Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Bookhounds of London: Found in the Margins

There's an interesting piece in the New York Times that I encourage you to read, about marginalia and its increasing value in the book trade. Three major universities have received significant funding to study marginalia created by certain people, the magician John Dee being one.Until recently marginalia was looked on as a sin in the book world, but these days it can be worth big money.

If you've ever owned a second hand textbook, then you already know what marginalia is. Whether or not the scribbling and doodles interspersed with the text is worth anything will depend on the identity of the scribbler. The Times quotes a Christies auction in which a chemistry text annotated by Michael Faraday sold for $38,000 when the high estimate was $25,000, and points out that an ordinary, pristine copy of the same text would sell for only a fraction of that amount.

Before now, it was common practice to destroy marginalia when it was found. Booksellers thought it made the text less valuable, calling marked books 'dirty,' and libraries routinely destroy this ephemera when it is discovered. There's an organization, Book Traces, devoted to tracking down and preserving these items and notes, wherever possible.

From a Bookhounds point of view, removing marginalia - if the characters want to do that - uses the Forgery ability. It's not just about erasing text; it's about making it seem as though the text was never there, a tricky thing to pull off. The Keeper might call for something like this if the Hounds pick up a text that needs tipping in to make it complete, and increase its value.

On the other hand, there are plenty of times when marginalia might add value, or become significant to the plot. Poems annotated by Randolph Carter, or an anatomy text with Herbert West's scribbles, are only ever going to interest Mythos scholars, but those can be the most determined collectors. Don't forget that many of these characters traveled extensively in their lifetime, which means that they could have left marginalia in all kinds of interesting places. Imagine, say, an official history of the Regiment with odd photographs, scraps of paper drawings and maybe a medal or two attached, or used as bookmarks. Say it was West's old unit in Flanders, and that West was one of those who contributed a photo or two, perhaps one of those drawings. Now imagine it being further annotated by West's old C.O. Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, the headless medico.

That kind of thing is bound to be plot significant rather than valuable in its own right. Though someone with Mythos knowledge might be interested in the contents, to anyone else it's just a battered old book. But there are plenty of characters in Lovecraft's fiction whose marginalia might be valuable in its own right. Occultists and scholars like Von Juntz, Ludwig Prinn, the Comte d'Erlette, and so on, are all going to be of interest to people who have little or no understanding of the Mythos, and those scholars will have left behind letters, notes, drawings, and other items, stuffed in the leaves of the books in their libraries. Picture a medieval Arabic text on astronomy, annotated by Von Juntz, or a love letter by the Comte d'Erlette used as a bookmark in a history of Paris. Those things may not have any plot significance, but there are going to be people out there who will go nuts over them.

Finally there is the double whammy, a Mythos text with marginalia. Something like the King in Yellow with annotations by Hildred Castaigne, or Leggett's 1821 Mysteries of the Worm with notes by Halpin Chalmers. The books themselves already add Mythos, perhaps potential Magic, even granting dedicated pool points. The King in Yellow, for example, adds 2 to Cthulhu Mythos and 1 to Art, permanently. One annotated by Castaigne might do all that, and also provide 1 potential Magic point, or, in a Dreamhounds game, refresh Instability.

That's it for now! This may be the last entry before the New Year, so let me take this opportunity to wish you every good thing in 2015!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Vin Mariani: Cocaine, Wine, and Cthulhu

Once upon a time there was a fascinating substance called cocaine, first imported to the West after the conquest of the New World by Spain. This habit-forming substance enjoyed a kind of reluctant endorsement from the powers that be; the Catholic Church, for example, was very hesitant about cocaine, blaming it for all kinds of sins and claiming it was an invention of the devil, until it realized that workers dosed with the stuff were twice as productive. The Third Council of Lima allowed the Church to take a 10% cut on all cocaine sales, after which the Church dropped any and all reservations it had.

In 1863 a Corsican apothecary, Angelo Mariani, hit on the idea of mixing cocoa leaves with wine. The cocoa leaves bled off their alkaloids into the wine, creating a cheery substance, Vin Mariani or Vin Tonique Mariani, which soon became a hit. It helped that Mariani was an absolutely shameless media hound, extracting celebrity endorsements from the likes of Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria, two Popes, Jules Verne, actress Sarah Bernhardt, the Empress of Russia, and so on. The whole list of endorsements, it is said, took up fifteen leather-bound books; The King of Tonics, The Tonic of Kings, or so went the advertising. It became one of the most popular tonic wines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and continued to be manufactured until Mariani's death just three months prior to the start of the Great War. He took the formula to his grave, in Cemetary of the Père Lachaise in Paris. It's still possible to find examples of the original bottle for sale as antique glass, and there's at least one example of the original stuff still kicking about.

Some of the known physiological side effects of cocaine use include a decreased need for food and sleep - something night owl Edison appreciated - a tendency to become talkative and energetic, intense euphoria, increased libido, irregular heartbeat, bulging eyes, gaunt appearance, increased blood pressure and valve damage, obsessive behavior, paranoia, hallucination, feelings of impending doom and death. and so on.

Taking all of that into consideration, what does this mean for Trail games?

Bookhounds begins, more or less, in the 1930s, while Dreamhounds kicks off in the 1920s. During both periods Vin Mariani would be available for sale, though probably in reduced amounts since it is no longer manufactured. Or is it? After all, Vin Mariani isn't protected by trademark and even if it was, the person most concerned with protecting it is long dead. The Keeper could easily rationalize that someone stepped in to make an inferior version of the original, particularly in Paris, since Mariani's manufacturing plant was in France. It's always possible some associate or employee of Mariani stepped in to fill a void in the marketplace. Of course the original, probably still available at least while stocks lasted, would be the superior vintage by far.

It would be beloved of older occultists and other NPCs. Anyone over 40 in 1930, for example, might easily have enjoyed the original while Mariani was still alive and making it. A few bottles of Vin Tonique could be used as window dressing in any scene involving NPCs of this type, as could the cocaine shakes, gaunt appearance and so on that is characteristic of long-term use.

In a game like Dreamhounds, Vin Mariani could acquire an odd reputation. After all the whole point of the setting is to get into the Dreamlands somehow, and here's a substance that reduces the need for sleep. Some Dreamhounds might find that a blessing or a curse, depending on what they've been up to; a sudden spike in their wine consumption could be a significant Sense Trouble indicator. Or perhaps Vin Mariani, or its equivalent, has made its way through to the Dream somehow, perhaps carried there by a fan. Can it be manufactured there? What would happen if it was?

Going over to Night's Black Agents for a moment, a few months back when I was discussing the nature of Conspiracy I posited an organization that wanted to become the premier source of Gray, a narcotic substance, in the Western World. Consider what Vin Mariani is: a wine infused with an intoxicating substance. Now consider what the Conspyracy wants: an easily transported, easily disguised means of distributing ghost-impregnated stimulants. Sold! Vin Mariani, or a wine very like it, could easily have been one of this Conspyracy's first attempts at distributing Gray. It might still have vineyards out there being dusted, fertilized or what have you, with the essence of dead souls, sold to its more discerning clientele.

Or, leaving Gray aside altogether for a moment, a Vampire with nineteenth century connections could still have a hankering for its favorite tipple, particularly with a drop or two of blood added. After all, just because Dracula, rather snootily, says he doesn't drink wine, doesn't mean that the rest of the blood drinking community has turned teetotal. But as the years advance and Vin Mariani becomes much more unobtainable, that Vampire might go to extraordinary lengths to ensure a supply. Following the bottle trail could be an extremely useful way of tracking down a dangerous opponent.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Come Fly The Friendly Skies: Night's Black Agents and Air America

If people remember Air America at all, it's usually because of the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr film. which didn't do too well at the box office. While the movie's fun enough, no one film could really do justice to the CIA's wholly owned subsidiary transport company. The question before us right now is, what happened to Air America after the war, and what does that tell us about Night's Black Agents?

Air America started life in the 1950s as a passenger airline, intended by the CIA to help it gather intelligence in China. China at that time was just coming out of a battle for control of the country, which ended in 1949 when Mao formed the People's Republic. At that time Air America was Civil Air Transport(CAT), originally founded by Flying Tigers veteran Clair Lee Chennault, and had significant Chinese investment. It had bases in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, among other places, which in hindsight became perfect placement when America became embroiled in Vietnam.

It transported people, cargo, and allegedly narcotics on behalf of high placed Laotians. It also had a significant sideline in transporting livestock, often to help civilians, starving thanks to Agent Orange attacks which blighted their cropland. It lived up to the slogan Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, often in ways that would seem, to outsiders. less than creditable, and hired pretty much anyone, from ex-war aces to ex-Marines, with the helicopter pilots, generally younger , taking the prize for hell-raising and boozing.

'The men usually abandoned the [company] hat for a baseball cap, and some even wore Stetsons, and all wore the inevitable sunglasses. But most distinctive of all was what came to be known as A.A. jewelry. Some wore gold necklaces and rings, but almost without fail they sported a solid gold Rolex on one arm and a solid gold bracelet hand-engraved with their initials, sometimes in diamonds, and the Chinese four seasons design, on the other ... The bracelets were big and gaudy, and the biggest weighed half a kilo. The pilots claimed that the A.A. bracelets originated as something to barter their lives with if they were ever shot down and captured by the enemy. As the enemy would have cut their arms off to get the gold, it is more likely that the pilots' naive theory was created to allow them time to indulge themselves in a little ostentation.'

So why, when the war was over, did the CIA get rid of its airline, and what does this mean for Night's Black Agents?

It wasn't because the CIA never wanted to get in a plane again. It still had a use for an aviation section, but one of the big problems was the size of Air America. By the war's end the airline was too large, and its activities too well known, to be kept a secret. It didn't help that, as a business, it was an enormous drain on resources in terms of man hours spent keeping it going, often with very little reward in sight. After all, the CIA doesn't always need an airline, but if it wants to keep one then it always needs to find something for that airline to do. That's a huge pain in the neck, particularly if you lend your airline to another agency, just to justify that airline's existence on your balance sheet, only to have that other agency commit some heinous faux pas for which you, as owner of the airline, are now being blamed.

For those reasons, the CIA sold off its assets, including all its planes, and started working with cut-outs. Much easier, the spooks reasoned, to work on a contract basis with third parties, than to own the business yourself. By 1976, Air America was history.

What does all this mean for Night's Black Agents?

To begin with, it's entirely possible that the conspyramid worked hand-in-hand with AA at some point, if only because AA worked with pretty much everyone. If the vampires had an interest in infil or exfil of human (?) assets somewhere in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, then it probably used AA to do it. After the dissolution of AA, the conspyramid might have picked up a few disgruntled human assets of its own; many of those pilots found themselves without a job after AA dissolved, and with limited compensation, except for a few entitled to disability benefits. Those on disability might have found vampire promises particularly enticing.

However the AA story points up a bigger truth, than the conspyracy will have to acknowledge: while there's a great deal of control in owning your own asset, ownership is a pain in the ass. You have all the troubles of running a business and few of the rewards, since your clandestine asset can't compete with commercial enterprises. After all, the commercial line can do whatever it takes to earn contracts, but the clandestine enterprise always has to be mindful of its master's wishes. Plus there's always the risk that, with larger and more complex assets, the truth will leak out. People talk. Accidents happen. From a game perspective, those assets are constantly generating Heat, attracting attention to themselves because they really can't explain their activities, except to admit to some kind of illegal enterprise.

This is why most of the assets in a conspyracy, particularly at its lowest levels, are going to be human; cut-out organizations, businesses and groups with little substantive link to the higher echelons. All the better for deniability, but it also means that those cut-outs might unintentionally commit an act that harms the conspyracy, just as AA did when it allegedly got mixed up in narcotic smuggling.

With all that in mind, consider the following:

Pet Flight, a bespoke animal air freight company incorporated and operating in the UK, has recently suffered financial troubles after a PR disaster, when a celebrity's favorite dog died in transit. The police got involved when rumors began to circulate that the dog died from a drug overdose, which happened when the animal stuck its snout in a massive quantity of cocaine. The police initially believed that the cocaine was being smuggled on the celebrity's behalf by Pet Flight - an extra service it allegedly provided some of its high profile clients - but when the CEO of Pet Flight, Patricia Brady, offered to turn informer, she was brutally murdered. The murder seems overkill for what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward smuggling charge; what else did Brady know about, that her clients preferred remain secret?

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London: Brains!

You may have already seen the news item about the University of Texas' 100 missing brains, including among others the school shooter Charles Whitman who, one fine day in August 1966, climbed a University of Texas campus tower with a rifle, killing 16 and wounding 32. In a letter written before the attack, Whitman said he did not know what compelled him to carry out the shootings, and asked that he be autopsied; 'donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.' Nobody knows where his brain is now; perhaps it was stolen, perhaps it's just missing.

People have been preserving brains since the mid-19th Century, and more often than not, these collections are the work of enthusiasts and specialists whose efforts go neglected after their deaths. Harvey Cushing's Yale collection vanished after his death in 1939, only to be rediscovered decades later by students who made the collection part of a ghoulish pilgrimage that all new students had to undergo. Eventually Dr Dennis Spencer, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, rescued them and made them the centerpiece of a museum dedicated to Cushing's work. La Société d'autopsie mutuelle carried out the same kind of task in Paris in the 1870s, collecting both brains and the recorded history of their former users, until the Society died out in the 1890s.  There are probably thousands of brains scattered all over the world, hidden away in hospital basements, or some other temporary final resting place.

With all that in mind, consider the following possibility: a society of surgeons, working in Moscow in the later 19th and early 20th century, have been carrying out autopsies and preserving the brains of the dead. Their focus has been on the study of madness and suicide, and their collection includes several murderers as well as the deranged and self-harming. It's said that they even managed to collect Rasputin's brain, complete with the fatal bullet that went through it. However when the Revolution upended everything in 1917, several prominent members of the Society determined to preserve their life's work, and fled Moscow with the Society's collection, as well as its valuable library containing many important works, including a complete edition of Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring's anatomical encyclopedia in the original German. This collection is supposed to have been in Paris for about five years after the Revolution, but the surviving members of the Society were unable to persuade any French academic institution to accept the collection. With little money of their own to sustain it, the Society members took their collection to London in hopes of persuading one of the Universities to take their treasures.

Unfortunately for those three surgeons, Apetkar, Veselov and Zarubin, the English academic world was as unenthusiastic about their collection of preserved brains as the French had been. Though Rasputin's brain attracted mild interest, there was no real provenance, nor could there be under the circumstances. Unless they could prove, somehow, that it really was Rasputin's brain, it had no value to anyone. There was some demand for the library, but the Russians weren't willing to give up one half the collection without finding a home for the other. Zarubin is supposed to have put the collection in storage on or around 1926, while the three considered how best to raise the money needed to properly house it. Then Zarubin went missing in April of 1926, possibly a victim of the GPU's Operation Trust, before he could tell his partners Apetkar and Veselov where the collection was stored.

Since then many fantastic tales have been told about this collection of brains, and it's become a favorite ghost story for doctors and surgeons training in London. Every tale-teller claims that the preserved brains are floating around in the basement of one of London's hospitals. Nobody knows what became of Apetkar, though Veselov took up his old profession and can be found in the East End managing a small practice; most of his patients are Russian immigrants.

However the library is supposed to be remarkably valuable, to the right sort of client. Any number of book scouts claim to know where Zarubin hid the collection, and whenever a Russian book on anatomy turns up rumors begin anew that the Zarubin Collection has been found. None of those rumors have ever been proved true.

There are three factions known to be after the Zarubin collection:

  • Veselov is supposed to have been able to gather enough money from other Russian emigres to house the collection, if only he could find it again. It's debatable whether he actually has the cash; he certainly doesn't look or dress the part, and these 'rich Russians' of his have never been seen by anyone other than him.
  • Andrew Harding, a devoted Communist with deep pockets, is always buying Russian artifacts of whatever type, without any regard for what they are. It's said he's actually funded by OGPU, and tasked with recovering anything and everything that Russian emigres brought with them when they fled the country.
  • Arthur Poole, solicitor and coroner for the Municipal Borough of Bromley, is fascinated by criminals of all kinds, but particularly murderers, stemming from his ten years as coroner. He's been involved with three capital cases so far, and in each case has argued for the preservation of the brain of the condemned, for further study. Some say he has history with the Golden Dawn as well, but this is more gossip than proved.

There are two other factions, less well known, interested in Zarubin's brains:

  • The Supper Club, a loose collection of aesthetes who some claim have connections with the Keirecheires Y'Golonac cult, is willing to pay significant sums of money for any brain from the Zarubin Collection. It's not known whether they're after the alcohol used to preserve the brains, or the brains themselves.
  • Pavel Tchelitchew, surrealist artist and Russian emigre currently living in Paris with his partner Charles Ford, is supposed to be interested in the collection, and is willing to pay a high price for them. It's not known precisely why Tchelitchew wants them; there may be a Dreamhounds link here, or it may be that Tchelitchew's name is being used by another, more clandestine collector who would prefer to keep his identity secret for reasons of his own. This is most likely if the scenario takes place after 1934, since Pavel and his partner went to New York City in that year; this fact may not be known to Bookhounds, living far from Paris.