Sunday, 29 December 2019

North Korea's Ghost Ships (NBA)

Once again North Korea hit the news this week, but not because of any Christmas Gift it's supposed to be dropping on … well, whoever North Korea doesn't like this week. No, this time it's because one of its Ghost Ships washed up on Sado Island, Japanese territory. All aboard were dead, two so badly decomposed that the authorities were unable to easily determine whether they were male or female.

This happens every so often, and sometimes hits the news. North Korea needs fish. Sometimes this is interpreted as 'North Korea is starving,' but whether it is or is not, fish is not to be had in quantity off the coast of North Korea. Though North Korea's fishing fleet isn't anything like robust enough for deep-sea fishing, in desperation its boats are forced further and further away from the coast. Often this means they can't get back again, and one more small tragedy is found, weeks or months later, by the Japanese. In 2019 alone at least 156 fishing boats were found adrift, or wrecked on the Japanese coast.

Sado is a remote, populated island, part of Niigata Prefecture, but far from Japan. In days gone by, it was a convenient place to send people nobody ever wanted to see again. Emperor Juntoku was one such; he was effectively puppeted by his predecessor, Emperor Go-Toba, who was forced to 'abdicate' by his shogun. Go-Toba spent the next few decades operating behind the scenes. Juntoku was one of three puppeted Emperors acting for Go-Toba, and when Juntoku failed to bring victory in war, Juntoku vanished.  The unfortunate puppet Emperor lived on Sado for twenty years after his disgrace, and is buried there, at Mano Goryo.

The island itself is two steep mountain ranges, north and south, clustered around a valley. Most of its 55,000-odd people live in that valley, Kuninaka. The island has been steadily depopulating; like much of Japan, it suffers from a lack of young people, as those with any ambition prefer to live in the big cities. The majority of Sado's grey-haired population hover around the 60+ mark. These days the island survives on tourism, attracting people with its geographic beauty, festivals, and historic shrines, memorials and landmarks.

It has a notorious connection with North Korea. US deserter Charles Jenkins lived there with his wife and daughters, after Jenkins was released by North Korea. His wife, Hitomi, was a 21-year-old abductee, one of several that North Korea snatched and kept imprisoned. The North Korean government 'gave' Hitomi to Jenkins, and they were later married. Her job was to teach North Korean agents Japanese language and customs, and Jenkins was meant to teach her English.

Hitomi was snatched from her home in Sado by North Korean agents, and Japan has always worried that the Ghost Ships are being used to transport spies to Japan, In 1999 there was an armed clash with one such 'fishing boat,' which resisted capture and fired on a Japanese coast guard ship with machine guns and rocket launchers. After it sank, it was recovered by the Japanese, and inspection showed it to be double-hulled with secret compartments capable of launching small speedboats. Presumably this was how it intended to deliver North Korean agents to Japan. The North Korean ship is now a star exhibit at the Coast Guard Museum, Yokohama.

So, to gamify:

The Cat Returns

In 1981, Japanese Vampirology expert Hotaka is taken by North Korean agents, and is never seen again. Most of his notes and research vanished with him, leaving only a few scraps behind for dedicated occultists and vampire hunters to fight over. However there have been persistent rumors since then that Hotaka-san was being forced to lead some kind of North Korean vampire program on a shoestring budget. There have also been rumors that he married, and had children - or possibly was forced to have children, depending on which version of the story you believe.

The agents have heard, through Network contacts, Tradecraft whispers, Traffic Analysis of Japanese SigInt, or similar, that Japanese authorities are particularly concerned North Korean agents of very uncertain, if not supernatural, provenance, may have infiltrated Sado. The Coast Guard recently intercepted a derelict fishing boat just off Sado's northern coast. The crew are dead, but what the Japenese government isn't saying is that the ghost ship wasn't an ordinary fishing smack. It was an armed spy ship, rigged in such a way that Vampirology experts can tell it was intended to transport blood-drinking cargo.

This coincides with an unusual radio broadcast from North Korea, evidently from a pirate station, unencrypted. It repeated the same Buson Haiku  three times, then went silent. The Haiku, Lighting One Candle, is known to be one of Hotaka-san's favorites. The broadcast went out the same day the ghost ship was recovered by the Japanese Coast Guard.

Has the 74-year-old famed Vampirology expert escaped, perhaps with the aid of one of the vampire program's experimental subjects? Or is this a defection by one of his children - and is that child human, or something else? If the agents want to find out, they'll have to evade Japanese and North Korean agents, who also want the same prize. Plus, there is that Haiku. If it was a secret message or signal, who was supposed to receive and understand it? The CIA? The Vatican? Someone else?

Bonus points to the Director if this race to uncover the defector - assuming it is a defector - takes place during one of Sado's many festivals. The Noh festivals in June, for example … imagine tracking a vampire through bonfire-lit Noh performances! Extra bonus points if the final scenes take place, at night, at Mano Goryo.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

KGB Museum, and Books!

I spent last weekend in NYC, loving every minute of it and walking my hind legs clean off. My hotel's about ten minutes walk from the Flatiron, and most of what I wanted - the Strand, really - is roundabout Union Square, so I didn't bother with the subway this trip. Spent a lot of time at the Pit, which I recommend if you enjoy comedy & improv.

That's not what this post shall be about, tho.

The KGB Museum down on West 14th Street is exactly what you think it is: a room stuffed full of pretty much every kind of spy kitsch you can imagine. If you like the KGB (and really, who doesn't?), Cold War shenanigans, and vintage spy tech, this is exactly the place you want to be. All it needs is a life-size statue of Ken Hite, glad-handing the tourists as they stroll in the door.

I got there at opening time, 10am, on Friday, and I'm glad I did. It meant I got the guided tour free of charge, but more importantly, I could enjoy everything in peace and quiet. There's a lot to see here, crammed into a relatively small space. I can only imagine what it's like with, say, fifty to sixty other sightseers jockeying for position.

It's run by a group of smiling eastern Europeans, probably Russians, and to be honest, if your first thought is, 'this has got to be an FSB front organization,' rest assured, I thought the same thing. It's exactly the sort of dumb-but-it-could-work idea that has fueled many a real-life spy operation, ever since Kit Marlowe got his in the back room of Elanor Bull's tavern. She, incidentally, did a lot of business with Russian merchants … wheels within wheels.

The KGB Museum's collection is very impressive. It leans a little more towards the early years, the Chekists and Beria, than the later Cold War operations. Some of the items stretch credulity a little bit. For example, the Museum has both The Thing - the wooden US seal which hung on the wall of the American Residency in Moscow for many years, which concealed a transmitter invented by musical genius Leon Theramin - and a Bulgarian poison-tipped umbrella, of the type that was used to kill dissident and defector Markov in London, 1978. Surely those are replicas. It beggars belief that the original Thing found its way to the KGB Museum, and as for the poison-tip umbrella … Anything's possible, I suppose.

That's the Museum's greatest trick. It makes everything seem possible. You don't know who owns it, where its money comes from, how it got its very impressive collection together, who all these charming Russians are who either run, or own, the place. It's a brilliant, small little museum, nestled in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world. Unless you're prepared to go to Moscow, you'll never see anything else like it.

It's a few steps down the street from a great 24-hour diner, the Coppelia, a Cuban place, and no, the irony of a little slice of Cuba a few steps down the street from the KGB museum did not escape me. God, I needed the Coppelia, at about 930 in the morning, when French toast with fresh sliced banana, plus a sinfully dark coffee, was the only shining light on a slate gray day. A good spread of rum on the shelf too; the kind of place worth coming back to again and again.

Now the books.

Hollywood's Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles, Laura B. Rosenzweig, NY University Press 2017. Los Angeles' Jewish community, led by Hollywood's elite, fights back against American Nazis. A slice of pre-Cold War cloak-and-dagger, and probably a good resource for Bookhounds, since a lot of the things happening in bookstore back rooms in Los Angeles in the 30s are probably also happening in London. If you play Technicolor and want some anti-Nazi action, paid for by Warner Brothers, here's your chance.

Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn edited by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton Uni Press, 2019. Hearn's stories enrapture me, and possibly the greatest thing about his work is, he wrote so very much it's almost impossible to run out. The day you think you've read them all, you find a whole new collection. The ghost lovers out there want this book.

Dark Tales, Shirley Jackson, Penguin 2017. Not as prolific as Hearn, but just as evocative. This contains the classics and several obscurities, newly reprinted. Again, ghost lovers, seek this out.

Psycho, Robert Bloch, Overlook Press, 2010. I must have seen the movie a dozen times, but it suddenly occurred to me, standing amid the Strand's towering stacks, that I'd never read the book. Time to rectify that.

How To Catch A Russian Spy, Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican, Scribner paperback, 2018. Modern espionage tale about Jamali's work with the FBI, drawing out Russian intelligencers with poison packets of fake data. For the Night's Black Agents players and directors out there. Bought at the KGB Museum, so it has their own stamp on the flyleaf. As is only right and proper.

Hungry Ghosts, Anthony Bourdain, graphic novel, Berger Books (Dark Horse). Bourdain borrows from Japanese folklore to create a collection of creepy horror tales. I'll be honest, I hesitated over this one. Bourdain's unexpected death hit me hard, and for the longest while I didn't want to read his books or watch his show. I've recently gotten back into his work, and when I saw this on the shelf, I couldn't resist.

Night's Black Agents, Solo Ops. Pelgrane Press. How could I not? I playtested this, back in the day. I don't know how often I'll get a chance to play, but I couldn't resist. Now if only Swords of the Serpentine was out …

Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Edmund Curll (Bookhounds)

Once again, this week's inspiration comes from Geoffrey Ashe's The Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs, the gift that keeps on giving.

Edmund Curll is the kind of bookseller whose success your Hounds long to emulate. Born in 1675(ish), to a moderately respectable family, he apprenticed to a bookseller in the 1690s, and thus began his meteoric rise to fame, fortune, chicanery, and pornography, more or less in that order.

His early career was yellow journalism, in that it was entirely invented and existed only to start arguments. Clickbait. He'd work in conjunction with others like him, publishing cheap papers and pamphlets, capitalizing on current affairs. If a witch trial captures public attention, print some quickie cash-grabber taking her side of the case, while your partner in bullshit prints a denunciation of same. By doing so, you grab both ends of the market at the same time, and, if you can keep the argument going long after the witch hangs, you can keep the money rolling in for weeks after the actual incident is no longer news. The filthier the better - Archbishop engaged in sexual relations with a cow, that sort of thing.

He also had a good line in pseudoscience, publishing cure-all pamphlets and medical remedy books. Of course they bore no relation to actual scholarly work, but scholarship's boring - and Curll wanted to sell.

He had no scruples whatsoever. Johnathon Swift never wanted his Meditations on a Broomstick to see the light of day, and certainly not under Swift's own name, so Curll stole the book and published it. Curll would publish any old rubbish and put the names of famous men on it, to drive up sales. His favorite trick was to publish manuscripts already in print elsewhere, without seeking permission from the author or the publishing house, and often the ensuing controversy and denunciation only helped to publicize Curll's books.

Another beloved cash cow of Curll's was the unofficial biography published after some great man's death, when they couldn't retaliate with troublesome lawyers. He became so notorious for this that the House of Lords passed a law specifically to protect themselves: nobody could write about, or by, a Lord without permission.

He didn't escape unscathed. Swift poisoned him with an emetic, and the schoolboys of Westminster School, outraged at his unofficial biography of their headmaster, lured him into an ambush and beat him silly, wrapping him up in a blanket and thrashing the package with sticks. However despite all this he emerged as venomous as ever, and went on with his back-alley tricks. he had a special, enduring, rat-like talent for publishing, and publicity. Once, when he was put into a pillory, he salvaged something from the wreckage by publishing, and selling, self-promoting pamphlets, which he sold to the crowds who came to see him pilloried.

His final years were spent writing and publishing the Merryland line of  pornography. A Compleat Set of Charts of the Coasts of Merryland, Succors from Merryland, that sort of thing - the female body as a kind of strange and exotic land, to be explored by bold adventurers.

Curll's greatest achievement was to outlive his critics. He eventually died, publishing to the last, in December 1747, in a shop in a little alley off the Strand, in the City of Westminster, which used to be called Curll's Court.

All of which brings me to:

Let's All Go Down The Strand

The Bookhounds know Harry Box as a bumptious little fart who just can't keep his mouth shut for longer than five minutes, a minnow among sharks, bottom-feeder in the murkier, algae-flecked puddles of publishing. However he has a remarkable knack for ferreting out gossip, and he makes the leap from book scout to publisher. He gets his own printing press - God alone knows how, or where from - and publishes the most outrageous, scandalous and thoroughly disreputable biography of a recently deceased grandee, who according to Box's account cut a broad path through the demi-monde of Paris before the War.

It sells. O God, how it sells. The Bookhounds can't keep enough of it in stock. Lawsuits follow, but that doesn't seem to stop Box, who has something else on the go, an equally scandalous biography. Where does he get his material? The children of the dead man are very anxious to know, and will pay quite a handsome figure to find out.

If the Bookhounds go in search, whether on the family's account or for reasons of their own, they discover something unusual. Box's press isn't the original press. The printworks are given printed pages to work from, but these printed pages are of a very old-fashioned type - the sort that hasn't been seen since the 1700s.

Box is keeping his actual printworks in some Strand cellar, away from hidden eyes. Now, why would he want to do that? Where did he find this odd printing press - and how is it that this press somehow knows what to print, without needing to be told?


New York, New York

I'm taking some time off, and will be in the States this weekend. No Ephemera next Sunday!

I've been to NYC, God, I can't think how many times. I'm planning out an itinerary - first day shop (for Christmas looms like a bloated white whale, festooned with ribbons, and one roaming, bloodshot eye staring into your soul), next two day enjoy. The Argosy on 59th, the Strand and probably the game shop near Empire State whose name I can never remember. Ideally the Film Forum down on Houston, though, looking at the upcoming week's schedule, only Taxi Driver appeals. Maybe the Angelika? Jesus, is The Hidden Life the only thing on at the Angelika this coming weekend? I'm sure it's good, but if I wanted to spend the weekend in a state of existential misery, I'd just contemplate my bank  statements for 48 hours straight.

Well, looks like movies are off the table.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll find something to do.


Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Abbey (Bookhounds of London)

This week's post is inspired by Geoffrey Ashe's 1970s Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs, recently re-released in paperback. I've an interest in Hell-Fire Clubs, you may recall, so I picked this up on a whim.

Ashe is best known for his Arthurian Legends studies, but he acquits himself well here - though the text does have a whiff of the '70s about it, in much the same way Montague Summers' style and presentation is very much of his era, and dusty, erudite Edwardian upbringing.

Ashe starts with a study of Francois Rabelais, the Renaissance writer, humanist and religious scholar. Among the tales told by this fantasy and satire writer is Gargantua and Pantagruel, two scholarly and valiant giants. They fight battles against invading armies, defending France against giants, drown Paris in a bath of urine (delivered by Gargantua, standing atop Notre-Dame), delivers sermons against the evils of moral restraint, defend a judge who decides cases by rolling dice, and get up to no end of trouble.

Gargantua ends up co-founding the Abbey of Theleme. During the war against the giants he befriends the monk, Friar John, who comes to the giant's attention because John is the only monk who leaps to action when giants attack. All his fellow monks resort to prayer; John takes up a massive cross and uses it like a club, winning many victories.

After the war, Gargantua offers to make John the head of his order, but John refuses. He says he can't govern himself, so how can he lead others? Instead, he asks that the giant help him found his own order. This Gargantua does, and soon the former Friar has his own Abbey on the banks of the Loire, where young men and women both are welcome, so long as they are pretty and amenable. They all live in luxury, surrounded by art and beautiful things, and are allowed to study whatever they like.

All their life was regulated not by laws, statutes or rules, but according to their free will and pleasure. They arose from bed when they pleased, and drank, ate, worked and slept when fancy seized them. Nobody woke them; nobody compelled them either to eat or to drink, or to do anything else whatever … In their rules there was only one clause: DO WHAT YOU WILL. 

All of which brings me to:

The Abbey

Cosmopolitan Soho, the 'square mile of vice,' holds London's red light district, thousands of foreigners, and Wardour Street, the cinema industry hub of London … (Bookhounds of London)

Through the centuries, the houses of Soho have been the homes of the great as well as the infamous. It is difficult to say exactly when the neighborhood first became the haunt of vice it is today. The change was gradual. But by the twentieth century, the names of its denizens were more likely to fill the calendar at the Old Bailey than the pages of Debrett … (Soho: London's Vicious Circle, Arthur Tietjen.

The Abbey is the informal name of a smoky, down-at heels Beak Street den, just off Regent Street. It is nominally owned by John Fitzhugh, who claims he can trace his family line back to the Conqueror. In reality it's more of a commune, with people coming and going all the time. Usually young, always pretty, seldom virtuous, the Abbey's people are well-known in Soho for offering a warm bed and food to anyone who, like them, are pretty but lack funds. They're well-read, talented, and generous.

The only one of the group not young and pretty is the man they all call Pantagruel, and he's also one of the few to have been there from the beginning. Pantagruel is (in game terms) a Rough Lad with intimate Streetwise knowledge of Soho. If they need cocaine, they send Pantagruel to get it. If they need someone to throw an obnoxious person out of the Abbey, Pantagruel's the bouncer. If they need bail, Pantagruel brings it. The big fellow's a remarkably scholarly Rough Lad, and has the same Special as a Catalogue Agent, which makes him a useful person for Bookhounds to know. Pantagruel's always on the lookout for new things to add to his collection, and willing to make a trade. Nobody knows his real name, and he seems oddly reluctant to share it.  

John Fitzhugh, Jamaican-born Grace Gibbons and artist's model Rebecca Lattimore are the three founders of the Abbey, and the only ones apart from Pantagruel who remember the old days, when the Abbey was more of a tea room for soldiers on leave from the Front during the Great War. It's been a while since the War, but none of the three seem to have aged a day. Fitzhugh is still the same slim, trim, Bright Young Thing he was when the Abbey opened its doors; Grace the dancer who knew Harlem back when the Cake Walk was still popular; Rebecca the model beloved of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, & Gravers. Restraint is completely foreign to them, and they slide in and out of popularity, as they constantly get thrown out and banned from Soho nightclubs for outrageous behavior. It takes a lot to get thrown out of a Soho nightclub ...

The Bookhounds know the Abbey as a constant source of income, and trouble. The Abbey's shifting population are good spenders, but they're also expert grifters and shoplifters. They have to be watched every minute they're in the shop, or they'll steal the books, the bookshelves, and the carpets the shelves were standing on. Give them ten minutes, and they'll take the floorboards too. Pantagruel usually makes good any damage, but it may be a few weeks or months before he gets around to it.

Hooks & Terrible Secrets

  •  Are the founding trio, and Pantagruel, vampires? Possessed by evil spirits? Cultists? There's got to be some reason why they never age, or show any signs of wear & tear. Some former Beak Street scholars go on to dazzling, short-lived careers - the novelist who never publishes anything after his spectacular debut, or the musician who has one great night and then falls by the wayside. Why should that be?
  •  Whenever the Abbey's people go missing for an evening, people say they're having a pint at the Crown. This pub, mentioned by Charles Dickens in his novel Nicholas Nickleby, closed in 1921 and long since demolished. Where are they going, really? Is there still a Crown, somewhere in the shadows of Beak Street?
  •  The coppers at the Police Section House on Beak Street know the Abbey very well, and have nothing good to say about its founders. It's said that once, when Fitzhugh got particularly angry about some incident or other, he made half a cow appear in the unmarried men's quarters, and then disappear an hour later. Nobody figured out how he did it.  
  •  Every so often, the Abbey hosts a party or an art installation, to raise funds. People who go to these parties are allowed to go wherever they like, and do whatsoever with whosoever, so long as all parties are willing. However some of those who go say they meet people at those parties they never expected to see. On one notorious occasion, eighteenth century gentlemen bandits 'Captain' James Maclean and his partner in crime, William Plunkett, showed up to rob the place, only to vanish entirely when they ran outside to make their escape. Perhaps they were actors playing a skit, as some claim, but one partygoer swears blind he watched the pair dissolve into thin air. On another occasion, in 193[insert year here], a young Salvador Dali attended an art show - a Dali who claimed not to know or remember anything after 1924. Whenever the Abbey throws another bash, people place bets on what strange thing will happen next.