Sunday, 20 November 2016

Coffins, Caskets and Funerary Fantasies (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu)

So the agents have cracked the locks, bypassed all security, and crept on silent feet down into the inner sanctum. Then the casket creaks open ...

But what kind of casket?

Ultraviolet, the British vampire drama from 1998, preferred the high-tech approach. Its caskets were more akin to the SBA containers found in the Edom Files: utilitarian high security delivery systems with very specific locking mechanisms. It addresses the one real fear a vampire has: its vulnerability. Penetrating that casket, short of a brick of C4, is not an option, and the electronic lock makes sure snoopers can't open it before the deadline. Unless, as Vaughan Rice (an excellent performance from Idris Elba) discovered, you can sabotage it.

The modern casket as sold by funeral directors is a very high-end affair. Costs can easily escalate into the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Almost anything you can think of, and some things you couldn't possibly imagine, are on offer. After all, the casket is the last purchase you'll ever make as a consumer, so why not make it the best?

The basic design, at least in the States, is broadly the same across the entire range. It's a wedge-shaped box, usually with some variation on a viewing port for the mourners at the wake. The surreal and rather captivating 1932 movie Vampyr features an interesting variation on that theme, with a glass panel in place rather than a movable lid. This allows for an unforgettable moment when the protagonist, who's been sealed up in the casket, stares up at the world from his prison, able to see everything through the glass but unable to do anything about it.

Of course, with cash comes customization. Do you want a state of the art sound system? Perhaps some kind of wireless connection, or a video display? Touchscreen embedded in the casket lid? Or perhaps you like the idea of a fake coffin with fake corpse; perfect for Halloween, but perhaps also perfect as a distraction for those pesky agents.

Then there are those famous Ghanaian artisans with their custom designs. Odd, yes, kitsch, definitely; but undeniably attractive, in their way. I can just picture a Conspiracy head settling down in one of these. Or perhaps ordering a replacement after the last one got blown up in a raid.

Whether or not the casket is airtight will determine the condition of the contents, over time. A wooden casket allows for air to pass through and fluids to drain out, enabling relatively clean skeletal remains. A sealed casket, on the other hand, promotes decay but, without a means of escape, creates corpse soup. Cracking one of these open is an exercise in human endurance; the smell is unforgettable.

Here in Bermuda because of space constraints we tend to bury members of the same family in the same hole. Technically I imagine funeral directors would prefer to call it a vault, but that conjures up images of New-Orleans style opulence that frankly does not describe the end product. It's a hole, with a limestone lid. The caskets are usually wood, allowing the contents and the boxes to decay over time. Cremation never really caught on down here, though there are some that offer the service. Burials at sea are also less common that you might expect.

Though we think of graveyards and funeral homes as the natural repository for caskets and coffins, this isn't always so. As mentioned in a previous post, during the Victorian period it was common for the poor to keep their dead with them in their homes, sometimes for days if not weeks on end, saving up enough money for the funeral. Some Victorians went so far as to keep their coffins with them always, waiting for the moment when they'd finally occupy them.

Thanks to their symbolic weight coffins, and other funerary memorabilia, are often used as art or furniture. The fabled Nothingness, or Cabaret du Neant in Paris, is an example of the type. There you'd be served your poison of choice atop a casket table, admiring the bones and skulls around you. I understand the Cabaret was recreated as part of Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic in New York, which I have never attended but find fascinating.

In Night's Black Agents or Trail, how might a coffin be used?

To begin with as a symbol, perhaps in the home or office of an important character. The Goth cameo is bound to have something elaborate and ebon in her apartment, while the Sculptor or Art Forecaster in the Dracula Dossier may well have a Ghanaian Fantasy Coffin in their workshop or office.

Then as an SBA place of rest. The 1890s vampire is bound to find something Gothic comforting, and have an elaborate casket set up in its refuge. More modern or sophisticated creatures may prefer something technological, along the lines of the Ultraviolet casket referred to earlier. Sound systems, touch screens and other creature comforts are bound to be important.

As a smuggler's hiding spot or an illicit burial device a coffin's unparalleled. You can pack just about anything in a casket, and people frequently do. My personal favorite is The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, though Tintin also has fond memories for me. It's worth bearing in mind that, particularly in the modern era but also to an extent in Trail's 1930s, the coffins themselves can have value. Sarcophagus lids in particular have long been prized by antiquities smugglers looking for a fat, if macabre profit. One such lid features prominently in a tale about the sinking of the Titanic.

Lastly, a coffin makes excellent set decoration. There's a reason why the Cabaret du Neant chose it as part of its ambience; a coffin's instantly recognizable, carries a ton of emotional weight, and allows for some interesting symbolic juxtapositions. Imagine if you will a cultist feast along the lines of Nyotaimori or Nataimori, except this time the naked body is presented in a coffin - presumably one with a removable lid, or perhaps even a transparent or glass lid. Or an Old West Ghost Town in which the inhabitants all wait quietly in their coffins, perhaps ceremoniously placed in the houses and businesses they occupied in life, waiting for the moment to emerge. Imagine a casket that moved of its own accord. A casket from which an ominous knocking sound could be heard, even when completely empty. A casket made of solid silver for a special client, that refuses to be buried.

That's it for today. Enjoy!

Travel Plans!

I try to update here once a week usually on Sundays. That hasn't always been so, but it's the goal. However for the next two weeks I shall be crazy busy in the UK, which means I won't have nearly as many opportunities to get online and talk to you.

I'll be at Dragonmeet this year, spending most of my time at the Pelgrane booth, so if you attend please drop by and say hi! No, I don't know precisely where the Pelgrane booth is, but my memory of UK cons is that they're very small in comparison with their US counterparts, so I don't think it'll be a struggle to find it.

I haven't been to US cons for a while because the cost is usually too high. It's close to a thousand dollars once you factor in air fare and hotels, and I can't afford it. However I'm in a better place financially than I've been for a while, so I'm seriously considering attending at least one US con next year. Gencon's the obvious choice, but I have fond memories of Atlanta's DragonCon. Plus Atlanta's much easier to get to than Indianapolis. Atlanta's a direct flight where Indy's at least one stopover, possibly two. We shall see ,,,

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Donner Party (Trail of Cthulhu)

I've been doing some Old West research, looking for things to plug into The Vendetta Run. It's surprising how unhelpful the internet can be; more often than not the articles that are best optimized for search engines are also junk pieces cribbing frantically from Wikipedia. While there is useful stuff out there, most of it's buried way back in the weeds.

But I did find some helpful stuff, and in so doing was reminded of the tragic fate of the Donner Party.

For those who don't know the story, a brief recap: the Donner-Reed Party was a group of would-be migrants trying to find a way to California in 1846. They were grossly misled by The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested an alternate route from Fort Bridger, Green River Wyoming, to California via a mountain range and the Salt Lake Desert.

Theoretically this route is navigable, but not at the time of year the Donner-Reeds proposed to make the trip. By the time they finally got across the desert and the mountain range they had no chance of getting across the Sierra Nevadas before snowfall, and when they tried they were cut off, with no way forward and no way back.

Their options were few. Several of the party were too sick to travel. Those who were still healthy enough to go on had nowhere to go, at least not with their possessions; if they walked out with their clothes on their backs they might survive, and perhaps send help to the others. A party of 17 including women and children joined that Forlorn Hope, while the remainder stayed in a makeshift camp at Truckee Lake.

The Forlorn Hope soon ran into difficulties. Lost, snowblind and with little chance of finding their way to civilization, in desperation they began eating the corpses of those who fell. One macabre touch about the story I always find intriguing is that they took special care to label the dried-out meat they took, to ensure that nobody in the party mistakenly ate the flesh of a relative. About half the Hope ended up in the bellies of the other half before they finally found rescue.

Things were little better in the camp. Starvation and privation led them to do much as the Forlorn Hope had. All told, about half of the 89-strong group died in the Pass, and many of those who died were eaten. The full story can be had via Wikipedia here.

One curious footnote: many of the survivors preferred to pretend that they hadn't turned cannibal. They swore they found sustenance in other ways - the family dog, say. None of them outlived the stigma; all their lives they had to live with a ghoulish reputation. The last of the Donner Party survivors, one year old at the time, died in 1935.

The Lincoln Highway, constructed in 1913, traverses the Donner Pass. Though there are other highways today, in the Trail 1930s period the Lincoln would have been the only highway through the Pass. It's often described as one of the snowiest parts of the United States, and today it's a popular spot for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.

With all that in mind, let's talk one-shot.

In the 1930s the Great Depression led to significant migration from Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl to California, where there was the hope of work and food. Many of these Okies went along Route 66, but not all. Suppose some of them went up the Lincoln, along the Donner Pass. What might they find there?

The opening scene would be the departure from their ruined farms, the hot blasts of dust storms screaming at their heals. If the Expedition rules are being used - and I recommend they are - then whatever else they have they haven't many supplies. A lot of what they carry will be useless but have strong sentimental value. Photographs, dining room sets, perhaps a piano - that sort of thing.

They might start from Colorado, Texas, New Mexico or Kansas in addition to Oklahoma. Some photographs from the period illustrate the awesome power of the dust storms; it's like watching the hand of an angry God smash down on the land. Not unlike the migrant period of the 1840s you could see the dust-drowned remains of cars and people's lives scattered by or on the roadside as you travelled. At least one of the scenes after the opener should involve the group trying to cope with the aftermath of a storm, trying to get their sand-choked cars going again.

Nobody wanted to see these migrants. It was the Depression; jobs were few, and the Okies soon got a bad and undeserved reputation as an army of thieves and bumpkins on the march. The next scene should be an encounter on the outskirts of some little burg, perhaps in Arizona, where the townsfolk are united in their loathing for the Okies and the police come out to make sure the Okies move on as quickly as possible. There's a potential for a supplies refresh here, but it requires delicate negotiation.

Since we started this in the Old West it seems only right to have at least one Old West scene. What we think of as Ghost Towns these days aren't, really; they're tourist traps with a cobwebbed aesthetic, where T-shirt stalls, geegaws and costumed guides lurk alongside history. But in the 1930s these places would have been almost completely abandoned.

Tombstone itself for example, where this digression started, had only 700 residents in 1900, a huge drop from its 10,000 heyday. Its famous courthouse with gallows next door was left to rot from 1931 until its conversion to a museum in the 1950s. Imagine driving through a near-deserted place like this with nothing but the clothes on your back. Maybe you can scavenge some tinned food left behind by some long-dead inhabitant 30 years ago. More likely you can get water from a forgotten well. but in any case the echo of gunfire and the taint of sulfur still hangs over the streets, and only the unwise go near the gallows at night.

From here we go to the final scenes. By this point everyone's on their last legs. What little supplies they had to start with have long since been used up. Maybe they have water. It's less likely they have food. Their few remaining cars struggle up the Lincoln Highway, trying to get through the Sierra Nevadas. It's getting dark.

Then the snow comes.

Those cars would have had very little left in them even before this point. Now everything freezes. One by one the vehicles grind to a halt and will not start again. If the group has a map they can work out where the nearest civilization is; a ski lodge perhaps, or some kind of roadhouse. But that's a long walk away, and they're tired, hungry and worn out. It might be better to wait by the cars; after all someone's bound to come along the highway soon.

Then they see the hunched shapes in the shadows, watching them, alive with eager, hellish anticipation.

Keeper's choice as to what these are. Ghosts of the Donner Party? Ghoulish remnants? Wendigo? Cold Ones? Whichever it may be they are hungry for hot, fresh meat, and here come the characters stumbling into their cold little corner of the world. Now it's a straight survival horror narrative and the only question is whether or not the characters will survive the night. Maybe they struggle through to that roadhouse, or maybe they huddle up in their stranded cars and make a last stand. Whichever it is they won't see a friendly human face till dawn.

So who will live to see that dawn?


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Wicked Bibles (Bookhounds of London)

In 1631 printers Barker and Lucas committed a grievous error when they reprinted the King James Bible omitting the word 'not' from the Commandment 'thou shalt not commit adultery'. This earned them censure both ordinary and Royal, as well as a trip to the Star Chamber and a hefty fine plus loss of their license to print. Most but not all of these so-called Wicked Bibles were immediately burnt, making surviving editions increasingly scarce, and valuable.

Which brings me to Lovejoy, a gentleman I've commented on before. The books are recommended reading for Bookhounds Keepers but the TV series is fun too, and this time out I have my eye on Season 5 Episode 12 Never Judge a Book by Its Cover. In that one Lovejoy offers to evaluate a potentially valuable bible for a pair of spinsters, only to discover that it might not be the find he thought at first.

So let's talk about a Bookhounds scenario idea: The Reward of his Wickedness, a reference to Judas who died on the Field of Blood.

The scenario opens with the characters in unfamiliar surroundings: Oxford, Cambridge or similar. They are there, if the shop is Credit Rating 3 or better, because they've been asked to evaluate a library, perhaps by one of the poorer Colleges or a scholar. If less than 3, then they are there because they've found out a dead scholar's library is about to be broken up, and they hope to snap up some bargains or at least materials out of which they can make a good forgery.

While there their attention is drawn to a pair of elderly spinsters, down to their last pennies. The old dears can't afford anyone famous or accredited, so they turn to the protagonists to help them. They have only one thing of any value: a Wicked Bible. Is it the genuine article and, if so, how much is it worth?

There's a complicating factor. The sisters' cousin, a C of E vicar but lately defrocked for dubious dealings - Keeper's choice as to what - is lurking on the sidelines. He claims that the Bible is his by rights, and if it's worth anything he intends to sue for possession. He approaches the characters early on, offering them a fat commission if they tell the sisters the Bible is worthless, so he can snap it up for cheap.

He knows a little Magic, possibly Idiosyncratic, but it's his long-dead great grandfather who was, in his day, the real sorcerer and owner of the Wicked Bible. This fellow, Joshua, was a contemporary of Von Juntz, and helped translate Von Juntz's works for the Bridewell 1845 edition.  Joshua died under mysterious circumstances in 1844, less than a year before the Bridewell edition saw print. His death is one of the reasons why the Bridewell edition is so badly translated. He's supposed to have left behind him an extensive library with several important Mythos texts including proofs of the Bridewell edition, but most scholars believe this library was broken up or lost soon after his passing.

The Wicked Bible turns out to be a Nineteenth Century fake, and therefore worth much less than the sisters think. It's cleverly done, and the spend to discover this is 2 points Forgery or 1 point Forgery 1 point History. However those who make this spend also discover there is an extra page in the Bible, and that illustration - not found in the original - shows Judas dying on the field of blood or Hakeldama, in Jerusalem.

However the Field looks remarkably like Joseph's country estate, as it would have been back in the 1840s. The big difference is that one building exists in the drawing that was not there in the 1840s; a decorative folly in the northwestern portion of the estate, overlooking an artificial lake. It might have been planned, but it was never built. History, Library Use (comparing contemporary maps with the existing estate), Flattery or Reassurance (talking to the sisters or possibly the cousin) discovers this.

The estate is now owned by a noveau riche family whose papa was a big name in manufacturing, and he guards his privileges jealously since the local powers that be have snubbed him at every turn. He hates the pack of 'em, and would cheerfully shoot foxes day and night rather than let anyone on his land. Consequently he keeps a large number of foresters, none local, who set traps for poachers and discourage hunters and ramblers from coming on the property. Getting to the site of the folly wants Stealth, Outdoorsman and Sense Trouble to avoid the worst of it. Alternately they may try to come to some arrangement either with the property owner or one of his foresters. The foresters can be bribed, but the owner responds only to appeals to his business sense; an understanding of Physics, Chemistry or Bargain is the best way to win him over.

Once they get to the site of the folly they discover that there is something there; it just isn't what they were expecting. Rather than the Hellenic temple shown on the drawing, the 'folly' is a cleverly built hidden tomb. It's made to blend in with the landscape and is covered by a layer of soil and shrubs, so if you didn't know it was there you'd never be able to find it.

Inside the tomb is old Joshua's secret library, where he intended to use necromantic arts to keep himself alive for eternity. However he wasn't as clever a sorcerer as he thought, and he never returned from the grave. He did leave behind a guardian, and it's Keeper's choice as to exactly what this gruesome creature is. If the cousin hasn't already been dealt with, then perhaps his gruesome corpse is the first and only warning the protagonists get that something wicked (and tentacled) this way comes.

As to what's in the secret library, it could be anything. Original Von Juntz, perhaps, or other valuable Mythos texts. Or maybe the library wasn't as preservative as Joshua intended, and the really valuable items have been destroyed by damp. It could even be that some clever pillager got there first and took the really good stuff, leaving the rest behind for fear of the guardian.

If that happened then there should be clues as to who that pillager was; it might have been the clerical cousin, if he's been dogging the characters' heels this entire time. But it could be more interesting to lay the crime on someone else, perhaps an already established rival or some nineteenth century tomb robber whose career can then be traced, leading the protagonists to the loot by a roundabout route.

Of course by the end of all this the characters may come away with a fantastic find. They then have to prove it's genuine, which means establishing some kind of provenance. Tricky, given the circumstances in which it came to them.

But, as always in Bookhounds, the trouble with finding treasures like these isn't so much how to get them, as what to do with them once you have them ... Which leads to a different scenario altogether.