Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bookhounds of London: Buried Under The Floorboards

This shall be the last post of the year, so let's make it a ghostly one!

One of the tales in Lord Halifax's Ghost Book concerns an apparition that made its presence felt by planting ice-cold kisses on the lips of the unwary. This only occurred in a specific part of the house, and when the owner decided to renovate and turn the ghost room into a staircase, thus hopefully getting rid of the problem, he told the Clerk of Works to let him know if the work crew discovered anything unusual.

"[Having been told that the workmen have found something] Mr Thomas went down and learned that they had discovered a coffin between the joists of the floor in the room where Miss Tait had slept. From its appearance and from the fact that it had no screws but only nails, the coffin appeared to date from the 17th Century. It was firmly fastened to the joists by iron cramps, but owing to the shallowness of the space between the joists and the floor, there was no lid, the floor boards serving this purpose. There was no trace of any bones within the coffin, but it carried certain marks which suggested that it had once contained a body."

In a house close to where I live now, a former owner is interred underneath the front step. A little further distant is another house, one I worked on as a student, where bodies were found within touching distance of the wall's foundation. It's a tradition now long forgotten, but it wasn't that long ago that a family might choose to be buried on the family land, or within the house itself. Moreover, in a house with floorboards and cellars, there are plenty of ways of hiding things you'd rather not be found again.

Or there could be things living up there, down there, under there. I can hear rats running in the roof void as I type this. Of course, they might not be rats. I can't see them; I can't be sure. But they sound like rats ...

This crops up again and again, in ghost stories. In M.R. James' short story Number 13, for example, the floor boards have to be taken up in order to solve the mystery, and even then, much is left untold. Or take the J-Horror Dark Water; there, the mundane hiding place of the body is a significant part of the plot. Sometimes in fiction this hiding place is represented by whole secret passages and rooms, not unlike Clue, but the best kind of secret is one hidden right under the occupier's nose.

From a Keeper's perspective, the body under the floorboards is a handy McGuffin to have. It doesn't have to be a dusty manor house either; in a Bookhounds game, almost every house the characters will ever inhabit or investigate has wooden floorboards, a coal cellar, space up in the attic. Sometimes this space is truly abandoned. Think about all those houses in the UK, 1930s build or prior. That's at least a third, probably more, of all the housing in the country. Every one of them would have had a coal cellar, yet how often now do you find a house with its original cellar? They weren't magicked away; previous owners filled them in, but imagine what could be down there now.

A place like this could provide benefits, for those willing to seek them out. The Rough Magick sourcebook gives us the Magic ability, and says that some spots are powerful enough that a would-be magus, visiting it and studying carefully, might gain 1 point of Magic. This gain usually only happens once, on the first visit, but some Places of Power offer more; a potential gain of 1 point per year. Not all haunted spots would offer this benefit, but if anywhere is likely to, it will be that quiet, shunned room with the ghastly secret under the floorboards.

Now consider a Bookhounds era game, before the Blitz remodeled London. All those old houses, the near-Dickensian warrens, the churches and the estates, the pubs and the shops, centuries old some of them. Imagine what could so easily be hidden away, down in the dark.

As an example:

Thomas Drugg and Sons, Bakery

This family business, established 1872, is a thriving concern. The current Drugg, Albert, is a hard-working man in his late 30s, and his two brothers work with him in the shop while their married sister, Mrs Fuller, keeps the books. All of them grew up here, in the rooms above the bakery, but none of them live on the property now. Albert is the closest, at two streets away, while the rest are further on. Mrs Fuller is the furthest, living out in Metroland.

Some of the empty rooms are used as shop office space, but most of them are disused. Once, for a month or so about a decade back, the Druggs tried renting the space to a medical student, but that didn't last. Nobody's lived on the premises since then, and the few staff the Druggs bring in don't arrive before four in the morning. Nobody talks about what goes on inside, just before midnight. The Druggs don't like gossip.

Tucked away under the floorboards of one of the upper rooms is a dream diary, a small wooden box, and the skull of what might be a very large rat. The diary belonged to Alice, the Druggs' youngest sister, who went missing in 1902. The skull, knowledgable occultists will realize, belongs to a Rat Thing. The box contains soil, which analysis will confirm has certain characteristics that mark it out as not of Earthly origin.

At night, if anyone's foolish enough to stay, doors do not keep closed, and a mysterious white cat pads noiselessly from room to room. Stability 4 test (supernatural creature up close) to witness this phenomenon.

Magicians crave items like that dream diary, and the soil; they can help increase a sorcerer's power. Drugg and Sons grants 1 potential Magic on the first visit, provided that the visitor stays overnight.  But some say that places like Drugg and Sons are linked to other parts of London, in a great web that connects one psychic pool to another. Claim one, and you might be able to work out where some of the others are, as you trace the great psychic web across London.

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