”

Fox’s comments are reminiscent of ‘non-survivor privilege’ as I use the concept, expanding it to talk about interpersonal trauma and how it’s typically depicted in media. Creators and critics sidestep the difficult elements of trauma that would force them to address the character’s psychological wounds and that would compel viewers to empathize with the character entirely. And if the trauma is shown in its entirety, creators typically sexualize the character’s suffering or dehumanize her through hollow “empowerment”.

Many feminist murder (power) ballads like ‘Caleb Meyer’ address male violence, and these songs do not shy away from descriptions about the abuse. For example, songs like ‘Goodbye Earl’ (The Chicks) and ‘Church Bells’ (Carrie Underwood) include lyrics that reference bruises and the female protagonist’s social isolation. Gillian Welch depicted the sexual assault and murder in the way she did so as to leave no ambiguity about Nellie Cane’s feelings on the matter, and cutting key details, similar to giving the attempted rapist a voice, feed into this trend of diluting the trauma survivor’s narrative.

In addition, the author of the SingOut! article, Ken Bigger, explicitly refuses to explore why O’Donnell “bowdlerized” the bridge and removed key lyrics. His neutral stance on O’Donnell’s motivations, unconscious or not, also feed into how men’s non-survivor privilege manifests when women take the mic and open up about gendered trauma like sexual assault. Men don’t address other men’s questionable creative decisions. Bigger similarly does not question why Jason Tyler Burton felt compelled to write a song about Caleb Meyer, the sexually predatory character, when he interviewed the musician in 2014.

Caleb Meyer’s Ghost Breaks No New Ground, Only Creative Boundaries:

Jason Tyler Burton released ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’ as part of his 2012 album, The Mend, and on the song’s bandcamp page, he includes the disclaimer, “Don’t feel bad for the guy.” He reiterates this point in his interview with SingOut!. (SingOut! Interviewed him for their third article on ‘Caleb Meyer’, so I’m not the only writer who has a lot to say on Gillian Welch’s work.)

I give him marginal credit for the disclaimer as he acknowledges his source for inspiration, making it easier for listeners to make the connection between the remorseful protagonist in ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’ and the cold predator in Welch’s song. For comparison, South County does not include a disclaimer on their bandcamp page for their Caleb-Meyer-As-Protagonist song, unintentionally silencing Gillian Welch’s story. (Band member and co-writer George Gierer confirmed the inspiration in a letter to a music critic.) But it ends there, because Burton still decided to create a sympathetic portrait of this character and admits that he didn’t even try for something original: 

MBM: Why do you tell folks not to feel bad for Caleb?

JTB: Well, I had some good friends (the band Sugar Tree) in Kentucky. They are a trio of girls and they play “Caleb Meyer.” They played it as a sad ballad, not triumphant, but agonizing. I like your term “survivor’s ballad“. I used to play with them, and in fact, it is one of them (Deborah Payne) who is playing fiddle with me on the live video. I remember playing that song before they played Caleb Meyer and it kind of deflated them a bit…. like “oh man, we can’t hate the guy as much since Jason gave him this tragic back story”. So anyway, I don’t think we should feel bad for him because I believe that despite any kind of tragic upbringing we may have had, we are still responsible for our actions. It is not okay for Caleb to do what he does just because of this cliche and tragic tale I might have woven for him.”

It doesn’t look good for a songwriter to call his own work a “cliché” as it’s an admittance of a creator’s laziness. There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with clichéd stories. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question which clichés are used in a story and why. In this case, Burton plays right into the gross history of murder ballads. And he is likely aware of this history as he is a fan of murder ballads and mentioned two classic murder ballads as being his favorite. 

‘Caleb Meyer’ doesn’t need a sequel song from the perspective of the title character’s ghost, and we don’t need to hear his sob (back)story. Burton is taking a song that is, from a meta standpoint, about refuting men’s violence towards women, and he is trying to walk that back.

Women in music, particularly country and folk, have written murder ballads about female protagonists killing toxic, even abusive, men in their lives. These songs subvert traditional American murder ballads because, as I discussed in part one, since the early nineteenth century murder ballads typically focused on a female character’s violent death and framed her as passive and naïve. Women were rarely allowed to have agency in these songs. These were the ‘murdered girl ballads’ that discouraged young, flesh-and-blood women from embracing their sexuality and their independence outside the family home. ‘Caleb Meyer’, as far as I have seen, is the only murder ballad that addresses sexual violence from the target’s perspective. Courtney Brooks summarizes ‘Caleb Meyer’ as “an incredible demonstration of resistance and reclamation of woman’s space within balladry,” (p. 240). 

Jason Tyler Burton’s sequel song, which prioritizes the title character, tramples over the musical boundaries of women’s writing and attempts to take back the narrative, so to speak.

His song relies on tepid tropes used to generate sympathy for abusers in fiction and which also shape American murder ballads. Similar to South County’s song ‘Nellie Cane’, ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’ is from the perspective of the title character after his death. And both songs frame Caleb Meyer as filled with regret, reminiscent of the remorseful woman-killer that has dominated murder ballads. The similarities continue in that they explain Caleb Meyer’s violence towards Nellie Cane as rooted in an abusive father. South County implies this too, while avoiding any details. Burton, however, crafts a complex backstory about intergenerational trauma and alcoholism. And he plays his song right into an unoriginal backstory centered around childhood trauma and fridged women.

In ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’, Caleb Meyer reveals in the first verse that he came from a broken home within a broken family tree, his father a victim of emotional neglect. This neglect shapes his father into an abusive family man. Burton taps into the murdered girl subgenre of murder ballads, describing Caleb Meyer’s mother as “sweet but not wise” and blinded to his father’s abusive personality. In the second verse, Caleb Meyer then reveals that he had a sister who committed suicide when she was fifteen, citing her death and his attempts to suppress his sexual desires as the reasons for his alcoholism.

Though Caleb Meyer’s mother and sister drive his drinking and depression, with his mother’s death supposedly the impetus for him to sexually assault Nellie Cane, Burton never gives any other details about these characters. They aren’t even characters, the mother only a sketch of a personality, while listeners only know about the sister because of her suicide. Burton uses female characters’ suffering to explain away his protagonist’s ‘sins’, and Caleb Meyer’s acknowledgement that he belongs in Hell doesn’t erase Burton relying on misogynistic, rape-apolegtic tropes for an unnecessary, already-too-familiar story. And an abusive male character having Daddy Issues™ is such a tried and true trope that I won’t even go into detail about it. I’ll only say that while male characters get to hurt women in fiction because of Daddy Issues™, the same kind of backstory is used to sexualize not only female characters but real girls and women (Herman pp. 98-99). 

The adage goes ‘depiction does not equal endorsement’, and Burton’s disclaimer backs that up. But I still believe that it is important to question why a writer chooses a particular subject and the possible unconscious motivations behind it, as well as the possible implications, because tropes were not made equal. Even when the writer includes a disclaimer. The need to write such a song in the first place, especially since he admitted the narrative he created lacks originality, raises questions about the possible unconscious misogyny that drove Burton in the first place.

Notably, all three of these songs date from 2010 to 2012. In 2015, a historian raised the alarm about depictions of rapists in media and the bafflingly shift from demonization to sympathy:

“The use of rape as a plot device in film, video games and literature is ‘shifting’ sympathy from the victim to the perpetrator, an academic warned yesterday.

Joanna Bourke, author of Rape: A History, said there was a shift in attitudes from why an attacker is committing an offence to the impact on a rapist. “There’s a real sense that perpetrators are the victims,” she told an audience at the Women of the World festival in London yesterday. “Somehow the guilt [of rapists] makes it okay – but the actual victim is not there in these narratives,” she added.

She explained that while films in the 1970s demonised rapist characters for their race or social class, nowadays fictional rapists have ‘become just like every other man’, provoking empathy from audiences.”

I am all for not demonizing a male character because of his race or social class, because f*ck racism, classism, and general bigotry. At the same time, I agree with Bourke’s concern about this general shift as we prioritize perpetrators, centering men’s feelings over that of the women they’ve harmed. Which we’ve seen play out on-screen, between the pages, and in real life. This sidelining of traumatized female characters in service of male perpetrators is so entrenched that D&D of Game of Thrones made Ramsay Bolton the protagonist of Winterfell in season five, seemingly by accident.

Giving Caleb Meyer the character a voice, and thus playing into regressive genre tropes, also reminds me of how misogynistic slasher films took hold in the U.S. in response to the women’s movement and to women’s growing independence, something that movie critics discussed back in the early ’80s. Burton’s creative choices, however, go in the opposite direction. Rather than subjecting the female protagonist, Nellie Cane, to more violence, he creates a story that cuts her perspective out entirely. 

The whole thing, the increase in sympathetic portrayals of rapists, and abusers in general, over the past few decades also is reminiscent of the certain people’s response to the #MeToo movement. In November 2017, Amber Tamblyn wrote about her distrust of people’s knee-jerk urge to absolve abusive men under the guise of ‘redemption’:

“The man was quiet for a moment, thinking, until he found the question he’d been looking for the entire conversation. “Tell me something: Do you believe in redemption?”

It’s a valid question. But it’s also a question that makes me deeply suspicious of its timing. Why do we need to talk about the redemption of men when we are right in the middle of the salvation of women? Not even the middle, but the very beginning? Why are we obligated to care about salvaging male careers when we have just begun to tell the stories that have plagued us for lifetimes? It seems some men like a revolution only when it’s their kind of war.”

Rather than directly punishing women and female characters, a song like ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’ encourages regression by seeking, if not full redemption, a half-assed explanation for the titular character.

Credit damnafricawhathappened on Tumblr

Abuse Myths and Trauma Archetypes:

Now, to be clear, I do not think there’s inherently anything wrong if a man tells a story about a woman dealing with abuse, like domestic or sexual violence. I’m a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and his handling of Sansa Stark’s character arc, for example. A man’s depiction of such violence depends on the context, what kind of story and whose kind of story he is aiming to tell. Men can also absolutely experience trauma like sexual assault, but that sort of trauma is gendered, and indeed men have been sexually assualted by other men in order to emasculate them, associating them with women. 

Relatedly, back in the late ’90s many male critics dismissed Gillian Welch’s songwriting because of her privileged, Californian background, questioning her ‘authenticity’ in writing about Appalachia and working-class people. (I discussed the misogyny related to this assumption in detail in part two.) These critics failed to recognize that the writing process, especially with fiction, often involves creating fake scenarios in order to explore emotional truths. As one of my writing professors harped on back in the day, fiction is the most honest lie. It may be factually wrong, but in the heart, it’s true. 

So when a woman writes a narrative like in ‘Caleb Meyer’, she is exploring the darker elements that unfortunately accompany womanhood. It makes sense that we don’t know much about either character in the original song because Welch is playing with archetypes. We don’t need to know more about Caleb Meyer the character because we’re not supposed to, because the story isn’t about him or about his kind of character. Nellie Cane’s will to survive and subsequent struggle are the story. In a 1998 interview, when asked about ballads, Gillian Welch said,

“They’re very archetypal, to use a big word[.] […] They’re very profound stories. They cut very deep, and they touch on some really basic emotions and human responses. That’s part of what I respond to in the music, and that’s part of why I write the way I do. I’m hoping to touch on that stuff too.”

Unsurprisingly, regardless of genre and social class, women channel their frustrations about male violence into art. Even though ‘Caleb Meyer’ is not a personal story, it comes from a sincere place because of the background, radial trauma of patriarchy that affects all women. Overall, ‘Caleb Meyer’ deals with women’s relationship to isolation, the accompanying anxiety about a woman alone, and what happens when the worst-case scenario does actually happen. While the anxiety is never verbalized, it’s palpable under the surface, and it translates into nightmares and insomnia in the chorus, after the whole event. 

With all of that in mind, I want to discuss a trauma archetype that Burton leans into for his song. It’s a myth about abusers that is usually discussed in real-life cases, but I’m applying it to fiction, because I can and because I think writers who portray abusers have a responsibility to do research on how abuse dynamics actually work. Burton portrays Caleb Meyer as an alcoholic who tries to drown his pain with whiskey and as a broken man who loses control one day, rather than as a predator who plans his attack, which Welch implies in her song. Burton sings in the second verse, “Trying to drink away [my sister’s] memory/and that part of me that I can’t kill.”

These two lyrics precede the second chorus, and Caleb Meyer alludes to his father and his fears about being like the man. It reads as Caleb Meyer wanting to kill the parts of his father that he fears having inherited. Each chorus centers around Caleb Meyer’s preoccupation with his relationship to his father, their possible similarities. Burton sings, “Lord I swear that I didn’t want to be like this/Didn’t want to be like him at all.” For the second and third chorus, he adds the lyrics, “I sit and stare up in those fruit trees /And wonder how far the apple falls.” This toxic inheritance seems inevitable, determined by the force of gravity.

In the subsequent bridge Burton finally references Nellie Cane, and again by telling the story from Caleb Meyer’s point of view, he feeds into the out-of-control abuser archetype, coupled with the myths around alcoholism and abuse. He sings, “Down the road lived a young lady/Whose husband often left her alone/The day my mom died, I grabbed a bottle/and left my mind as I left home.” Caleb Meyer attributes his sexual predation to grief and alcoholism, and Burton using a female character’s death to explain the reasoning behind a sexual assault… is a choice. 

And the out-of-control abuser archetype, though an old idea, hides abusers’ full culpability, and one that writers should be mindful of when they use it. Lundy Bancroft, an abuser rehabilitation specialist, observed how shrewd his clients were when it came to controlling their partners and their public image. He also noted that alcohol didn’t cause abusive episodes but rather exacerbated an abuser’s toxicity (p. 200). Judith Herman observed similar behavior in the ’70s and ’80s when she researched cases of men who molested their daughters (p. 76).

It makes sense that the character of Caleb Meyer would believe these things about himself, lying to himself about his own agency even when he admits his faults. And I totally am fine with unreliable narrators, but again, Burton’s choice in this specific unreliable narrator should be questioned. If Burton provided Nellie Cane’s perspective to contrast and to dispute Caleb Meyer’s claims, then the song would not be so inappropriate, as it would not be uplifting an abuser’s story over his target’s.

Burton’s creative choices remind me of Judith Levine and Erica Meiner’s writing on sex offenders. The two women looked at “alternative accountability practices” as “models” on how to address sexual predators and their victims without bringing in the legal system. They cite one model as a way to address sexual violence, and by suggesting such a thing, they reveal their anti-feminist values, prioritizing a rapist’s feelings over a survivor’s safety and well-being. The women write:

“RJ gives priority to the harmed person’ needs, yet it does not require that anyone judge others or take one side, either with the “perpetrator” or the “victim.” Acknowledging that all of us have done harm and all have been harmed at some time in our lives, RJ aims to bring everyone into the circle as a moral equal.” (p. 140)

Similar themes appear in the decision to write a song like ‘Caleb Meyer’s Ghost’ as doing so implies that Caleb Meyer and Nellie Cane’s stories should be narratively equal. Writing a song from Caleb Meyer’s perspective implies that his story deserves as much attention as Nellie Cane’s, and that is simply not true. Overall, Burton shows us a story about misogyny cloaked behind frigid women, addiction, and intergenerational trauma, and because he never indicates the real reason behind Caleb Meyer’s actions, not even implying the misogyny, he strips Welch’s story of its resonance. 


While some (male) musicians have been careless with Gillian Welch’s song, and with women’s writing in general, not all have been. A cover band, for example, made almost no changes to Welch’s lyrics, and yet they made one of the boldest political statements in recent music history.

On October 6th, 2018, Chris Thile hosted an episode of Live From Here, a radio variety show of live performances from musical guests. (Thile played the mandolin as part of the backing band.) Thile and his band, along with guest singers Gaby Moreno, Sarah Jarosz, and Sara Watkins, covered ‘Caleb Meyer’ in honor of Gillian Welch’s birthday. The performance followed Welch’s lyrics to the letter until the final chorus, and a simple name change politicized the song in a whole new way. The standard chorus for the song goes: “Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna/Wear those rattlin’ chains/But when I go to sleep at night/Don’t you call my name.” But instead of singing “Caleb Meyer” at the start of the final chorus, Gaby Moreno sang, “Kavanaugh”. 

It was the day that the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Senate having voted the day before. It was also quite the Time(™) to be a Woman-Who-Lives-In-A-Society. As Moreno sang Kavanaugh’s name, Jarosz and Watkins caught on and joined in, the three women sharing a knowing glance it seemed. They brought renewed meaning to the song, showing solidarity for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and for all women. That’s what it means to actually reinterpret a song while honoring its history, and hopefully, as more female artists find ways to make their voices heard, they will continue to tell uncomfortable, messy, and ultimately cathartic stories.

Images courtesy of Gillian Welch

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