Sunday, 27 December 2015

Auction Houses of London (Bookhounds)

So you want to run a Bookhounds of London campaign, and need to arrange an auction scene. Where's this taking place? Your players will want to know. If you're the kind of silver-tongued devil who can make this stuff up on the fly, no problem. However for those of you desperate for some historical examples, consider the following auction houses:

Puttick and Simpson. Not much is left online about this venerable auction house, first opened in 1794, closed in 1971. The scene shown in the engraving is its Leicester Square location, a wide open space, no permanent seating, lined with books of all kinds. At one end, close to the door, there's a podium. One wonders whether its proximity to the only exit was important for the auctioneer. In the middle of the room there's a wide section of boards set on two tables, presumably for display, which could be easily moved if needed. At the far end of the room there's a piano. Puttick and Simpson was famous for its sale of musical scores, so it's possible the piano was there in the spirit of try, before you buy. The internet also tells me that there was a Puttick and Simpson Limited at Montpelier Street London, since dissolved. It might not be the same one, of course, but let's say that it is, for the sake of discussion. That suggests that Puttick and Simpson moved from Leicester Square at some point. Judging by the list of old catalogs available for sale online, it seems to have moved more than once. In 1851 it was at 191 Piccadilly, while in 1897 it was at Leicester Square. My source, The Book-Hunter in London (1895, via Project Gutenberg), says that, after Sothebys, Puttick and Simpson was one of the premier book auction houses in London. It also says that the Leicester Square location was formerly the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds - in fact, he died there - and goes on to proclaim, 'in this age of iconoclasm it is pleasant to wander in the passages and rooms where all the wit, beauty and intellect of the latter part of the last century congregated; where Johnson and Boswell, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith and Malone met in good fellowship.' Of course, it might have moved before the 1930s, but for the sake of your game it might be more interesting if it stays in Leicester Square.

Hodgson's. The source I have for this auction house is the 1895 book mentioned above, but the internet tells me there's a house clearance specialist operating out of Bristol with the same name, that first opened in 1918. The 1918 Hodgson's says it covers West London, which opens the situation up to all kinds of amusing slapstick scenes. I'm reasonably certain that the auctioneer Hodgson's mentioned by my source no longer exists, but the difficulty with a name like Hodgson is that it's one of the more common surnames in the UK, so searching for it is troublesome. The Book-Hunter in London says that Hodgson's Chancery Lane location 'was specially erected for the peculiar requirements of a book-auction house.' Whatever those may have been. Among other things, Hodgson used to host what were called trade dinner sales, where those in the trade would meet, enjoy a pleasant meal, and sell or buy as they saw fit. Apparently Hodgson used to clear fifty thousand pounds a time at these dinners, but the habit had died out by 1895, so presumably in the 1930s it's a distant memory. It does suggest possibilities, though, rather in the same style as a certain Burnt Auction. In 1895 the head of the firm was the founder's son, but by 1930 this may have changed. Incidentally, in the present day 115 Chancery Lane is occupied by a cocktail bar, Baranis. It describes itself as a Provencal-style cellar bar with a petanque court. It'd be interesting to see how much, if anything, of that Victorian structure 'specially erected' for a book auction house survives. Judging by Google, the frontage looks more or less original, but it's anyone's guess what's inside.

The Dorotheum. This is a Vienna-based auction house rather than a London firm, but it's the oldest in the world, so it deserves mention. The protagonists no doubt dream of one day going to something as prestigious as a Dorotheum auction. First established in 1707 by the Emperor Joseph I, it occupied its current premises in 1777, and has remained there ever since. Impossibly Baroque, immensely expensive; no doubt the protagonists are stealing its catalogs and forging its provenance in hope of boosting the price of their stock.

Phillip's, briefly Phillips de Pury, though that sad chapter in the firm's history post-dates the average Bookhounds game. First established in 1796 by one of Christie's clerks, this auction house puttered along until 1999, when it changed hands several times, engaged in disastrous business decisions, and was bought out by Bonham's. At the time of the average Bookhounds game, Phillip's is known as Phillips, Son and Neale. According to its website, Phillips had a 'reputation for strong regional sales rooms dotted about the British Isles,' which suggests that, if you as Keeper want an excuse for finding some obscure tome in, say, Scotland or Ireland, it could come into the game via Phillips, Son and Neale.

Sotheby's will be a familiar name to anyone who has a copy of the Dracula Dossier. Established in 1744, it began as a bookseller's but has since branched out into every conceivable art form. In the 1930s its principal lines, apart from books, would have been prints, coins, and medals, with a sideline in fine art. Its main rooms are at 34-35 New Bond Street, where it has lived since 1917. Though in the present day it has branches all over the world, in the 1930s its only location would have been London. It often arranges private sales when the seller wants to conduct business with the utmost discretion, as often happens when the seller would prefer the outside world not know how hard up for cash he is. One of its 1930s highlights is the sale of Baron Rothschild's paintings at one of the Rothschild residences in Piccadilly. This 1937 sale reached over £125,000, and was broadcast live by the BBC.

Taverns and Pubs. Many of the businesses mentioned here got their start by running auctions at their local pub.  Though a much less common practice in the 1930s as it would have been in the 18th Century, it's still quite possible, particularly for auctions taking place outside London. Without a dedicated auction house, any large sale taking place in the counties, say, has to locate itself in the largest and most convenient spot, and that will often be the local tavern. 

Book Fairs. The London Book Fair does not exist in the 1930s, but other Fairs do, most notably the Frankfurt Book Fair. The protagonists who operate a small book stall in, say, Spitalfields, probably won't be going to Frankfurt, but any book store owner with a Credit Rating of 3 or better will definitely want to be represented there. The Frankfurt event is a trade fair, where all kinds of innovations, new products, and other things of interest to booksellers are put on display. Exactly the kind of event that a Forger might want to attend, for example. 

That's it for the moment! It's also the last post this year. May 2016 be good to you, and best wishes to you all!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner: Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

I've been reading Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, a relative newcomer to the scene. He's been writing for a while, but keeps dropping off the map, and so his publication list isn't that long. First published in 1988, then nothing until 1997, then a gap, then a gap, everywhere a gap gap, old Matt Ruff he had a farm, and so forth. My copy is an uncorrected proof. When published, it will be via Harper Collins, and is expected to be a February 2016 release.

The central idea is fascinating. Ruff takes the tropes of Lovecraft's Mythos, and re-imagines the stories with African American protagonists. The setting is 1950s America, heartland of noir fiction, and the collection of short, interconnected stories opens with the tale of Atticus Turner, off to Chicago with a copy of the Safe Negro Travel Guide in his pocket, hoping to find his father. Except his father's gone missing, and all the clues suggest that he's gone to Arkham, Massachusetts, home of Lovecraftian horror. It soon develops that Montrose Turner is mixed up with a peculiar Order of the Ancient Dawn, who are themselves very interested in Atticus since he might be a direct descendant of the founder of their Order.

Things, as you might expect, get very complicated from that point forward.

I mentioned interconnected stories earlier. It wouldn't be entirely fair to call this a short story collection, even though it is a collection of several short-ish stories. There is a common long-term plot, however, and the characters are all related either by blood or by bonds of friendship. So in the first story Montrose is a relatively minor support character, but in a later story he becomes the main protagonist. Childhood friends, cousins, Brothers from the local Lodge, may all appear as fleeting glimpses in one story, only to reappear later as main characters. The Braithwaite clan and its magical machinations make up the main antagonists, along with its allies and rivals in the alchemical Orders that seem to spring up like weeds across America.

In and of itself the concept would be intriguing, but by combining it with Lovecraft Ruff manages to hit a very particular and sensitive nerve. After all, this is Howard Phillips we're talking about, the man who gave us Cthulhu but also gave us the comic verse On The Creation of Niggers, as Ruff reminds us very early on.

Recently the World Fantasy Awards statuette hit the news again. It's been pointed out, particularly in recent years, that having an award of this type made in Lovecraft's image is sending, at best, a mixed message to the world at large, and fandom in particular. "This is something people of color, women, minorities, must deal with more often than most when striving to be the greatest they can possibly be in the arts," said award winner Nnedi Okorafor, on discovering Lovecraft's reputation after receiving her award. "The fact that many of the Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us."

It's been announced that future awards will not bear Lovecraft's image. Noted Lovecraftian scholar S.T. Joshi has been particularly outspoken in his disgust at this decision. "Evidently this move was to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors who believe that a 'vicious racist' like Lovecraft has no business being honored by such an award."

I lost a great deal of respect for S.T. Joshi after reading that piece.

There's no denying Lovecraft's hatred, of women, of African Americans, of pretty much everything and everyone except white Anglo Saxons and Gothic Revival architecture. He has created some very compelling art, worthy of study, worthy of approbation. That does not excuse the rest of it.

Perhaps it's time to admit that having his face on an award is exclusionary. That it sends a message, intentionally or not, and that message is an unpleasant one. 

Having touched on that nerve, however, Ruff lacks follow-through. There are many dark and complex scenes in these stories, but at the same time there's an undercurrent of light-heartedness that is at odds with horror. Frankly, there's more angst and despair in The Hobbit than there is in this book, and the main character of The Hobbit is a jolly little fellow whose sole ambition in life is to eat more dinners.

That's not to say the stories are bad. They're very cleverly done, and as a counterpoint to pure Lovecraft there's pleasure to be had in re imagining those stories with these protagonists. Even so, you have to go into this expecting that it won't be horror, as horror is usually understood. There's the suggestion of shoggoths off in the darkness, and weird things do happen, but these shoggoths have a low-fat label on the side with an encouraging nutritional message from the FDA.

An example, hopefully avoiding as many spoilers as possible: in one story, a character is told to choose whether or not to accept a benefit. That benefit, we discover, comes at someone else's expense, and that someone else is kept inside a large machine, apparently unconscious. We're told by the antagonist that this person is in a permanent coma thanks to a head injury, and feels no pain. What would make this really work would be if we didn't know whether the antagonist is telling the truth. Perhaps there is no coma, no head injury. Except as the reader we know that the antagonist is telling the truth. We saw that head injury in a previous episode, and from that we can infer the coma. Trouble is, knowing that undercuts the horror by removing the uncertainty. 

So would I recommend Lovecraft Country to Lovecraft fans, when it finally debuts? Yes. Just bear in mind, as I've said, that this is not a frightening collection. It has horrific scenes, and its depiction of historical events is all the more shocking because we know the truth of the matter. We also know that it didn't happen very long ago, in the grand scheme of things. For that alone it's worth reading. 

Even if it doesn't keep you awake at night, captivated by existential bleakness and despair.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Forgotten London: Egyptian Hall (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

England once had a Home of Mystery, founded by one of the premier family businesses in all of entertainment history: the Maskelynes. Forgotten London has touched on the Crystal Palace and Tussauds Museum. Now it's time to turn our attention to the history of magic, and with it, the Egyptian Hall.

Built by Mr William Bullock in 1812 to house his extensive collection of curiosities, the Egyptian Hall covered numbers 170 to 172, Piccadilly, Westminster. Egyptology being the prevailing obsession, it was designed in a broadly Egyptian style, with a frontage reminiscent of Karnak or Luxor. However it was a multi-purpose building. The Musical Repository had shops there, where it manufactured sheet music. A grocer's, Jacksons, remained there until its destruction in 1910, and even after the Hall was gone Jacksons still maintained a shop at its old location for many decades afterward. There were other shops, and an art gallery, but from Bullock's point of view the main purpose of the Hall was to house his museum, originally called the London Museum of Natural History. It went through several other name changes before finally becoming the Egyptian Hall, sometime between 1819 and 1821.

It was an odd collection. One moment the Hall might be home to Egyptologist Belzoni's collection of artifacts, and then next week it might house fresh exhibits Bullock had brought home from Mexico. Then again it might be home to Eng and Chang Bunker, the original Siamese twins. Or P.T. Barnum, or Tom Thumb, or the Mysterious Lady, or magicians, hatchet throwers and other entertainers. This was the age of spectacle, and the Egyptian Hall excelled at spectacle.

The Maskeylnes were not the first magicians at Egyptian Hall by any means, but they were the first to realize the possible benefits of having a theatre of their own. Up till that time a typical magician's career was peripatetic, and one of the consequences was that he had to rely on the theatre having what he needed to carry off the performance. It meant that he had to be versatile, but it also meant that he had to accept the misfortunes of travel. Sometimes this meant disaster; imagine being the magician who, on unpacking his expensive and carefully crafted props and devices after a long sea voyage, discovered that his life's work had been eaten by termites. The Maskelynes were no strangers to this kind of life, and when J Nevil Maskelyne signed up for a three month stay at the Hall in 1873, he probably had no intention of staying longer than that.

Bullock, by this point, was out of the picture, having died in 1849. Before his death the Hall had been bought by lifelong bookseller George Lackington, who rented it mainly for art exhibits and entertainments. It's difficult to find out who owned it after Lackington's death in 1844; presumably either the Lackington bookselling firm owned it outright, or it was held in trust for Lackington's heirs.

J. Nevil Maskelyne soon discovered the benefits of being master of his own theatre, even if, in the Hall, he was merely a tenant. It became his home base. He could travel to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and rest assured that, on his return, he had a space, and his tools of the trade, waiting for him in London, the grandest city of the Empire. His son Nevil followed in his footsteps, spending the first nineteen years of his performing life at the Egyptian Hall.  Yet nothing lasts forever. Its owners decided there was more profit in office blocks than magic, and in 1905 the Egyptian Hall was demolished.

As a side note, its dissolution was captured by the artist Muirhead Bone, who later went on to become a famous war painter. The best version I've been able to find is here, and isn't all that clear, but you may have better luck.

The Maskelynes, father and son, went on to St George's Hall, which J Nevil significantly adapted for their work. J Nevil died in 1917 leaving the business to his son Nevil, and Nevil's children, including grandson Jasper who, at the time of J Nevil's death, was only fifteen years old. Jasper's father Nevil died in 1924, when Jasper was barely in his twenties. Nevil had the benefit of nineteen years at the Hall and a further twelve at St George's before inheriting the family business. Jasper had less than a decade. Jasper must have felt bereft, and perhaps a little unsteady on his professional feet, which may help to explain his later erratic behavior.

Jasper was one of five Maskelynes to inherit the magical Maskelyne empire. He had three older brothers. Captain Clive fought in the War and won the Military Cross, despite a heart murmur, and later became a stage magician. John Nevil had no interest in working the stage, and handled the business side of things. Noel also became a magician and maker of illusions, along with Jasper, who was the most adept of the brothers on stage. Their sister Mary, a talented performer, completed the Maskelyne menage.

Before his death, J Nevil attended the inaugural meeting of the Magic Circle at the Green Man pub in Soho, and St George's Hall later became a regular meeting place for the Circle. The Magic Circle eventually established itself at Euston, where it remains to this day. For a time Captain Clive was president of the Circle, but that heart murmur proved to be the death of him at a tragically early age, in 1928. Jasper would have been twenty six years old at that point, when the last strong connection with the Maskelynes of old was severed.

That was the start of the Maskelyne family feuds. Jasper proved to be a difficult sibling to work with, and Clive the war hero seems to have been the glue that held the family together. Jasper was dismissed from the family business in 1933, which coincided with the loss of St George's Hall. It was taken up by the BBC, and the Maskelyne's permanent home for magic ceased to be. The Maskelynes briefly tried to keep the dream alive at a different location, but by the end of 1934 the family business was kaput. St George's itself was demolished in 1966, and a hotel stands where the Maskelynes used to entertain all of London.

Jasper's life never really lived up to his early promise. Though he had an interesting wartime career, how interesting it actually was depends on how much you're willing to suspend disbelief and take Jasper's word for it. "You are not actually under oath when writing your own memoirs," as one historian put it. He chucked it all in and went to Kenya to start a new life as a farmer which, in hindsight, was one of the worst things he could possibly have done. He would have been there post-1960 and during the age of Mau Mau, when independence made things very difficult for those white settlers who'd chosen to believe, in their folly, that the sun would never set on the Empire. Jasper died in 1974, an embittered drunk. 

With all that in mind, let's talk about what this might mean for a Bookhounds game.

Both the Egyptian Hall and St George's Hall offer strong possibilities. By the 1930s the Egyptian Hall no longer exists, but the grocer's, Jacksons, does. In fact it may still exist, as Jacksons of Piccadilly, though I can't be certain that the modern Jacksons still occupies its old Egyptian Hall address. Be that as it may, Megapolisomancers may wish to take advantage of this long-standing lever by using Jacksons to keep in contact with the Egyptian Hall of former days.

It may even be possible, if you walk through the right door at Jacksons, to get to whatever's left of the memory of the Egyptian Hall, though what you'd find in that hidden space between worlds is anybody's guess. It once housed anything and everything, from a family of Laplanders plus reindeer to relics from the tomb of Seti I. Who knows what might still lurk in the shadowy, somehow dustless corridors of that Hall which is still a prisoner of time? Possibly spending the night there, or investigating the Hall further, would confer 1 potential Magic point.

Alternatively Jacksons' records might prove very interesting, to students of history. After all, the firm's been there since the Hall was first built. The account books, photographs, and other memorabilia hidden away in Jacksons' offices would prove very interesting, if they could be accessed. Of course, they might be very dusty, the perfect environment for Dust Things.

Or perhaps something else is still living there. A Rat Thing that's been hiding in Jacksons all this while would know everything about the old Hall. It could be that the oldest employee at Jacksons has been there much longer than even his or her employers know; did one of the many mummies housed at the Hall over the years decide to sneak to safety when the Hall was demolished?

St George's Hall is slightly different. It's still home to the Masklynes until 1933, which means it's also home to the Magic Circle. Getting involved with any of the Masklynes, especially Jasper, could be interesting. They're all going to want to collect books on magical practice, mechanical engineering, and other topics related to their craft. J Nevil, like many magicians, was a confirmed skeptic, and founded the Occult Committee to investigate strange claims. By the 1930s J Nevil is long gone, but perhaps Jasper, in his ongoing feud with his siblings, is reviving the Committee out of spite, spending family money on its endeavors. Or perhaps the protagonists, desperate for a bump in the shop's profit margin, is courting members of the Magic Circle in hope they'll become patrons. It's also possible that one of the characters is a practicing stage magician, in which case they might be members of the Circle, or be hoping to join.

Of course, when St George's Hall is taken by the BBC in 1933, the Maskelynes would have to downsize. Even if each of them took some of their props and properties with them, there would probably have been plenty of items left over that Nevil's heirs either wouldn't or couldn't take. That sounds like an excellent opportunity for an auction.

Alternatively among the many bits of props, papers and other ephemera carted over to St George's Hall in 1905 may be something that the characters really want. It might be something owned by the Maskelynes, or something accidentally moved over from the Egyptian Hall. Perhaps an occult artifact, or book, or something more substantial. Maybe something in old J. Nevil's notes holds the key to the protagonists' current dilemma. Or it could be that the stuff in St George's Hall, while not useful in itself, could be used to make a squiz, or be material for a forgery.

That's enough for the moment. Enjoy!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Messing with the Protagonists (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

I'm playing through the Dracula Dossier with some friends of mine, and I thought that the Directors out there might like to know about a surprise I recently pulled on their unsuspecting IT expert.

This is a fella who does IT in real life, at a fairly high level, so he's up to date on most technical issues. His character has a very high Digital Intrusion pool, and is the one everyone turns to when Electronic Surveillance is needed. His standard response to data management is to back everything up, as often as possible, on as many devices as possible.

Now, to kick things off we started with the scenario in the main book, (S)Entries, which asks the protagonists to recover a laptop belonging to an important NATO officer. This they did, without a hitch. They proceeded to search through the data before handing it over to their contact, and the IT bod also cloned and copied it everywhere. He wanted as many copies as possible, on as many devices as possible.

Among the files on the laptop were four scanned pages of the Dracula Dossier. I let the players pick which four pages. The presumption was that someone (they hadn't met Harker yet) had passed on the Dossier pages to the NATO officer, as part of a scheme to enlist the NATO man's help. The Dossier pages were presumed to be Harker's bona-fides. That scenario led them on to several unconnected adventures which I shan't detail here.

Eventually they recovered the original Dossier, and the IT bod promptly started copying it, scanning it, whatever he could think of, so long as he had an electronic version of it somewhere. No doubt, as a canny player, he was expecting me to try to steal the Dossier at some point. However no matter what he tried he couldn't get a scan. I pointed him to page 200 of the Unredacted Dracula, and that explanation seemed to satisfy him. He believed he couldn't scan the Dossier, so he stopped trying. I think he'd forgotten about the scans in the NATO packet.

Then when things were a bit quieter he settled in with his laptop to see if he could find out what had gone wrong, and at that point with his extensive IT abilities it wasn't long before he discovered the truth.

Now, at this point I have to confess that my background is not IT, and what little I do know about hacking and viruses is at the layman level. I'm interested, certainly, and I pay attention to developments, but I couldn't write a worm to save my life. Not that I'd have to, I suppose; I could always just buy one, off of that dark net everyone's babbling about these days.

The scans in the NATO officer's folders weren't your standard .pdfs. They were .exe files, their purpose being to release a memory-resident virus onto the home system. It is encrypted with polymorphic code, making it very difficult to detect. However the mutating engine can, if the virus is traced, betray its GCHQ origins to a knowledgeable hacktivist like our IT friend.

The virus has two functions. First, if ever someone tries to scan and read Dossier files on an infected machine, those files immediately become unreadable. Second, it alerts the virus originator that a scan has been attempted, and advises the originator of the infected machine's location, current IP address, the works.

Remember, he'd been copying the NATO files everywhere, to any device the protagonists had that would take the data.

Oh dear.

The virus can be removed with a Difficulty 7 Digital Intrusion check. A success of 5 or better, but not 7, makes the protagonist think that the virus has been removed, when it really hasn't. The scan-destroying function is eliminated, but unfortunately for the protagonist the routine that lets the virus contact home is still active, and is now permanently switched on.

Failure on the DI check means that the virus' last act is to destroy the infected hard drive.

The protagonist spent so many DI pool points that success was pretty much guaranteed, and his next act - to be dealt with in an upcoming session - is to have a go at the PNC, to see if he can find out who did this to him. This should be interesting! Time for a Thriller Digital Intrusion contest, methinks ...

More later!