The Old Ousatonic
A Trail of Cthulhu scenario set in
New England in the Thirties.
Note: while some facts and names have been borrowed from the real world (eg. the Housatonic Railroad, misspelt Ousatonic), this fiction is not intended to resemble any actual company, person or place.
The protagonists, being stockholders in the Ousatonic, are intrigued to discover that their stock might actually be worth something. However a long-forgotten tragedy resurfaces, possibly indicative of troubles to come. What happened to the Waterwitch so many decades ago, and does this have anything to do with the mysterious disappearance of a surveyor hired to value the line?
Okay, let's talk specifics.
I enjoy working in the real world. By that I mean I'll take history and twist it slightly for my purposes, but that means I need to know my history. It's not enough to rely on wikipedia, though I cheerfully admit I do use online resources to help me nail down a few specifics. Even so, my personal bookshelf is groaning with the weight of reference material, everything from reprints of 1890s Baedeckers to histories of the Golden Dawn to Randi's book on Flim Flam. I tend to concentrate on specific eras: 1930s England and USA, particularly Prohibition in the United States; Victorian England; the Great War; piracy, whether the Golden Age or modern day.
In this case I took a small slice from a book called Abandoned New England, by William F. Robinson (1976 New York Graphic Society). It's a coffee table volume (I wonder how many homes still have coffee tables?) about the ruins that dotted the New England landscape back in the 70's. Some of them have probably vanished since then, but for all I know the others are still hidden away in some long-overgrown spot. It covers a wide range of topics, from paths, post roads and coastal schooners to railroads, tanneries and mines, and for someone wanting to know about sites that could be used for spooky purposes a book like this is a godsend. They still lurk in second hand bookstores, and I'm always on the lookout for something that might be useful.
At this stage I knew I wanted to write something for Trail, and as the default option is the 1930s, that was when I decided to set the scenario. Leafing through the Abandoned New England book, I first picked up on the old canals, built by shareholders to make a profit by shipping goods via what amounted to artificial rivers. Most of them didn't perform, and the shareholders were left with worthless paper stocks. The first glimmering starts to form: what if there was a ghostly canal boat, the Waterwitch, that was supposed to haunt an abandoned canal lock?
Abandoned New England even gives me an interesting quote: Its channel, where once floated a queer navy, is dried up, and in most places overgrown with trees and bushes; its locks, and the shanties built to accomodate the lock tenders, are crumbling in the dust . . .
So now I have an atmospheric location and an out-of-the-ordinary antagonist. Intriguing, but why are the protagonists there in the first place?
Well, the canals failed because as they were being built the steam engine was invented. The railways were faster and more capable, forcing most of the canal companies out of business by the 1850s. As the canals were often constructed in exactly the route that the rails wanted for themselves, the rail bosses often came to an accomodation with the canal companies, using canal land rather than blaze their own trail. Thus I have a link between my Waterwitch and the Ousatonic Railroad. However by the 1920s and 30s the railroads were also going out of business, unable to compete with the automobile and airplane. This led to a rapid cycle of buyouts, as the smaller lines were swallowed by the larger ones who sought monopoly control in a desperate attempt to stave off bankruptcy. By the mid 1930s it was all up for the rail bosses; they just couldn't compete.
So here I have a possibility: there's someone out there who wants the Ousatonic, because it occupies land that someone else - one of those monopolizing rail bosses - finds useful. If the protagonists are stockholders, that puts them in the spotlight. I don't even have to change any character's backstory to make that happen. The Ousatonic's been defunct for decades, and the stock has been passed down through the generations. The share certificate could even be framed and hanging on the wall; some of those old stocks were quite beautifully engraved. The stock's something that the protagonists could have had for years without ever needing to be aware that they had it, inherited from Old Uncle Joe or whoever, just like those musty old bibles, bits of furniture and other dusty tat that we all seem to accumulate from previous generations.
Done and done: mystery, atmospheric locale, and a realistic reason for the protagonists to want to investigate!