Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chilling Locales 3 (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterror)

I've discussed Metro-2, the Orient Express, Hotel Castel Dracula and other locales, but only in the context of Night's Black Agents. This time I'm going to expand the remit a little and talk about the relevance to other settings within the GUMSHOE milieu.

Hashima Island Or Battleship Island, if you'd rather. If you know this one then it's probably because you saw Skyfall, where it doubles as the mastermind's stronghold. Except not really, because the actual Hashima is far too unsafe to be used as a film set. Tourists are allowed on the island but only in small numbers and in controlled groups; you aren't allowed to walk unsupervised. Though as this camera view shows, drones can go where people can't.

It's a coal mine, and at one time this 16 acre island off the southern coast of Japan, near Nagasaki, was one of the most densely populated places in the world. Founded by Mitsubishi in 1889, it was finally abandoned in 1974 when coal ceased to be an  important part of the economy. It's now a UNESCO world heritage site.

It has a history of forced labor. Beginning in the 1930s and not ending until after the war, Koreans and Chinese were moved here in large numbers to toil in the underground mines. Many died, or killed themselves rather than continue to eke out an existence on Hell Island. It's a history most Japanese would prefer to gloss over, if not forget entirely.

Physically, it looks like Leviathan rose up out of the depths and stayed slumbering on the surface for so long that people decided to live on its back. In its day it boasted Japan's first concrete apartment blocks, to house the workers, and those blocks plus the sea walls lend it the appearance of a ship of war. It's constantly battered by the sea, which is why it's in such poor condition, and would have needed constant maintenance when it was a working mine. Thirty years of neglect means that if it were to be restored for people to visit safely, it would have to be completely rebuilt, and there's neither the cash nor the enthusiasm for that.

Since it was first established in 1889 it could appear in any of the Pelgrane settings, from Trail to Night's Black Agents.

A Trail game probably concentrates on the coal mines themselves, with its hints of Lovecraftain cyclopean entities hidden deep beneath the earth. Seawater constantly leaking into the mines meant that the workers often picked up skin infections, and there were cave-ins and toxic gases to contend with as well; perhaps the workers, in despair, turn to the Old Ones for salvation or revenge.

Esoterror could claim that the island was home to any number of strange entities, or that its history as a place of death means that a ritual performed here has a better chance of breaching the Membrane. Perhaps those drone flights are looking for something that people can't find, because the island's too dangerous to search?

Night's Black Agents would use the island's dangerous reputation as an excuse to keep people away, so experiments could go on without restriction. Or perhaps there are old wartime secrets hidden here that the outside world has long forgotten. If nothing else, an amphibious night raid on Battleship Island has an allure all its own!

The Plain of Jars, Laos This megalithic site has a history that stretches back to the Iron Age. Almost certainly originally intended as a burial site, these sandstone containers cluster all over the upland valleys and lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. Grave goods, statues of the Bhudda, burnt bones, ash and beads have been found in these Jars, and there are at least 90 sites where they can be found, each site containing between one and 400 Jars.

During the Secret War in the 1960s American bombers dropped thousands upon thousands of antipersonnel mines on the Plain to hinder North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, and tens of thousands remain today, a hazard to anyone who wants to explore the site. Sightseeing can only take place over carefully marked paths; stepping away from the cleared zone could get you killed.

As to why the Nights Black Agents might want to go there: China or one of the other actors in the area may have been running a Jin-Gui operation in the Plain, which the bombing did its best to eradicate. Whether it was successful is something else again. Perhaps some of the jars were used to create Jin-Gui, by filling the jars with infected Telluric soil and using them to incubate new Jin-Gui.

Alternatively the NVA or Pathet Lao may have been running an anti-vampire operation of their own, and hid important data (or an item) in one or more of the Jars. Naturally the Jars in question are in the danger zones, and can only be reached by somehow bypassing or defusing a number of antipersonnel mines.

In Trail, the protagonists could be archaeologists. There was a significant exploration of the site in the 1930s; Madeline Colani literally wrote the book about the Plain. Perhaps the characters assist her, and discover something out there too horrifying to report. Do the Jars represent portals to another plane of existence? Will carrying out a cremation there call down entities, like Fire Vampires or Byakhee, which according to rituals long forgotten carry the souls of the devout to their reward?

Esoterrorists could use the Jars for all kinds of rituals. With all the gloom and death surrounding the site - never mind the explosives - there's plenty of Membrane-weakening influences to draw on.

Reception House, Kingstead Cemetery  This one's based on a recent Guardian article about a Grade II listed building at Margravine, Hammersmith. Kingstead is fictional, and features in the Dracula Dossier.

'Wretched as these people were,' says a contemporary chronicler (taken from Liza Picard), 'They would struggle to bury the dead without any assistance from the parish, for there is nothing the poor have a horror of as a pauper's funeral.' A funeral for an adult could cost as much as four pounds, an enormous sum for a working man never mind someone who hadn't worked in years. The problem was the body was often kept in the home for viewing, and stayed there until the family could afford internment. Often this might be a week or more. The natural process of decay meant this was untenable, so charitable institutions and workhouse medical staff began looking for a solution.

This small reception house is a stopgap. This octagon building with its slatted ventilation panels in the roof and trestles for the caskets could accommodate perhaps ten to fifteen coffins at a time, assuming it was packed full. People soon realized the reception house was too small, so larger mortuaries were built and the reception houses became obsolete.

The example at Kingstead dates to 1848, and is a fine example of mid-Victorian craftsmanship. Documentation kept at the church indicates that it was funded by a Doctor Kilpatrick, who at the time it was built was 35 years old; in 1894 he was a still-vigorous octogenarian, and involved tangentially in the Hampstead Horror. He was one of the first to bring the peculiar behavior of the children to the attention of the authorities and press, and led the search for the wayward children the first two nights. However he died of a heart attack the next day, and was buried in Kingstead.

In the world of the Dracula Dossier the Reception House can be many things: the  lair of a wayward SBA - the child, for example - a safe house used by Dracula's people, a dead drop used by Edom, perhaps even some kind of storage spot for items left behind by the Mysterious Monsignor or some similar shady character with a religious or mystic bent. If there's a Cult of Dracula, this could be one of their disguised temples. If Cool, then it was used by one of these agencies once upon a time, and perhaps it still holds significance for survivors of the 1970s mole hunt. There may even be a cache of something valuable in its dusty vault. On the other hand it could be Warm, and in that case probably still has an occupant of some kind. If a vampire, remember those ventilation ports in the roof; that could really frustrate would-be hunters, as their quarry turns to mist and vanishes through the vents.

Last but not least:

Kolmanskop  An abandoned German mining town in Namibia, left to the sands and its ghosts. Until 1954 it was still a working claim, complete with every possible luxury from a theatre and power station to a casino and skittles alley, not forgetting the all-important ice house. However its heyday was pre-Great War, when Namibia was still German; after the War de Beers staked its claim, and even today the diamond consortium keeps a museum at the Kolmanskop site. The town isn't the only ghost town in Namibia, but it is very photogenic and has appeared in television shows, movies and many haunting photographs.

It's interesting on several points. First, it's within what was the Sperrgebeit, a term the Germans coined to describe an area completely off limits, the intent being to surround the diamond fields by what amounted to an exclusion zone. Most of the Sperrgebeit has nothing to do with diamond mining per se, though some of it - like Kolmanskop - might have been a mine once upon a time. It's just considered useful to have a buffer zone around the valuable area, and it doesn't hurt that the buffer zone has become, in part, a nature reserve. You still need a permit to get in. Here's an Infiltration check  with a difference; just what is really hidden out there in the Sperrgebeit?

Second, since it is so remote and forsaken it's the perfect setting for all kinds of shenanigans. Does your NBA threat require an isolated area close to a rich supply of natural minerals - whatever your Unobtanium is this week - protected by all the personnel and weaponry a national government and wealthy benefactors can provide? Done and done. Is your NBA threat one of those, like the Perfectus, that has a prehistoric origin story with items and evidence left behind in some desolate spot? Done. Is there perhaps some evidence in a dusty Trail or Fear Itself tome that something truly unpleasant was dug out of Kolmanskop, hastening its decline? The journey alone could be worth a session of adventure. Probably best used in a 1970s or 80s game when Namibia still seethes with revolutionary fervor, and South African troops police the territory; this could be really interesting if combined with a Close Encounters aesthetic, as strange alien vessels swoop over the dunes.

Third, since it is so very photogenic it attracts all kinds of filmmakers, thrill seekers and other wanderers. This could include Esoterrorists, perhaps bent on creating the horror flick to end all horror flicks, or creating a meme spread via the internet - all those Ten Haunted Sites webpages and photograph albums - designed to cause dreams or visions of a desert wasteland, and the things that live there.

On that note, if you haven't already seen the 1992 film Dust Devil I highly recommend it, and though it doesn't feature Kolmanskop it's exactly the kind of setting where a story like Dust Devil could play out. South African Richard Stanley is the director and I've never been disappointed by any of his films. If you feel as I do after seeing Dust Devil I also recommend Hardware, a post-apocalypse killer robot tale, which again would not be out of place in a setting like Kolmanskop. The trailer's a bit rubbish - God knows why the distributor felt the need for the voice-over - but don't let that dissuade you. This is one seriously cool film, well worth seeking out on Halloween night.

That's it from me! Have a good Halloween folks, and talk soon.

1 comment:

  1. Greg Stolze's Mask of the Other makes a great deal of use of Battleship Island. Very, very creepy.