Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Blue Film Racket (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

I thought I'd go back to Bookhounds of London this week and its Sordid side in particular, borrowing from Fabian of the Yard to fashion a scenario idea.

"Vice is like mustard," says Fabian, "The more you eat of it, the more you need before you can taste anything at all. And for such clientele, there are the Secret Cinemas, and the particular, peculiar, plush-seated and dimly lit underworld ... The patrons pay five pounds. The room is dimly lit. Free drinks tinkle on a tray. Then the lights go out and a film show begins that would turn the censor purple if he knew. But he doesn't know. Usually the film is a 16-mm, smuggled in from the Continent, or photographed behind locked doors, to be shown in London's underworld cinemas. There are at least a dozen such secret studios in London today where films of this type can be seen."

Then moving to Fabian's jeremiad on Satanic practices:

"If sinful cinemas are not enough, there are practitioners of evil who will arrange to raise the Devil himself to be your sulphurous nocturnal playmate! The practice of Black Magic - of diabolical religious rites in the heart of London - is spreading steadily. There is more active Satan worship today than ever since the Dark Ages, when witches were publicly burned on Tower Hill ... Some firmly believe the world is a battleground between God and Satan, and if they declare themselves with the Devil, he will aid their success in life, and even a certain amount of comfort in Hell, with the chance of being reborn periodically as leaders of worldly wickedness. Others - perhaps the majority - attend a Black Mass to see a cheap thrill. They have heard of obscene ceremonies - naked girl priestesses - blood sacrifices of cats and goats - lewd flagellation and evil drums."

Now here's something interesting about a Temple of Satanism that Fabian alleges operated in his London:

"There is a house in Lancaster Gate that consists of one-room flatlets. The landlord and his wife occupy the ground floor and basement. Each room has a covered wash-bowl, a rather dispirited bed, a slot-meter gas fire, rickety table and two wooden chairs. The landlord's wife dabbles in spiritualism, sometimes holds private séances. Her husband is an amateur herbalist. Their flatlets are seldom taken for more than a few days. They are too dingy and untended to be comfortable. Guests come and go. Among them come and go the Satanists. Down in the cellar is a small doorway - probably at one time it was a fireplace. It leads through to the house whose walls adjoin it. The front door of this house faces onto an entirely different street. It is privately owned, and, from its cellar, stairs go up to an old-fashioned service lift-shaft, up which a spiral metal staircase ascends and stops at a sliding door, padded wit black felt. Beyond this door is a private Temple of Satanism!"

When I discussed Fabian before I mentioned I was unhappy with him as a factual source. I still am. There's just too much sensation-stirring here for Fabian to be believable. That said, an unreliable source has its uses so long as that source is of the era. I wouldn't touch Fabian if he'd been writing in the 1970s about the 1920s, but he wasn't. He was writing in the 1950s about the 1940s and 1930s. He talks in the voice of his time about the concerns of his time. If you write period fiction you need to capture that voice, and if that means reading a load of old whallop that's fine, so long as it's period whallop.

In Bookhounds of London there are at least two syndicates or societies that would get involved in the blue film trade: the Hsieh-Tzu Fan with its Soho stronghold, and Keirechires with its interest in sexual crime and pornography. I'm going to write this from the perspective of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan, and start with Brown Finger Johnny.

John Draper, aka Brown-Finger.
Athletics 4, Conceal 6, Electrical Repair 3, Fleeing 8, Health 5, Mechanical Repair 3
Academic specialty: Photography
Description: disheveled, always wears brown overcoat, persistent shaving cuts, fingers stained brown from film development chemicals and nicotine.
Notes: low-level subordinate of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan in charge of production and distribution of blue films.

Brown-Finger replaced Queenie Sutton as head of Soho's blue film racket a few years ago, when Queenie's place was raided by the police. Brown-Finger's supposed to be fantastically wealthy but you wouldn't know it to look at him. They say his continued success is due to friends on the Vice Squad, but he certainly has friends somewhere or one of the other racketeers would have claimed his territory long ago.

In the opening scene Brown-Finger approaches the protagonists with a proposition. He needs a new location for one of his secret cinemas. This is a completely new line for him, because the films he'll show aren't just porn; it's Satanic themed blue films. In the Devil's Bondage, New Flesh to the Altar, Her First Time, and more. All he needs is space. He'll provide the rest.

The protagonists either say yes or no at this point.

If they say no, then Brown-Finger gets his friends on the Vice Squad to pay the protagonists a visit. The Vice Squad cops search the place from top to bottom, making a mess and a lot of noise, scaring off customers. If by some chance the protagonists have anything in the shop worthy of the Vice Squad's attention then they may find themselves in gaol. Otherwise this is just a strong-arm attempt, and after the Vice Squad's paid the shop a visit Brown-Finger shows up. He's very sorry this happened, but he can offer a solution. Work with him, let him set up a cinema, and the Vice Squad problem will go away.

If they keep saying no then the Vice Squad start turning up at their homes as well, or stopping them in the street or in public. A few incidents like this and the shop will suffer a Reversal. Once the shop suffers a Reversal, assuming the protagonists still say no Brown-Finger will leave them alone. He has other prospects.

Should the protagonists still say no and follow up on Brown Finger's schemes, everything happens as per Yes except it happens to a rival book store. The protagonists can opt to help or hurt this store as they see fit.

If they say yes then Brown-Finger shows up with a van full of furniture - mostly leather chairs - some bottles of booze, and the film projector. The idea is to show these films for a small paying audience, maybe eight to ten at a time, three times a week. Brown-Finger pockets the cash, paying a small amount to the protagonists "for your trouble." Brown-Finger takes the lion's share. Brown-Finger doesn't need a lot of space to set this up. He could easily work in an attic or cellar, but if that isn't suitable then he's happy to draw the curtains in the main room and work there. He just needs privacy. Most of the time Brown-Finger won't be there; he sends an assistant, Sneery Harry, to run the projector, collect the cash and serve the drinks.

The clients are a mixed bag. They all have money; Brown-Finger wouldn't be interested if they didn't. Some are respectable middle-class types, whose reputations would be ruined if word of this were to get out. Some are much less respectable, but none of them are out-and-out criminals. A tight group of hard-core customers, the ones who come back week after week, want to become Satanists and think this is one way in.

The films are nasty stuff, and showcase plenty of S&M, gore and occultism. However there's a strong Mythos element too, and protagonists with Cthulhu Mythos may recognize some of the 'demons' as Mythos entities. Ghouls and Deep Ones make frequent appearances. At the Keeper's discretion these films may grant Cthulhu Mythos gains.

The films are all shot at the same location. The Knowledge and repeated viewing can work out where it could be, judging by clues left in the prints by careless editors and cameramen. However this only determines in which district - North, West, East, South, the City - the films were shot. Streetwise and Occult are needed after that to work out exactly where the temple is, and this phase of the investigation involves several visits to the seedier sides of London. Informants are likely to be Rough Lads, Prostitutes, Loungers, Beggars and Bright Young Things. Sneery Harry, if the protagonists lean on him, resists Intimidation - he knows Brown-Finger can hurt him far more than a bunch of booksellers ever could - but Flattery works wonders and Shadowing is Difficulty 4, or 3 if he's been drinking. This phase of the investigation will almost certainly involve an Antagonist Reaction from those 'demons' seen earlier, unless the protagonists are exceptionally discreet.

The final showdown is at the temple, which proves to be a well-disguised stronghold in the City. As described above, the actual entrance is via a block of 'flats' though the temple itself is in the building next door. The Satanists who stay in the flats are all cultists keeping watch over the place, and the two rooming house owners are senior members of the Satanist ring who may know some Mythos magic. Brown-Finger doesn't get involved in this side of the business; it's far above his pay grade. He shoots the films and makes sure they get an audience, but anything other than that is for actual members of Hsieh-Tzu Fan. Combat here is mostly with mooks, but if the protagonists want to avoid getting their heads kicked in they can get the police involved instead, as long as they can bypass the crooked members of the Vice Squad and get hard evidence about the porn ring. (He says with no double-entendre intended.)

If the protagonists do anything to seriously jeopardize this source of income, Hsieh-Tzu Fan will mark them down as enemies to be destroyed. Thus kicking off a whole new series of scenarios, I suspect.

That's it for this week! Talk soon.

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