Monday, 20 February 2012

Trail of Cthulhu: Hauntings

On a completely different note, let's talk ghosts.

Ghost stories are a fiction staple. Writers like M.R. James turned the short haunting tale into an art form, and there's an argument for saying that ghost stories work best in short form rather than long. The short sharp shock is often what's needed here; carry on for too long, and the story gets stale. That said, when the ghost story works in longer form, it works really really well, and that happens at least in part because the authors of those stories never try to explain too much. The best ghost story is one with an irresolvable mystery at the bottom of it, so that the audience goes away with residual chills that will worry their sleep. It's not like a monster movie, where the dynamic almost demands a dramatic climax. A ghost story doesn't need resolution in order to work its magic.

In role playing games, ghosts often take the antagonist role, and usually only for a scene or two. They're an obstacle, sometimes a warning, and that's pretty much it. To my mind that's a pity, since they could be so much more atmospheric. I'm going to kick off this particular mini-discussion with ghosts of place, and I'm going to use Bookhounds of London as a setting.

Ghosts are often considered singular entities, and usually human, or at least linked to humanity. The murdered soul of dear old Auntie Doris, come to tell her doting relatives just where the will is hidden, for instance. There are several human links in that. First the crime of murder, which is something that humans do to other humans. Then there's Auntie Doris herself, and her relations. Finally there's the will, which represents a human desire to pass on an inheritance and accumulate wealth. For some reason the Auntie Dorises of the otherworld never tell their nearest and dearest to go stick it where the sun doesn't shine on account of that cheap casket she was buried in, and what happened to her dear old cat Mittens, eh? Down the river in a sack before Auntie's body was cold, no doubt.

However there have been other ghosts; trains, ships, battlefields, buildings; spirits of place, linked to the material world only by the most tenuous of chains. I particularly like the idea of a ghost building. The NY Times article linked to is talking about structures that never actually existed, of course, but to my way of thinking that makes the best kind of ghost story. An entire skyscraper, designed, planned down to the last rivet, yet never was built. Imagine what might be inside something like that. Who (what?) would work there, live there? Where would it get its heat, its power? What vistas could you see from its upper stories?

In Bookhounds, the protagonists are adrift in London, a tangled and bloated metropolis that has forgotten more about its own history than almost any other location on earth. It has reached out and swallowed villages whole, like Cronos devouring his children. It has seen out the Romans, witnessed the executions of Kings and the murder of princes, been the obsession of a long-dead multitude of men and women, been bombed by airships in the Great War, and in the early watches of the night it dreams about everything it has ever been.

A spirit of place, in a location like London, ought to reflect that half-hidden history. The ghost in this kind of tale isn't something that can be met, or neatly resolved by producing hidden wills. It is a memory trying to recreate itself, but some of its bones are missing and the rest are scattered. There may be great power at the back of it, but that power was squandered years ago, and now only a small residual current remains. Perhaps the memory is of recent vintage, say of a zeppelin raid, or perhaps some buried temple is trying to break free. Maybe the docks are trying to recall their Napoleonic glory days, or a hunting lodge still can't quite forget its past.

There are any number of tales that could be told, but there are some things the Keeper should bear in mind:
  1. The truth of the haunting will probably never be known for certain, since most of the facts are unavailable.
  2. It cannot be dealt with in the same way as, say, an ordinary antagonist encounter. Ghouls, for example, can be shot, or bargained with. There is no way to communicate with a haunting of place, and probably no way to kill it.
  3. It has a great deal of power behind it, possibly magical power. That means other people besides the protagonists are going to be interested in it. That also means it could be very dangerous.
With that in mind, consider the following example:

Jerusalem Lane

This haunting is located in ramshackle early Victorian house overlooking a narrow lane, that runs between two rows of houses, with a long-neglected churchyard at one end and a busy shopping street at the other.

In the early hours of the morning, at any point between two and four o’clock, music can be heard from the upper window of the house, but this music can only be heard by someone standing in the alley. It sounds as though someone were playing scales on a piano, with a young boy or girl singing accompaniment.

At the same time this happens, those in the lane cannot find their way out again. It is as if the lane were impossibly long, and shrouded in shadow at the shopping street end. Some who experience this claim to have seen lights at the churchyard, but nobody has ever tried to investigate them.

The experience is said to last between one and ten minutes, no longer; potential Stability 3 loss.

·    Architecture The house from which the music sounds probably was built in the early 1830s, and would have been part of a larger development. James Camberwell, a prominent architect, was the developer. Camberwell is known to have battled in the courts for the use of the land, as there was some dispute over who owned it: the Church, or the man who sold it to Camberwell. The Church also objected to the height and scale of Camberwell’s development, claiming that it blocked their ancient lights. Camberwell eventually won his case.

·    The Knowledge The churchyard, in common with many other spots in London, is supposed to be a mass grave dating back to the Black Death, but this is probably more rumour than fact. It is supposed to have been dug out in 1873 when the church was deconsecrated and demolished. The bones were removed to a different parish, but the stones (some of them, at least) were left behind. In 1896 the bodies of two young boys were found in the long grass. Each had their throats cut, but otherwise the bodies were unmolested. In the present day the churchyard has a reputation as a lover’s lane, and a gang hangout. It’s not uncommon to find a group of men gambling there, or drinking, during the day, and youngsters sparking with their girls in the evening.

·    Streetwise and/or Magick The spot is thought to have had megapolisomantic significance before the church was demolished, as it stood on a ley path. However the destruction of the church and construction of the housing development has polluted the track, and it no longer provides the magickal power that once it did. However there are still one or two street magicians who try, every so often, to reconnect to the place’s dissipated essence. Strange creatures are thought to haunt the old churchyard, and it might be a place to meet a lone rat-thing or ghoul.
  • Credit Rating or Bureaucracy The house in question has been owned by Erasmus Phillipson, an ex-patriot living in Boston, since 1902, and it is rented through the estate agents Dawson & Dawes. It is frequently untenanted for months at a time. The inhabitants never claim to have seen anything themselves, but the place has such an uncanny reputation that it puts off the better class of tenant. The last one was jailed on assault and indecency charges, and the place has been vacant for ten months since then. Before Phillipson there were two owners, a Mr James Copper (died 1900) and Miss Elizabeth Bowden (died 1864). Neither of them had children. Miss Bowden was the first owner of the house, and lived there with her sister for most of her life. Mr Copper did not die in the house and neither did Miss Bowden, though her sister Emily did. 


  1. For some reason the Auntie Dorises of the otherworld never tell their nearest and dearest to go stick it where the sun doesn't shine on account of that cheap casket she was buried in, and what happened to her dear old cat Mittens, eh?

    Aren't most traditional ghost stories about the pissed-off dead?

    1. Well, yes and no. Some are. MR James did very well with that kind of story, and that's a topic I intend to return to in the third and final installment on hauntings. However a lot aren't. EG Swain was fond of the 'gentle ghost', and David Rowlands carries on the tradition in his continuation of Mr Batchel's stories. Now, if we were talking about ghost stories by modern authors that would be a different conversation, and I would agree that the majority of those are violent dead tales. The authors writing ghost stories in the late Victorian period to about the mid-1930s (more or less) were more into spiritualism and the idea that the dead could be talked to, reasoned with or appeased had a lot of pull with them, as did the idea of the benign dead. Their kind of ghost story would sound a lot like the Christmas edition of Downton Abbey, with its planchette storyline that ends ambiguously.