Reviews

What a Time to Be Alive

MattShonkwiler-WhataTimetoBeAliveMy discovery of Matt Shonkwiler’s What a Time to Be Alive was entirely serendipitous. I’d posted some music on another blog of mine, he liked it enough to follow the blog, I appreciated the gesture enough to check out his website, I listened to his music, saw that it was free, and downloaded it. Now I’m following the guy on Twitter, and he’s following me. We’ll never meet, never talk, never do more than maybe click on links that we post on Twitter. At best, one of us will re-tweet a link the other has posted. If so moved, one of us might might “heart”something pithy the other has said. Thus are alliances forged in the age of social networking. Thus is the nature of the new friendship.

I mention all of this not because it’s the first time I’ve discovered an artist in this fashion, but because it’s also more or less the subject of Shonkwiler’s EP. As he explains in his liner notes, “What a Time to Be Alive covers the struggles of being a 20-something in the middle of growing up and failing relationships, all while navigating a sea of misinformation in the digital age.” These struggles are captured eloquently in the opening lines of the EP’s opening track: “I don’t want to go back again/Rating every girl I see on a one-to-ten./Like a lab rat, I hit the pleasure button ’til I blacked out.”  Other songs build on this theme. “Lie, Lie, Lie,” for example, begins with a musical phrase reminiscent of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and goes on to observe that much of our postmodern guilt over our shortcomings as humans has little to do with real life and everything to do with television. Yet as oppressive as the mediated world may be, Shonkwiler also finds hope in “real life” friendships, as in “Grow Up or Throw Up” in which friends old and new serve as a grounding force in a world where we’re all forced to wear masks of one kind or another. Of course, donning such masks is inevitable — just as it’s inevitable that the friends of our youth must all eventually move onward and upward and out of our lives.

Musically, What a Time to Be Alive mixes light electronica with acoustic guitars, and Shonkwiler stacks his vocals to produce pleasant harmonies with a relaxed, indie DIY vibe. The longest song on the EP runs just over three minutes, and most of them barely break the two-and-a-half minute mark. In other words, no ostentation here. Just simple, heartfelt songs for the generations struggling to make sense of our brave, new mediated world.

What a time to be alive, indeed.

Single Stroke Seven

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.31.21 AMIf gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.

Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.

At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.

As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.

Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”

Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Sex and Death – by Lavinia Ludlow

sex&deathThe dark symbolism behind the title Sex and Death reminds me of a line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps.” There’s a similar existential sense of “cradle to the grave” throughout Ben Tanzer’s new short story collection, and one overarching theme holds constant: each subject wrangles a hopeless sense of “what’s next and what if it’s all downhill from here?”

Many of these stories are about people trapped in transition between what they subconsciously view as the best times of their lives and the uncertain road ahead. Story titles hint at the aimless limbo one feels when standing at a crossroads: Dead or Alive, Drifting, Flight, and The Anatomy of an Affair. A few subjects grapple with the loss of a father, others contemplate affairs, and some panic about the looming responsibilities of building and supporting a family. Many reflect on their past, some with nostalgia, others questioning hope for a better future, but mostly, how to react responsibly, or at least without irreparably screwing life up for everyone.

This time, Tanzer changes up the demographics. No longer is the default a middle-aged white guy thinking about cheating on his wife. This time, we hear from a few young and impressionable boys, and a middle-aged female (although one does contemplate cheating). In Taking Flight, Tanzer explores her restlessness, loss of identity, and contemplation of an affair. The stream-of-consciousness writing evenly builds tension, and never rambles or drifts into emotional vomit. 

“…you look across the dinner table at your husband, the husband you love but are not sure you still want, the husband who sometimes feels like a sibling or friend, which is fine in some ways, there’s no animosity or sadness, it isn’t even stale exactly, it’s just good, comfortable, the date nights, the movies, the trips to his family’s cabin and the brunches every Sunday, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times strewn across the table…and wondering what you, an older, married woman, might be willing to do under the right circumstances…and how could you ever do that to him, you couldn’t, you won’t allow yourself to, right, no, never, not. Facebook though is safe…”

This narrative also explores the complex aspect of social media, how a news feed can make everyone’s lives look perfect, and how there aren’t always friends on that “friend list,” but frenemies boasting about their beautiful families and celebrations, lives cropped of marital fights, familial tensions, and photo-shopped to perfection, because no one posts about misery, existential crises, or relationship drama (except maybe that one Debbie Downer acquaintance we all have, or those dominating the newsfeed by live-Tweeting political rants). 

“…everyone seems so fucking happy, married to this person or that one, little hearts and hyperlinks everywhere. It’s infuriating. And just like high school, everyone has something you don’t, and yes they are happy to connect, but after that first exchange, nothing, it all fades, and though they update their status and leave wall messages for other mutual friends, they’re gone, moving on to new relationships, and new sets of photos, the promise of excitement and release, just one more click away.”

This story exhibits how technology has changed our interactions with one another, the expectations we’ve set for our own lives, injected us with the “fear of missing out,” and exposed us to a wide rage of temptations.

The collection still contains middle-aged married guys’ internal monologue that reads like a “choose your own cheating adventure, whether you act on it or not” book. These men feel smothered in their marriages, and they wonder if the best experiences and biggest thrills are buried in years passed. The tension and claustrophobic sense of being trapped between the good times and the next phase of their lives is often so intense, that these men sound as if they’re a breath away from totally losing it over something as simple as a heartfelt ad, like that one with Bowie playing in the background of the Audi Super Bowl commercial after the old man’s son comes over with his $300k car to give him the fleeting thrill of a test drive, reminding him of his golden age. In reality, this is something a son can only do if he isn’t a total fuck up, in jail, a pothead, or living in the basement mooching off his father’s 401k. Oh, and has the means to afford said $300k car.

All in all, Sex and Death illustrates that none of us are done “coming of age” just because we graduate high school or move out of our parents’ house. Life’s trials and errors (or failures) will continuously test our resilience, faith, and respect for others, but most of all, the respect we have for ourselves.

Disclaimer: you will get to the end of this appetizer-sized collection so much more, but when it comes to a prolific writer like Tanzer, rest assured many other courses will soon roll out of his literary kitchen.

Published in January 2016 by Sunnyoutside

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Ben Tanzer: is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards, Lost in Space, which received the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose Nonfiction, The New York Stories and now SEX AND DEATH, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men’s Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at tanzerben.com the center of his vast lifestyle empire.

lavinia_ludlow-169x300

Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer dividing time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven (2016), explores the lives of independent artists coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Both titles can be purchased through Casperian Books. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her small press reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review. Her work can be found here.

Clowns

clowns-coverIn the postscript to his stand-alone short story, “Clowns,” FP Dorchak, author of five novels including Sleepwalkers and Voice, explains that he wrote the short story in 1987 and only recently rediscovered it. One imagines him opening a drawer somewhere and stumbling upon the old manuscript. Maybe the letters are the dot-matrix approximations of the alphabet we thought were so high-tech back in the ‘eighties, or maybe they’re the smudged and smeared characters from a creaky Remington or Underwood. Whatever the case, the story was presumably sitting in the darkness, lying in wait for a long time before fate brought it back into the light — a fitting image, it turns out, as the story begins with a toy clown springing to life with plans to violently wake a young boy from his sleep. From there, needless to say, things gets a little creepy. The story itself is short (“very short” as the title page notes), but it’s also the stuff of nightmares. It’s easy to imagine “Clowns” in the pages of Weird Tales or as a “TZ First,” the forum that the old (and much missed) Twilight Zone magazine once dedicated to first-time authors. The good news for fans of Dorchak’s fiction is that he plans to gradually bring more of his shorts out over the next year or so on his Wailing Loon imprint and then gather them together in a single collection. Given the intense creep-factor of “Clowns,” the proposed collection is bound to terrify.

Long Promised Road

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.22.43 PMBooks about the Beach Boys tend to focus on Brian Wilson, depicting him as the “mad genius” behind the band’s music. Such accounts trace his evolution from a surf-pop wunderkind to the architect behind the masterful Pet Sounds album, then dwell almost lasciviously on the mental breakdown surrounding the recording of the long-deferred Smile album before turning to his struggles with addiction, mental illness, and the troubling relationship with the Svengali-like therapist who took over Wilson’s life. While such narratives are certainly valid, they tend to ignore other members of the band—in particular Carl Wilson, the youngest of the brothers who formed the heart of the band. In Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys, Kent Crowley aims to correct that.

Less of a counter-narrative than a complementary one, Crowley depicts Carl Wilson as the emotional and musical center of the band, particularly during the years when Brian’s contributions were negligible. In Carl’s early childhood, he was a somewhat reluctant partner in his older brother’s musical machinations, only singing along with Brian under duress and as a result of maternal intercession. Yet as the band started coming together, Carl’s talents as a guitarist and his natural ear for music made him Brian’s closest confidant and later ensured his role as the band’s musical director as the oldest Wilson brother drifted further out of the picture.

As Crowley makes clear throughout the book, a combination of talent and compassion allowed Carl to hold the Beach Boys together through some of the band’s leanest years. Yet even in these lean years, Carl emerges as somewhat of a creative dynamo, crafting some of the finest, albeit most obscure, music the Beach Boys ever created. Indeed, part of the heartbreak of reading Crowley’s account of the band is seeing Carl’s desire to push the band ever forward on the artistic front while personal, financial, and cultural concerns gradually transformed the band into a nostalgia act built almost entirely on the legend of Brian’s genius.

Needless to say, Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in Beach Boys lore. While Crowley’s extensively researched and emotionally sensitive biography can’s fully extricate Carl from that shadow, it succeeds in shining a well-deserved spotlight on the brother whose love for his family and the beautiful music they created together kept the band alive when the rest of the world appeared to have given up on them.

Review of Leland Cheuk’s The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong – by Lavinia Ludlow

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Publisher: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

Bonus content: Q&A with author Leland Cheuk

The title of Cheuk’s new book, and many chapters within, contain the word “misadventures,” but I’m confident I could run a “find and replace all” of that word with the phrase “fuck ups” and no one would be the wiser. The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a Chinese American’s tale of trying and failing to remove himself from the fate of becoming another man in his family with nothing but a life full of “misadventures.”

Sulliver narrates the bulk of his story from a prison cell in Bordirtown, a desolate Anytown, USA that reeks of cow patties and chemical pollutants, and was christened its phonetic name by an illiterate great grand uncle. Serving 18 months on a 4 year sentence, Sulliver documents his story in a manuscript that he hopes will lead to his release. In his cell with rats and uncouth cellmates, he defends his innocence by recounting not only his own “misadventures” but those of all his male predecessors made up of every variety of loser, criminal, and sociopath from murderers, pimps, drug dealers, wife beaters, and politicians. Among them, the occasional ordinary citizen like a pastor or hard working husband, but these are rare, as if being a normal functioning human being is a genetic mutation or a gene that skipped not one, but every two generations.

What Sulliver wants us to believe (or perhaps he’s trying to keep himself convinced) is that he tried his hardest not to become another link on a dysfunctional family chain—he left as soon as he could, moved to Copenhagen, and married outside the Bordirtown community. However, a few years back, he was beckoned home to care for his mother, and with nothing better to do than mooch off the “sweet, sweet Danish” unemployment, he returned to Bordirtown only to find himself snarled in a toxic suckhole of family drama. He carpet-bagging-ly ran for town mayor against his father out of pure spite, a hilarious satire on politics since father and son Pong are not only least qualified and terrible at managing their own lives, but both believed that battling each other for public office would miraculously result in a positive outcome for everyone, including the townspeople and spouses caught in the middle.

From the beginning, Cheuk brilliantly illustrates unyielding familial and marital tensions. Sulliver is not only torn between his wife and his duties as a son, but also the life he started in Copenhagen and the mess he left behind in his childhood home. Subtle bitterness bubbles from every interaction and confrontation, and the dialogue is laden with passive-aggressive undertones, and the novel itself ceaselessly maintains the tension and conflict (simply because these people are so hopeless). From an outside perspective, the answers to the Pong family problems are obvious: someone needs to do more than just move to another country to break the cycle of dysfunction. Someone’s gotta kill someone, breed outside the bloodlines, get divorced, or find a life coach, but naturally, these people aren’t going to miraculously get their shit together, save themselves, and then go on to save the world. Quoting Sulliver’s public defender, “you come from generations of idiots and jerks,” and there’s no way the Pongs are going to change overnight without drastic intervention, and this is precisely what maintains the novel’s unbreakable connection to the major dramatic question. This powerful literary tool becomes a perfect Petri dish for the multiplying family dramas.

Cheuk also leverages the human power of denial, especially when it comes to Sulliver who staunchly believes that he’s always chosen the higher path and has done everything to prevent himself from becoming another “degenerate” (his word, not mine). The evident disconnect between his observations and reality is uncanny and the only thing he manages to perfect is the art of whining about how his life never works out because a series of unfortunate events. In reality, he rarely makes any selfless or good decisions unless forced into a corner, and although he may believe that his life’s just been a tidal wave of bad luck, he drains his wife’s inheritance money to fund his campaign for mayor and he has his cell mate killed because of a few annoying habits. This is not bad luck; this is being a total asshole.

However, this schmuck can’t be totally blamed for the way he turned out, after all, he grew up watching his father and mother act like that raging high school couple we all know, the king and queen of drama who just needed to break up to save everyone the headache. Classically codependent, this husband and wife are a train wreck that derailed into a minefield, and both refuse to divorce each other. His father refuses because he doesn’t want it to tarnish his political image and his mother refuses because she doesn’t want to have to “find a job.” As individuals, they’re self-serving and abrasively obnoxious. The mother character has a bottomless barrel of harping in her reserves with a keen ability to hurl insults at the drop of a hat. The father, Saul, is definitely a piece of work and seemingly worse than all Pongs that preceded him, even his illiterate brothel-owning prostitute-murdering uncle. There’s the small stuff like making his secretary ask his own son to answer a series of security questions before wiring him through, but add in his hobbies of fathering families all over the globe like an international man of polygamist mystery, brothel-owning, wife-beating, and scheming, and he makes for one fantastical character. His own father once referred to him as a demon child, who at age five, “was bilking neighborhood girls out of their money by selling piss and water as lemonade.”

Occasionally, the narration is disorienting—it’s one thing to narrate the past from the present, but Sulliver bounces to and from stories of past Pongs, from great-great-uncles to great grand fathers. He also rambles to himself in a “but what? What was I planning to do?” sense and injects random details that don’t add much value. And the quantity of Pongs in this story who were made out to be low-class, violent, racist, and dishonest clowns all tied up in antisocial behaviors be it drugs, pimping, scamming, philandering, and/or wife beating is uncanny. After reading through countless generations of the Pongs’ “misadventures,” it is difficult to like anyone, even in a “like to hate” sense. At times, the never-ending stream of fuck ups was miserable to endure, and read like a bad cocaine crash while walking uphill in a torrential downpour of acid rain.

There are a few uplifting moments such as father saying to son (Saul saying to Sulliver), “Learn only the good things from me, not my bad,” and quieter passages where beautifully sad details twinkle through the grit like a silver dollar in gutter muck. In a flashback of Sulliver’s great granduncle, Pariss, an illiterate brothel owner who beats and murders the prostitutes, we learn that he grew up watching his mother sell herself and take beatings from her clients, and how, as an adult, he only felt a connection with someone when his fist connected with their flesh. Moments like these remind us that the men in this family are still human, and perhaps better influences and upbringings might have spared them a lifetime of “misadventures.” These redeeming moments are rare though, and most of the time, everyone is acting like a total jackass and dragging down the innocent.

All in all, Leland Cheuk’s new novel is a fast-paced and detail-laden read about a family still struggling to make a positive impact on the world. Painfully dark but darkly humorous, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a dysfunctional tale about one man’s fight to conquer his personal demons and pursue his own version of the American Dream.

 

Q&A with Leland Cheuk

Lavinia: You dove into the history of the Pong family bloodline, back into the 1800s. What research did you do to make the scenes and predicaments historically accurate?

Leland: I didn’t go much further than Google. At first, the book was just Sulliver’s story, but my agent at the time asked me to add the stories of the ancestors, and he made it sound like he was ordering extra onions with his burger. No big deal, right? In the end, I was really happy he did, because it added depth to the book and it was a challenge to write what was essentially comedic historical fiction. There were characters that I personally loved, specifically slow, but good-hearted Millmore and Robinson the frustrated artist. Because Sulliver’s story was already written and the characters were all going to have a sliver of Sulliver and his father in them, my research was basically fill-in-the-blank. What did the characters wear back then? What did they do for work? What were the family units like? All that stuff is readily available online if you look for it.

Lavinia: Which character do you identify most with, and why?

Leland: It would have to be Sulliver. I started this book in the mid-oughts, so I was in my late-twenties, and my parents had just had this huge blow-up. My mom caught my dad with another woman–Cheaters-style. She trailed him with a car and everything. She was calling me all the time, emotionally wrecked, giving me the play-by-play like I was her best girlfriend. Eventually, I got my mom a divorce lawyer in San Francisco, and I was sitting there between them in the lawyer’s office. I was divorcing my parents. It was terrible for everyone involved. But my mom never pulled the trigger. She chose unhappiness in exchange for stability. The thing I’ve never understood: why was she so wrecked then? I remember my parents fighting about my father’s philandering way back when I was in grade-school.

Anyway, the whole experience led me to question whether I was infected with the worst traits of my parents, despite consciously making choices that were the polar opposites of all of the choices my parents made.

Lavinia: Sulliver ditched his home of Bordirtown for Copenhagen. Why this city and not another? Is there a significance or symbolism?

Leland: I studied abroad for six months in Copenhagen in 1997. I was at undergraduate business school at UC Berkeley (thanks to my caving to parental pressure) and hated it. I was going through a lot of angst and needed a break. It was the first time I was away from the Bay Area for an extended period of time. My parents couldn’t even call me easily. Copenhagen was where I came of age. I learned some Danish, visited Christiania on a daily basis, met people from all over the world who were different from me (certainly different from the type of people who go to business school at UC Berkeley), and I traveled all over Europe. I got into Danish film (that was the heyday of Dogme 95). There’s a terrific film entitled Inheritance, directed by Per Fly, starring Ulrich Thomsen, and the broad plot strokes are essentially Sulliver’s story. A prodigal son and successful restaurateur is happily married in Stockholm, but when his father commits suicide, he’s ordered back home to Denmark by his mother to be CEO of his family’s struggling steel corporation. Once he returns home, his morals and his marriage slowly disintegrate, and by the end, he’s a drunk, alone in a giant French villa, contemplating whether to rape the housekeeper. I mean, yeah, it goes super-dark.

And of course, Denmark is the setting of the ultimate dysfunctional family drama: Hamlet.

Lavinia: Any real place an inspiration for Bordirtown, the city that reeks of cow patties and chemicals?

Leland: El Paso. I visited a high school friend who was a medical resident there in the mid-oughts. It is indeed a scary border town. For whatever reason, Mexico looks extra scary from El Paso. There were always dark clouds over Juarez and black hills. For a kid who grew up in the pristine Bay Area,  El Paso resembled Mars. My brother, who made my awesome book trailer, actually went to El Paso and got footage for me. A lot of his shots were actually images in my head when I wrote the book.

Lavinia: What are you working on now?

Leland: I plan to put out another book with CCLaP in 2017. It’s a story collection entitled Letters From Dinosaurs that has a lot of the pieces I’ve published in journals. For the past five years, I’ve also been working on a novel about the brief and wondrous life of a fictive famous Chinese American standup comedian (think Chinese American Chris Rock). I hope I’ll be ready to shop that this spring.

 

45a27eb0e26a9d2b158fbd8e31fa7947Leland Cheuk is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is always working on a novel and a collection of stories. His novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is forthcoming in 2015 (CCLaP Publishing). Cheuk has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. Cheuk’s writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Kenyon ReviewThe RumpusNecessary Fiction, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, and Pif Magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.

 

Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer born and raised in the Bay Area, California. She currently divides her time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk explores the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. On March, 1st, 2016, Casperian Books will release her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven, a narrative that sheds light on independent artists of a shipwrecked generation coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Her other small press book reviews have appeared in The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.

Contemporary Krampus

If you’re looking for a somewhat off-the-wall gift for that special somewhat off-the-wall person on your holiday list this season, Contemporary Krampus may be exactly what you’re looking for. Curated by Mike Drake, this volume offers a wide range of contemporary depictions of Krampus, the “Christmas Devil.” Along with paintings and drawings that range from charming to creepy, Contemporary Krampus also includes brief bios of the artists who produced the works. While the typesetting is a little odd (with text running almost to the edge of the page) and the bios are somewhat uneven (reading like they’ve been taken directly from the artists’ webpages without any editing), the art is what makes this volume particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, here are a few samples…

by Belle Dee

by Belle Dee

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by Angus Oblong

"Merry Krampus" by Richard Svensson

“Merry Krampus” by Richard Svensson

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