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.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Tombstone Showdowns and Pelgrane Day

I had it all worked out, and then it went wrong.

Pelgrane announced its first ever Pelgrane Day last Friday, and I immediately came up with a Cunning Scheme. I'm Premises Manager at the local dramatic society, and it has WiFi. If I can game on the actual stage, so much the better, but even if I can't there are plenty of other rooms in the building. We could livetweet the entire thing! Maybe even shoot some video, do a bit of recording, nothing fancy.

Filled with confidence and joie de vivre, I get the gang together: Max, Tach, Mary and Jym, who're currently journeying on the Orient Express - sanity dwindling away not in a trickle but by handfuls - and they leap on board. I pick for the evening Ken Hite's Vendetta Run, a fun survival horror setting perfect for a one-shot. I have two weeks to prepare. What could go wrong?

Well, we had a hurricane for one thing. The theatre cellar flooded, and then caught fire. Not as serious as it sounds, and nobody was hurt. However it did mean I was kept very very busy, and exhaustion set in. The theatre lost its WiFi connection, and thanks to one damn thing after another it still didn't have its WiFi connection by the time Friday rolled around. Never mind that I had much less time to prepare than I'd fondly imagined.

At one point I considered cancelling but decided against. The show would go on!

Not in the theatre, though; that was taken. We moved up into the office instead. The office is supposed to be haunted, though how much truth's in that is anyone's guess. Like just about every old building in Hamilton the theatre's supposed to have been a bordello back in the bad old days, but I've heard that story so many times about so many different places in Hamilton it must have been wall-to-wall shagging back before the Great War. But let's say one of the customers is still hanging around, why not. It's as good an excuse as any.

We started the session at 7pm with character creation, and were gaming before 8, carrying on till after midnight.

The characters are:
  • Hosanna (played by Tach), a dealer at the Bird Cage Theatre which hosts the world's longest ever poker game in its cellar.
  • Shallott (played by Mary), a medical type more than a little handy with a six-shooter.
  • Slim Bob (played by Jym), the worlds fattest demolition expert, with a deep, abiding love for chocolate.
  • Twitchy (played by Max), a Cowboy gunman and enforcer, weedy but a dead-eye shot.
I decided to set the game in Tombstone itself, rather than have the Earps chase the characters across half creation. There's plenty of information out there, and the Wikipedia page even has a period street map. It also allowed me to steal real-world locations, like the Bird Cage and the Courthouse, for important scenes.

I made a couple decisions I would later regret. First, I decided to do this with the lights off. LED tea lights are cheaply had, and I thought this would add atmosphere. It did, but the flip side was I had very little to photograph.

The red tea lights are for the Keeper, the others for the players. Note to self: if I do this again, more tea lights please. Mind you it could get expensive; down here those things cost about a buck a light. Which is still fairly cheap but if it's a buck a light here they're probably .10c in the States.

It did make things difficult to read. This is where tablets and phones come in handy. Plus Pelgrane is relatively rules-lite when compared to, say, D&D or other crunchy games, so you don't have to spend eye-straining minutes looking for something on your character sheet.

Speaking of, what would have made this even more fun is period character sheets, as have been made for Bookhounds, Dreamhounds and Trail. I know this is more of a fan project, but there's a few KWAS that provide alternate settings - Tombhounds, Vendetta, Moon Dust Men - and my artistic skills are negligible. Would that there were an easy way of setting up fun character sheets!

Another regrettable decision: music. I like using music in game, but I hadn't appreciated that recent iPlayer updates meant the interface had confusingly changed. Plus my battery seems a little feeble these days. Che sera sera; the music kinda worked, but not as I'd have liked. 

One other bit of prep I have to mention here: Time Life Books. My God those things were gorgeous in their day. The one you see in the photo is The Old West - Gamblers. I could not have done this without that book. Highly recommended, and you can often pick up those titles for silly money, especially in the States.

We started with a tremendous hangover. The characters wake up in their chosen hidey holes in Tombstone, having tied on a righteous one the night before. As Slim Bob awakens in his pharmacy and makes himself a cup of coffee out of last week's grind, dreaming of chocolate, Hosanna, Shallott and Twitchy - who were over in the Bird Cage - go looking for him. They find a bunch of Earps (Deuces, which term will mean nothing to those who haven't read Vendetta Run; think of them as mooks) and things soon turn grim.

Fortunately Slim Bob traps one of them under his enormous girth, but that still leaves a couple outside.

"I hear you're the best shot," says Twitchy to Lou Cooley. "I propose a gamble. I'm going to flick this here coin up in the air and if you can hit it in one try without missing ... Unless you're chicken."

"I'll hit that coin," says Jim, "And shoot you right between the eyes with the same bullet."

"I'd like to see that," says Twitchy, and hilarity ensues.

Fortunately for Twitchy he does not get perforated, but Shallott does, and with rounds that will not heal. It's always the way when someone plays the hero; someone else carries the can.

However after all the Earps are dispatched - their bodies mysteriously vanishing - the characters look in at the Bird Cage. There they meet Josiah, a miner, who extolls the virtues of the establishment.

"Are you married, Josiah?" says Hosanna.

"I don't like to talk about my personal pains and miseries," is the reply.

But with Josiah as a beard they sneak into the poker game, where Doc Holliday is supposed to be holding court. Twitchy, staying upstairs, notices a couple Earp hangers-on lurking on the other side of Allen Street, keeping an eye on the Bird Cage. However the group doesn't notice Warren Earp and a compadre sneak in the back of the Bird Cage and take up ambush positions.

Josiah, it seems, has a very interesting mine. "Hell is a place, ma'am, but it's also ... I'm sorry, I've lost my train ... you'll be going there soon, ma'am, real soon. What was I saying?"

A sinister figure appears at the other end of Allen Street, and storm clouds gather. Wyatt's on the way.

Shallott slips out and gathers a couple Cowboy helpers.

With Warren and his compadres blocking the escape route, and Wyatt plus helpers plus Doc come in the front door. However thanks to Preparedness and copious explosives this proves to be a poor life choice for the mooks.

"I wonder if I might try some Intimidation," says Slim Bob, as he "kinda rolls toward 'em."

In the gunfight that follows Shallott comes out more perforated than Swiss cheese, and pretty much everyone takes hits, but the Keeper gnashes his teeth in frustration. More mooks were needed, and Warren went down like a puling kid. All the Cowboy NPCs get killed, which is just as well really since if they hadn't been there to be bullet sponges the PCs would probably have died.

I could go through the rest of it shot for shot, but that would take a long time and half the fun of a gaming session is being there. Suffice to say that Twitchy got the death he'd been looking for and Slim Bob fared little better. Shallott crawled away with several bullet wounds that would never heal, and Hosanna beat the odds and achieved salvation.

Well done to all, and many thanks to Pelgrane for all the fun!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Invisible, Inc (iPad)

I've mentioned Klei's Invisible, Inc before, but until now it's always been a PC and PS4 title. It recently popped up on the iStore for $4.99 and, as Hurricane Nicole bore down on the island, I thought it was as good a time as any to give it a whirl. I played this on iPad Air 32 GB, so not the most recent model; performance-wise, I have no complaints.

If you've already played this or read the previous review then you know the basics, but to briefly reiterate: this is a stealth turn-based strategy roguelike with cyberpunk elements, in which you play a team of highly trained corporate spies on the run, trying to find out why your agency got smashed by the corporations while at the same time saving your powerful Artificial Intelligence, Incognita. Think of it like Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents, except the enemies are powerful megacorps with private armies at their disposal, not vampires.

Its basic release in May 2015 gave you the game, several unlockable agents and hours of fun. The November 2015 DLC Contingency Plan gave you several more agents, a ton of new items and equipment, and increased gameplay considerably with two new custom missions and several extra basic missions. I've played Contingency Plan to death on PC; in fact as the iPad release surfaced I was already on Day 16 of an Endless Expert run, so my people were about as skilled and as tooled up as it is possible to be.

It came as a little bit of a shock to discover that the iPad release includes just basic game content. Oddly, when Contingency Plan came out I didn't think it added much to the game. It took this release to make me realize just how much the DLC brought to the experience. On iPad it seems a shorter, less fulfilling title without the DLC content. I also realized that, without the Contingency Plan stuff, a shorter game means less of a challenge since you never encounter any of the tougher enemies in campaign mode. You'd have to go to Endless for that. There are several new agents only available on Contingency Plan that won't be available here, and all the side missions I'd come to expect - retrieving drones, hacking software laboratories, retrieving Invisible's data, raiding power vaults - are gone.

I played through one story campaign in Expert on iPad, and it was a lot of fun. It might be shorter, and that may mean it's not as much fun as the expanded Contingency Plan version, but it's still one of the best turn-based games out there. I was sweating bullets by the end, using up all the toys I'd saved to get my people to the final scene, and more than once I was convinced I'd completely screwed myself and lost the game. Particularly since, as this was basic, I hadn't the time to get any of the really powerful toys, which meant that any enemy with better that Armor 1 could have my agents for breakfast spread over a nice bagel.

A few things struck me. First, this game kills batteries. One level used, on average, about 30% of my battery life. Two levels would have me reaching for my charger.  If I were going on a long journey or thought I wasn't going to be able to charge my device, I wouldn't touch this game. When the hurricane knocked my power out, for instance, I immediately stopped playing and didn't touch it again until power was restored.

At first I thought I would need a Wi-Fi connection to make this work which, since Hurricane Nicole was bearing down on me, would mean I couldn't play. Not so; it works fine offline. It takes a while to load. I'd guesstimate maybe a minute and a half, at most, between boot and play. Given the complexity of the title I'm not surprised.

I wouldn't try this on a phone. Things got very busy on my screen, and more than once I really couldn't tell what was going on without juggling the screen a few different directions and squinting. Moreover there are times when two enemies would sit on the same square and I really couldn't tell which was which; very annoying when those two enemies are hackable drones, but I only want to hack one of them. I dread to think what the experience would be like on a smaller screen.

I used finger rather than stylus as a control, and on reflection I really wish I used a stylus. Maybe it's just me, but I think that might have given me better control. That said, gameplay was smooth and I never once made a disastrous mistake through fat-fingering.

It's almost but not quite the same game on iOS as it is PC. There are some gameplay changes, and I noticed two which may have a significant effect on your experience:

First, enemy drones have slightly different behavior patterns when hacked. In the PC version hacked drones can open doors and, if armed, shoot things, but other than that they have no function. In the iOS version hacked drones can also manipulate switches and apparently gather items, though I didn't have many chances to test that last part.

Several levels depend on you doing certain things in certain areas. In the detention center level, for example, you have to hack a control panel, manipulate that panel to open the cell door, and then guide the prisoner out. Usually this means you have to send an agent in to the control panel, but if a drone can do that job it can change the way you deal with the level. You don't have to send an agent in, thus possibly alerting the captain of the guard. The drone can do all the really dangerous bits while your agents sit outside, probably distracting the captain by opening doors and running away, a cybernetic version of Knock, Knock, Ginger.

Moreover if they can gather items then they can empty safes, which would make bank robbery much easier. I didn't have many chances to test this theory, but it's worth trying.

Second, at least one and probably more items have changed slightly. I'm talking about the Invisibility Cloak, but I wouldn't be surprised if other items changed too and I didn't notice.

The Invisibility Cloak in the original came in three versions: Basic, Cloak II and Cloak III. Basic lasts for three or four squares of movement, I misremember which, and then fades. Cloak II lasts the full turn, and then fades. Cloak III lasts two full turns and then fades. You need to have a certain base level of Speed before you can use the advanced Cloaks, and even Basic needs a higher Speed than your agents usually start with.

In the iPad version all's the same, except for Cloak III. This time Cloak III only lasts for one turn, not two, but the kicker is that when activated it generates a small cloaking field around your agent, allowing you to make more than one friendly target invisible. They don't have to stay chained together either; once invisible no matter where they go they stay invisible for the rest of that turn or until they attack.

This came in very handy in the final encounter. Shalem and Monster were cut off from the rest of the group, and the enemy were closing in. Decker had Cloak III ready. He ran in through the enemy, activated it next to Shalem and Monster, and all three of them sprinted past the guards, Decker frantically gobbling Stims for extra move boost. They still needed a smoke bomb from Internationale on the next turn, otherwise the guards would have nailed them. But without that first turn of invisibility, the team would have failed right away.

Understand, these are only two changes I noticed. I'd bet there's others I didn't spot. That said the core game is basically the same as it was when Invisible, Inc first launched in 2015. Tweaked certainly, but not fundamentally altered.

Do I recommend this title? Yes. If you like turn-based strategy with roguelike elements and a high degree of stealth gameplay, this is a must-purchase. I'd warn you to watch your battery life, but apart from that, enjoy!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Haunted Doll's House (M.R. James)

I've been asked to contribute to a ghost story evening later this week and for inspiration I've turned to an old favorite: M.R. James' The Haunted Doll's House. It's been one of my favorites for so many years now I can't remember when or where I first read it, but I've read it many times since then.

It's not considered one of James' best. First published in 1923, it was intended as a gift of sorts for Queen Mary, to be added to her magnificent period doll's house built in the early 1920s and exhibited around the country as an example of superlative English craftsmanship. The house included a perfect replica library in 1:12 scale, with each book being an actual book, with a story, in miniature. James later included it in later collections of his work and it's been reprinted since elsewhere.

For me, what gives it juice is its combination of the peculiar with the mundane. There can be nothing so ordinary as a doll's house, yet this particular example is anything but ordinary. To my knowledge nobody's ever tried to replicate the haunted doll's house in fiction, though there are plenty of stories about ghastly toys, including dolls, of one kind or another. It's almost as unique as a story as it is an item.

I notice, as an aside, that more than a few people have built 'haunted doll's houses.' I approve!

There's a line early on that catches me every time, and if you haven't already read the story then I suggest you do so now as I'm about to enter into spoiler territory:

The curtains of the four-poster in the bedroom were closely drawn round all four sides of it, and he put his finger in between them and felt in the bed. He drew the finger back hastily, for it almost seemed to him as if something had – not stirred, perhaps, but yielded – in an odd live way as he pressed it. Then he put back the curtains, which ran on rods in the proper manner, and extracted from the bed a white-haired old gentleman in a long linen night-dress and cap, and laid him down by the rest. The tale was complete.

A lovely bit of sense-horror. There can be few people who haven't had something like that happen at some point in their lives: you reach out a hand, or it might be a foot, and come into contact with something you weren't expecting. In Bermuda, it's usually cockroaches. You might be sat in a chair at night, working on something, only to feel the faintest of touches, almost a brush, at your feet. Or you stretch half-asleep and your hand comes into contact with something furry. Not stirred, perhaps, but yielded - as in giving way, as though you were expecting to find something solid and instead met with something decidedly more fleshy.

There are aspects of that story which hook me yet, but puzzle me too. James repeats a motif again and again, of the clock striking one in the morning just before something dire happens. I don't think he picked that time at random. It can't be pure coincidence; no, James knew some bit of folklore tied to that hour. I don't know what it is and Funk & Wagnall's fails me this time. It may well have something to do with the death's watch beetle or some obscure piece of lore.

The idea of the story repeating itself, again and again, so that others can see it is one that appears in many ghost stories. James plays with it several times, most notably in the Mezzotint, but I've always had a soft spot for the Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance, in which Punch and Judy play a prominent part. In that instance the repetition is meant as a message for a particular person, but in Doll's House the message, if there is one, is broadcast into the void.

I note that in that story too the one o'clock theme returns. One of these days I really must find out what James meant.

I've discussed hauntings here before, in the context of Trail and Bookhounds. I'm going to quote something from Seabrook's book on Haiti that I feel is relevant:

Obediently, like an animal, he slowly stood erect - and what I saw then, coupled with what I heard previously, or despite it, came as rather a sickening shock. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it ... I remembered - and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank - the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory in Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.

To my mind ghosts of this type are like the zombie, in that they lack anything like a motive force. They exist, and they go on existing, but without an animating will to direct it the ghost knocks about like a bull in a china shop, committing random acts of horror without the slightest redeeming element. In Disappearance the horrific Punch and Judy act is at least intended to warn a relative about the crime that saw his uncle killed. In Doll's House the specter is utterly without target or moral; the punishment, if punishment it is, was dealt with long ago and only the aftershocks remain, like the flash after a roll of titanic thunder.

When I discussed hauntings in Trail before, it was in the context of actual places. Yet this story shows that a Trail haunting could as easily be used with models, or toys. Some very beautiful working models, for example, were built as toys but architects use models too, as proof of concept. This applies to ships just as much as houses; the Queen's House in Greenwich, London, for example, has an excellent collection of period architectural ship models.

With all that in mind:

Doll's House (c.1778)

Strawberry Hill Gothic mansion house with attached chapel, and garden area in separate pull-out storage under the house. Includes period fixtures and fittings, and a dozen models including a man, a woman, a child, two grooms and several horses, among others. Slight damage to the roof and some scuff marks on the interior. No missing pieces. Model includes complete inventory of all fixtures, fittings and dolls, written by the original owner, a relative of General John Burgoyne. Projected value at auction: eighty pounds. 

An extra horse and carriage has been known to appear as part of the set, but only at night. Megapolisomancers often seek out models like these to use in their workings, but the only known attempt in this particular case to use the house as part of a ritual ended with the death of the participant. The last three owners of the house all sold it on at auction shortly after the death, or miscarriage, of a child. Interestingly, the extra horse and carriage has several models, all children, inside the carriage.

That's it for now!

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.