Thursday, 20 November 2014

The School of Night, Kit Marlowe and Bookhounds: The Dagger That Slew Him

Ken Hite's KWAS edition The School of Night brings into focus something I've been thinking about for a while, and I'd like to discuss what it could mean for Bookhounds of London.

Often the Bookhounds end up chasing Mythos texts of one kind or another, and that's fine, but it does mean that they end up doing broadly the same things that any other Cthulhu investigator does: hunt down obscure Mythos facts and save the day. Problem being that you, as Keeper, can't have them stumbling over the Necronomicon every other week. There must be other books, other mysteries to unravel. What could they be?

Dramatist, author and probable spy Christopher Marlowe lived a very eventful life, before his murder in May 1593 at the hands of Ingram Frizier. To this day nobody's entirely sure what happened. The three men in the pub with Marlowe at the time claimed it was an argument over money, but all three seem unreliable witnesses. Robert Poley was an intriguer and professional liar who once said 'I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm,' Nicholas Skeres was a confidence trickster, while Ingram Frizer, the alleged assassin, was also a con man as well as an agent of Thomas Walsingham, a patron of Marlowe's. The coroner's report, discovered in 1925 by Shakespearean scholar and literary detective Leslie Hotson, said that Frizier had acted in self-defense, and acquitted him. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in Deptford.

Marlowe's plays were published posthumously, among them The Massacre at Paris, which no longer exists in manuscript; the edition in publication is a reconstruction, based on the memories of the actors who performed it. One page allegedly exists, as part of the collection gathered by notorious forger John Payne Collier, who regularly created Shakespearean documents in an attempt to 'prove' his own theories. He even went so far as to insert his forgeries into the original record, by amending existing texts. The Massacre page, known as the 'Collier leaf,' is thought to be authentic.

The Massacre at Paris describes the events of the St Bartholemew's Day Massacre in 1572, a three day butchery of Protestant Huguenots by Catholics which left somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 dead. The Catholic mob believed it was necessary in order to prevent a Huguenot coup d'etat; women and children were hunted down and slaughtered, and the bodies of the dead were flung into the Seine.

Now consider this possibility: your Bookhounds discover, at auction, a bundle of papers described as 'an Elizabethan miscellany.' The papers include one or more pages from an unpublished manuscript, as well as some legal documents. A quick scan leads the Bookhounds to suspect that the manuscript is actually Marlowe's Massacre, and the legal document is an attestation from the Coroner, William Danby, that 'the attached poniard is that same weapon with which Ingram Frizier did rob Marlowe of his life.' The Bookhounds then realize the hitherto unsuspected significance of another item up for auction, an Elizebethan era dagger, listed as 'provenance unknown.'

Suddenly a world of possibilities open up. Talk about a Windfall for the shop; two, even three pages from Marlowe's missing play? The very dagger that killed him, with documentation attached as provenance? Fame, fortune, glory; it could all be theirs.

Now try to prove it.

Scholars are going to go mad about this discovery. There will be condemnations as well as accolades; if there's ever been the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing connected to the characters, this fantastic find will be dismissed out of hand as a blatant forgery. The Bookhounds may need to find a tame scholar of their own, an acceptable face to announce this new find to the world. But where to get one?

There are other problems. Suppose the pages can be traced back to Collier, whose proclivity for creating his own evidence is well known. Does that mean that these pages are forgeries too, or are they, like the Collier leaf, genuine?

What about that dagger? Proving it to be the actual weapon that killed Marlowe seems an almost impossible challenge. However there are going to be plenty of desperate Elizabethan scholars out there determined to own it, and some of them might be desperate enough to kill. Collectors can be strange folk. So too can occultists; imagine the kind of sympathetic magic you could perform with such a weapon.

Going further, what about the School of Night? Consider what you, as Keeper, could do with an occult group of conspirators operating in the Elizabethan era, fighting against strange and supernatural threats against the throne. Catholics versus Protestant, wrapped up with witches, Rawhead, ghosts, and many other things that go bump in the night. There's every reason to intersperse a Bookhounds campaign with School of Night adventures, all leading up to that fatal moment in Deptford when Marlowe is murdered - but why? Which of his enemies orchestrated the deed? Is he in fact dead, or is there some cover-up allowing him to retire in peace after years of intriguing?

Suppose the Massacre contains a coded message, perhaps even some kind of warding spell. The play itself features a mysterious English Agent, generally considered to be Marlowe himself. Say Marlowe tried to protect his life by transferring some of his essence into the manuscript itself, much as wizards in old tales are supposed to have hidden their hearts away in secret places to avoid death. Does this mean the manuscript is haunted, or will it try to rebuild itself in an attempt to revive Marlowe? Is this the work of malevolent Dust Things, or is there really a chance Marlowe might come back?

If it is a spell, does it still work? Marlowe may have wanted to protect England against the same kind of religious turmoil that gripped Paris, but suppose that, in its damaged form, it actually provokes them. Could discovery of this document lead to Protestant massacres of Catholics, on the streets of 1930s London?

Ultimately, my point's this: you can do a lot with a literary mystery, beyond have the Bookhounds seek out Von Juntz's miscellanea again and again. Try a little mix-and-match with other settings or ideas, see where it takes you. Maybe you'll find out who really killed Marlowe, and why; maybe you'll put an end to a literary time bomb that's been waiting centuries to go off. You might attempt occult rituals with that dagger, or you might just spend all your time trying desperately to prove that the fabulously valuable literary artifact you discovered really is what you say it is.

Have fun!

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