Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Very British Coup (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by Tilar Mazzeo's history of Paris' Ritz, The Hotel on the Place Vendome, a story of the hotel between the Wars and during the Occupation. I enjoyed it but don't recommend it as a purchase, which is ironic since not only did I snag this as a freebie from the 'take me' shelf of my local charity, it's a version with the author's signature plate on the flyleaf. So someone else felt the same way.

I don't recommend it as a purchase because it sells itself as more than it is. Life, death, betrayal at the Hotel Ritz! The questions you are asking are more treacherous than you think. This book about the Hotel Ritz and the story of the occupation, you should not write it … Yet what's between the covers is a mannered and at times pleasant history of a famous hotel. Rich people doing rich things and pretending to be more interesting than they are, as though money can buy you a personality. There's little to quicken the pulse or excite the imagination. It's useful as a history, if you plan to set a session there, and worth borrowing from the library or buying second hand, but don't rush out to get it.

However there is one incident after the War that intrigues me enough to borrow for a Dracula Dossier story seed.

In 1936 Edward Windsor abdicated so he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. During the war the two royal Nazi sympathizers went to live in Bermuda (gee, thanks ever so, gosh what an honor). After the War they returned to Europe and settled in Paris for a time, because Edward had his sights on the throne again and wanted to be close enough to London to dash over whenever necessary.

His brother George IV was sickly, and his successor Elizabeth was barely 18, saddled with a Greek princeling husband that none of the British establishment cared for, not least because they suspected he might be a Greek bearing gifts, in the form of ne'er-do-well relatives. Under ordinary circumstances Edward didn't have a chance at the throne, but these were not ordinary circumstances. It was felt in certain circles that Edward had a shot, so long as he behaved himself.

Edward had a reputation for sexual adventures. His liaison with Wallis was only the last in a string of unfortunate dalliances. If Edward hoped to replace Elizabeth when her father died, on no account could he be linked with any kind of scandal, particularly sexual scandal.

In steps Wallis. The great love affair had cooled by this point. She didn't precisely hate him, but the marriage was more a convenience than anything else. In 1951 when Edward rushed to his dying brother's bedside, she embarked on a romance that sank Edward's chances altogether.

American socialite Jimmy Donahue, close friend of the Windsors, Woolworth heir and flamboyant homosexual, was the one who drove the wedge in. His friend Barbara Hutton, herself a Woolworth heir, frequent divorcee and, at the time, Princess Troubetzkoy, provided the safe haven at her grand suite at the Ritz. While Edward was in Paris Jimmy and Wallis were discreet, but once Edward left …

 That weekend, when the Duke was in London, things in the nightclubs on Montmarte escalated at last into some very public dirty dancing - and into a weeklong fling that took Wallis and Jimmy from one hot spot or another across the capital by night and found them in the afternoons cavorting in delicto at the Ritz, in the lavish suite lent to him for the purpose of some privacy by his millionaire cousin. "I knew it was physical," Barbara Hutton's personal secretary, Mona Eldridge, later admitted … And once the affair was out in the open anyhow, the Duchess made a display of it.

By the time the Duke returned to Paris on June 9, 1951, he stood no chance of usurping Elizabeth. When her father died on February 6, 1952, the princess became Queen Elizabeth II.

All that's the history, However if you're running a Dracula Dossier game then you have the option of giving history some fangs. Where did Edom stand in the succession debate? Did Dracula have any interest? What about personalities like the Legacies, particularly Lord Godalming - did the then heir have a dog in that fight? What exactly is Jimmy's role in this - what was it about Wallis that persuaded him to change preference?

Option 1: Edom Skullduggery. There are powerful interests in London that want to see Edward on the throne, but Edom sees this as an unmitigated disaster. Those same London interests are in bed with Dracula's Satanic Cult, and see Edward as their chance for the ultimate advancement. With his patronage, the Satanic Cult will put its catspaws into positions of utmost sensitivity and importance. Edom can't permit that, so it sends a team - possibly including an SBA - with one goal in mind: sink Edward's chances, but don't kill anyone or do anything that might reveal Edom's hand in this. Edom plays Cupid, using Dracula's own weapons of seduction to do it.

Option 2: Dracula's Spite.  Edom wants Edward on the throne. It knows Edward is biddable, and can be persuaded to double Edom's budget, advance its Dukes to high positions in the establishment, and generally make Edom a force to be reckoned with. Dracula, or possibly the remnants of his Conspiracy if the great bloodsucker is indisposed, does not like this idea one bit. Moreover George IV is going in and out of his sickbed like an indecisive corpse - will he or won't he finally die? As it turns out the Conspiracy has two agendas: first, keep George alive until his brother can be dealt with. Second, sink Edward - and the best way to do that is through Wallis.

Option 3: Outside Influences. Jimmy Donahue is the dark horse in this scenario. Erzabet Bathory is the catalyst. This could also work as a sequel to the Carmilla Sanction from Edom Files, assuming Carmilla got away. It would need to be quick work; as written the Carmilla Sanction takes place in 1948, and Wallis' big romance is in 1951. Bathory is fascinated by Jimmy, and Jimmy's money. A liaison with him could refresh her empty coffers, and he is a pretty little thing. Such a pity he's gay, but under Erzabet's influence anything is possible. Trouble is, Erzabet's tinkering sets Jimmy along an entirely different path, and things spiral out of control when a sexually liberated and vampire-influenced Woolworth heir goes on a mad Dionysian spree across Paris. A suspicious Edom sends some minders over, just in case this turns out to be one of Dracula's ploys. The remnants of Dracula's war-torn Conspiracy is also interested in what's going on, because they know vampire activity when they see it but they don't know who's behind it all. Cue a Pink Panther-esque romp across Paris, as everyone joins in the chase from nightspot to hotspot to bedroom, all trying to find out what's going on.  


London Bound

A quick bit of housekeeping. For the past I'm not sure how long, I've been keeping to a schedule of once-a-week posts, published on Sunday. For the next two weeks, that's going to change.

I'm going to the UK, part business part pleasure. I'll be in London, Leeds and Guernsey for a bit, before returning to London again on the 5th, departing the 8th. I can't resist Blackheath fireworks!

That means I shan't be posting for the next two Sundays. After that, back to the regularly scheduled programming!

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Holywell Horror (Bookhounds of London)

Image taken from Wikipeida

I haven't had as much time to work on this as usual, as I've been assisting backstage at the local Gilbert & Sullivan's production of Annie. Set break was today and I'm exhausted. So here's a short scenario seed, set in the lustful, vice-ridden streets of old London town. 

Specifically Holywell Street.

Located on the edge of Fleet Street, Holywell was originally a nest of radicals, free-thinkers and pamphleteers. However after a crackdown in the early 1800s the free-thinkers decided to turn their talents to more profitable endeavors, and thus began Holywell's new life as the hub of London's porn industry. Hundreds crammed this narrow thoroughfare overtopped by gloomy timber-framed houses, eager for a chance to purview such classics as The Seducing Cardinal, The Lustful Turk, An Experimental Lecture by Captain Spanker, and 1880's limited print run extravaganza The Story of a Dildoe

'Three young American ladies resolve to purchase a dildoe for their mutual satisfaction …' and hijinks ensue. 

This couldn't go on. Under the guise of public improvements, in 1901 Holywell Street was demolished altogether. Aldwych took its place.

In Bookhounds, the group most likely to be interested in ephemera from Holywell's golden age is the Keirecheires, a Y'Golonac cult that had its start in 1894, when Holywell was still at its height. In the 1930s its London branch is centered around the University of London, in Bloomsbury. 

Which leads us to:

The Holywell Horror

Bloomsbury has its fads, but the current one really is peculiar. A persistent rumor has it that a rare, limited edition was purchased by one of Bloomsbury's most notorious talents. No less a luminary than Lytton Strachey (NB: died 1932) read passages from it aloud for the amusement of a literary party. Now all the truly fashionable people want a copy, but there are two problems. First, nobody can recall what the book's title is. Second, according to the story it was bought at a little place on Holywell Street - but that can't be right, surely?

Option One: The Fake-Out. The book doesn't exist. The rumor was put about by a young artist, Duncan Quoin, who wanted to make his boyfriend jealous. The boyfriend is a scandalous soul who's never out of trouble, and who loves rare books and Lytton Strachey in equal proportion. Unfortunately for Duncan, in order to create the rumor he used an Idiosyncratic ritual cribbed from a Keirecheires friend to start it, and now the more senior members are livid. Revealing secrets is very bad form - someone's going to pay for this.

Option Two: The Little Shop on the Nonexistent Corner.  Three members of the Keirecheires who have fond memories of the old days decided to recreate a little bit of Holywell using Megapolisomancy, on the theory that nothing in London is truly forgotten, least of all London's most notorious street. They did so using a gas lamp specially installed for the purpose and imbued with all the talent at their disposal, hiding their work by blackmail and bribery - tracing this at the Council level will be tricky but not impossible. The intent was the lamp would light the way for anyone who knew the right magical phrase. That isn't what happened. The lamp lets anyone in, whether they know the phrase or not, so long as they go at a certain time of night - eleven-fifteen precisely. Whatever's bought in this shadow-copy of Holywell Street never lasts long in the outside world, but it leaves a lasting impression. People are beginning to talk, which means more people are being let in on the secret. That can only lead to trouble.  

Option Three: Fatal Forgery. A forger, Richard Addison, has been creating Holywell specialties for his own amusement, and to pass off on so-called sophisticates. A Keirecheires sorcerer took offense, and put a curse on the cunning man: unless Addison creates a perfect copy of a particular limited edition, Stories of the Parisienne Night, in four months, the forger will become the feature course in a particularly lurid literary party. Addison is at his wit's end; he's never seen a copy of Stories, so how is he to forge it? His search is driving him down obscure and awful lines of inquiry, and Y'Golonac already has its fingers in his psyche. It's only a matter of time before something breaks - and if everyone's lucky Addison will be the only victim.


Sunday, 7 October 2018

Black Crows (Night's Black Agents)

Black Crows, a terrorist-theme drama created by Dubai-based MBC Group, tells the story of civilians sucked into the orbit of ISIS and forced to participate in terrorist operations. Most of the commentary I've read so far says it focuses on women's stories, but I'm now seven episodes in and if by 'women's stories' you mean 'women get approximately a third of the screen time' then yes, these are women's stories. Mind you, the whole thing is 24 half-hour episodes long so there's time yet.

It's an oddly compelling narrative. The ISIS top brass are portrayed as scheming, cheating, ultimately irreligious hypocrites, from the religious leader who uses a mirror to spy on women bathing, to the children's brigade boss who abuses his authority to have sex with the boys under his care. Even the Emir in charge, probably the most faithful and sincere of the lot and determined to die for the cause, sooner rather than later, has skeletons in his closet. In that respect it's not unlike HBO's Rome, or Deadwood, where even the best have feet of clay. The difference being these are actively evil people with no redeeming characteristics, rather than ambitious would-be Caesars.

Typical of this is a Mufti moment spread over episodes 5 and 6. The Mufti goes to a factory owner making hallucinogenic drugs for sale to unbelievers. The factory boss offers the Mufti a bribe so the Mufti will issue a fatwa that allows him to sell his drugs to Muslims. The Mufti accepts the bribe and then makes a deal with the religious leader. The Mufti will report the bribe to the Emir. The Emir will insist the religious leader kill the factory owner. The religious leader will say he's worried about the dead man's wives, children, and the factory, which might under new ownership sell to Muslims anyway. The Mufti expects the religious leader to insist the Mufti take over the factory, but in the heat of the moment the religious leader takes the factory for himself, earning the Mufti's displeasure.

It's all dealt with in pretty much that way. "I am doing something wicked. Help me do this wicked thing." "I shall! Praise God!" [betrayal.] "Curse you!" It lacks Rome's subtlety, but it has an energy and conviction you don't often see.

By the way, don't think of the above as a spoiler. The plot races from point to point. Faces come and go, plot points come and go. When an episode is only 30 minutes long and you've a lot to do, things like subtlety and character development are sacrificed.

The new intake is a mix of idiots, the deluded and the desperate, from the wife who murdered her philandering husband and fled with the children, to the two high school dropouts who think being Call of Duty champions makes them ideal candidates for martyrdom. Some are sincere, like the surgeon who thinks he's doing what his dying father would have wanted. Sprinkled in the mix are double agents trying to spy on this ISIS cell.

One of the main recurring faces is Abu Omar, a religious teacher who has volunteered so he can find his daughter, who he believes has been inducted into this ISIS camp. He's the narrator who kicks off the action in the first episode, and he sometimes bookends episodes with wise commentary on what happened or is about to happen. He's clearly meant to be the conscience of the series, the one who preaches truth while everyone else lies. He's not your typical hero, being stout and well past the age when parkour is an option, but this is a battle for souls, and for that you need a genuine man of God.

The cast of thousands is a problem. I honestly couldn't tell you who half the cast are, because they never appear on screen for much more than 60 seconds at a time before yielding the spotlight to someone else. Only the most eccentric characters stick in the mind; everyone else blurs. Is that the former dancer? The prisoner? The officer? The this, that, other, tinker, tailor, soldier, martyr? I thought he was dead - no, that was someone who looked like him for 30 seconds two episodes ago. That severed head dropped dramatically on the floor - whose was it?

But then I'm not watching this the way it's supposed to be watched. I'm seeing one, maybe two episodes at a stretch, and I'm meant to be binging the entire series - twelve hours worth of content.

Saudi-owned MBC Group is the world's first private free-to-air Arabic language television network. It specializes in family-friendly material, which means its most extreme content is mid-range action movies and tv shows like Bones, Supernatural and Divergent. Black Crows is a significant departure from its usual lineup, and its anti-extremist polemic is partly the result of extended cooperation with the US State Department.

It's not subtle. When not delivering a very clear message about corrupt extremist groups, it's bathing in gore. But it has a very specific audience in mind: Arabs during Ramadan.

Ramadan is an annual month-long religious observance, one of the five pillars of Islam, in which the faithful are enjoined to refrain from eating, drinking, and sinful behavior of any kind from sunrise to sunset. It's a time for reflection, good deeds and charity - and watching television. Musalal like these are consumed by an eager viewing public who, after sunset, break fast and binge-watch the latest prime-time goodness. No doubt if I had waited the entire day thinking about the last episode I'd watched, or binged several episodes in one go, I'd have a much better idea who was who. It would also help my understanding of the rapid-fire plot.

Yet even though I'm not the audience and am finding it a struggle to watch, I respect Black Crows. It's an Arabic story told by Arabs - less about Islam, more about a civil war fostered by extreme distress. Abu Omar makes this very clear many times; ISIS does not represent Islam.

It has its flaws. The action takes place in an Iraqi ISIS stronghold, yet the story skips over why Iraq and Syria became ideal nurseries for this kind of militancy. Nor does it really explore why people are attracted to ISIS's message. It's difficult to deny the criticism that this is a polemic intended in part to please the US State Department and flatter Western, particularly Hollywood, watchers.

I mentioned Deadwood and Rome. The one thing Al Swearengen and Julius Caesar have in common is that they're both long dead. It's easier to be detached about them, to present a subtle dissection of their flaws and achievements. Perhaps that was always impossible for Black Crows, just as it would have been impossible to make Apocalypse Now, Platoon or The Deer Hunter in 1970. The actors in Black Crow are still getting death threats; one of the major expenses for the producers was security, to stop their shoot being blown up or their people assassinated.

I'd recommend this to anyone interested in current events, but Dracula Dossier and Night's Black Agents Directors may find it useful. Particularly if you think of this ISIS cell as a Node; this is how a Node functions, and falls apart.