Monthly Archives: March 2013

Easter Horror on the Orient Express

Horror on the Orient Express takes place in January and February 1923, and Good Friday was on 30 March in the same year. Thus the train is eternally steaming towards Easter but never actually reaching it, which is a pity because the story is very much about rebirth and reincarnation, shedding, as it were, our human skin.  

To celebrate the season I did a real quick web search for Cthulhu and Easter memes. I surfaced pop-eyed and clutching a fistful of Cthulhu bunnies.

Cthulhu as Easter Bunny

The horror…the horror… [Source: The Lovecraftsman]

I’ll be sure to thank all you energetic hobbyists just as soon as my eyeballs stop bleeding.

When horror becomes kitsch we all know the end times are nigh, although I guess what with Cthulhu cakes and Cthulhu furries we collectively splintered through that barrier a long time ago. Stop it people! For God’s sake you know not what you do. Or perhaps you do… If we mock and trivialize horror it loses its insidious power. Only when the lights are on of course; in the dark and alone, are you really sure the glassy eyes of that plush Cthulhu doll aren’t following you round the room?

Easter is, naturally, all about pagan fertility symbols. Shub-Niggurath seems the obvious fertility goddess of the Lovecraftian canon, although she rarely is mentioned beyond the standard invocation: Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! (Poor Shub-Niggurath, typical superannuated female deity; the male gods take all her real power and she’s left with a placating prayer to keep her happy.)  On that note, in Horror on the Orient Express, the Belgrade chapter is even now being re-written so that… I’m not allowed to say… but just look at the start of the paragraph and fill in some holes.

However, a post-Freudian argument can be made for Cthulhu being the true symbol of renewal and fertility, albeit birthing destruction and chaos instead of redemption. There are some interpretations of  Great Cthulhu as a giant, walking uterus. This may be a useful metaphor for those who wish to delve into Lovecraft’s psyche and explore the subconscious forces that drove him to write, but I don’t think it helps us understand why we continue to enjoy the stories. Why?

We enjoy them because they scare us and we like to be scared. They scare us because they posit malevolent creatures of deity-level power inhabiting an uncaring universe in whose chinks humankind survives only because we are so insignificant we have not yet been noticed. This is a terrifying and nihilistic vision that no other writer of horror has ever evoked so completely, and it is unique. Cthulhu may be born of the subconscious fears of one man’s id, but that fear was reshaped as a terrifying and primal force that can still reach out and touch us with the very tip of one cold slimy tentacle today, decades after the stories were first written.

How’s that for a Happy Easter?

Lovecraft's sketch of Cthulhu

Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu. Note lack of bunny ears. [Source: Wikipedia]

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Orient Express, Guangzhou

A menu to remember

This train arrives in the most unexpected destinations.

Christian is one of our playtesters, but he is currently away for a month while travelling in Hong Kong and China. He just emailed us: “While missing the games back in Melb, I’m currently eating in the ‘Orient Express’ in Guangzhou!”

What did he eat? “It’s French cuisine – owner is a French guy. It’s located in the old French concession on Shamian island as Guangzhou used to be quite colonised like Shanghai.”

The Orient Express: wherever you go, there it is.

The dining car

The dining car

Paris via Guangzhou

Paris via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

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Coffee of Cthulhu

The black brew

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl espresso

So, this is the black brew that will keep ye Editor going between now and submission date. I thank the kind relatives who donated this set-up to me a few months ago; without this I’d be a smouldering pile of Essential Saltes by now.

I am not alone in my slavery to the bean. Oscar Rios is another famously caffeinated author, who is using the dark beverage to power him through many a pre-dawn editing session as he finishes a killer trilogy of rewrites:  Sofia, Invictus and Vinkovci. I can’t wait to unleash them. The Invictus session last weekend was gruesome fun, and my 1920s players reach Vinkovci this Thursday for an unexpected stop and a whole lotta horror.

Coffee, Rios style. [Photo: Oscar Rios]

The prospect of finishing up on Horror on the Orient Express has not inspired Oscar to take a well-earned rest; instead, he’ll be making many a pot of coffee to keep him going as he launches Golden Goblin Press, his own publishing imprint. His first release will be Island of Ignorance, the Third Cthulhu Companion.

The Cthulhu Companion [Chaosium, 1983]

I have such strong and happy memories from the 1980s, buying The Cthulhu Companion (wow, I thought, that guy is never getting out of that well…) and Fragments of Fear (zombies! cool…)

Fragments of Fear [Chaosium, 1985]

I can still clearly picture the layout of the store where I bought them (the Games Shop in Royal Arcade, Melbourne). The store is still there 30 years later, still cozy, but it’s all Catan and Scrabble and jigsaws these days (not that I am complaining; my Deluxe Scrabble from there was a great surprise Christmas present, even though I have yet to drop SQUAMOUS on a Triple Word score).

Looking over the contents again now, I see that The Cthulhu Companion features a Mythos creature who gets a starring role in one of the chapters of Horror on the Orient Express, so it was inspirational in more ways than one.

Island of Ignorance [Golden Goblin Press, forthcoming]

I look forwards to that same thrill when I get my copy of the Island of Ignorance, the Third Cthulhu Companion later this year, and see what Oscar and his coven have cooked up. I’d love to be part of it, but I have a train to catch.

To keep in touch with Oscar’s Cthulhu happenings, follow his excellent blog Minion of Cthulhu.

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Revisiting Venice II – The Scenario

Beware, here be spoilers…

Re-visiting the Venice scenario made me think about the reasons why I structured it as I had. It has three strands, Love and Death, and then the Mystery, the results of the players’ investigations. On re-reading the scenario I was shocked by two things. First, my unthinking stereotyping of Italians as cheerful incompetents, for which I’d like to unreservedly apologize to the entire nation.  Second, the Venice of my imagination provided excellent background and color but it had a complete lack of actual plot – just keep knocking on those doors, players, eventually you’ll find the right house. What worked well was that the incidents of Love and Death ticked over regardless. There was always something going on in the background which the investigators could choose to investigate.

I was baffled by why I had divorced the Love sub-plot from the actual plot, until I remembered why I’d written it in the first place. In Lausanne and Milan, the players meet characters they cannot help. We wanted to restore their belief that they could save someone. This, after all, is the reason they first boarded the Orient Express. Thus, Love came in. It certainly worked a treat in the play-test. When one of the play-testers suggested not helping the lovers he was thoroughly rounded on; ‘Good God man, we’re British’ was firmly remarked.

It was clear that in my re-write I had to leave Love and Death alone and focus on building an actual plot, as well as allowing the non-player characters some more actual, well, character. Fortunately twenty additional years of writing experience have given me a few more clues on how to structure a narrative.  I’ve now moved the thing the players are trying to find around, although never fear, Dear Readers, it still ends up in the same place. I have created a trail of clues to follow, and made one of the NPCs a disabled war veteran (guess what Keepers, he has an artificial leg). In Venice the players also find a clue that sends them to Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. I feel that Venice now has more than enough plot to go on with.

It is also clear to my older self the deadly nature of the conflict between the Communists and Fascists, which my younger self had unthinkingly played for laughs. One of our play-testers is a historian, and he unearthed the following newspaper clipping. These events precede our scenario by only a few months. There are deep divisions in Venice, in all of Italy, that will only get worse.

Christmas Day fight December 1922

Christmas Day fight December 1922 [Source: Kalgoorlie Miner 29 Dec 1922, retrieved from The National Library of Australia, trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/93236637]

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Need more bulldog clips

Orient Express manuscript pile

So this is what a four-inch high pile of Orient Express manuscript looks like.

Bottle of Glenfiddich included for scale, and for editorial courage.

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Revisiting Venice I – The City

So Mark’s play-testers have survived Venice, and are on to Trieste. As one player astutely observed, the real hero of the scenario was Venice herself.

I’ve re-visited Venice both in metaphor and in reality. I hadn’t been to the city when I wrote the scenario twenty odd-years ago. I had read John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, and I had always vowed to visit before I was thirty. I managed it, just.

Before I left my mother gave me a wonderful gift, picked up in a second hand bookshop, E.V. Lucas’s A Wanderer in Venice. E.V. Lucas wrote his guidebook to Venice in 1914. Aside from the Austrians no longer sunbathing  on the sands of the Lido, his lively tome is still an excellent guide. I could retrace his steps, see what he had seen, and count the winged lions along the canals at his side.

Lucas and Norwich generously gave me their Venice and their views still colour mine today. It was a city born of the printed word and pictured firmly in my imagination before I ever saw it in reality. And unlike most visions born in this way Venice was even more beautiful than I imagined.

Sixteen years later I re-visited Venice, this time with Mark. Venice is slowly sinking into its marsh. It had sunk several more centimetres by then, so at high tide St Mark’s Square was awash and the sea crept into the entry of the basilica.

St Marks at High Tide

St Marks at high tide

The city seemed to be losing the fight against two equally remorseless foes: salt water and tourists (of which I was one). Its beauty was all the more heartbreaking. The atmosphere of this city is unique. At night all is quiet and dark, with only the lights reflecting on the canal water.

Venice canal at night

Venice at night

Mark in Venice at night

Who is that figure lurking in the Venetian darkness? Oh, it is only Mark.

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Opening night at La Scala

Looking at real places is always a help when running a scenario.  The Guardian website has a feature on opening night at La Scala, Milan. It’s a vivid and heartfelt look behind the scenes at La Scala, and  really sums up the central place the opera house holds in the hearts of the opera-l0ving Milanese. It will also give Keepers some ideas on how to run the Milan chapter of Horror on the Orient Express.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/video/2013/feb/19/scala-opening-night-peroni-italy-video

Opening night at La Scala [Source: The Guardian website]

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The Dreamlands Express II – The Bestiary of Dreams

When I was compiling the Dreamlands Express itinerary I thought about the fauna and flora of the Dreamlands and added it to the views from the train by way of local colour.

The fauna included Dreamlands fauna like magah birds, at least one animal of my own invention (from a dream in fact), and a smattering of real animals, mainly African. After all there are elephants and peacocks, yaks and zebras in the Dreamlands, so there must be a few other exotics tucked away. This had an unexpected side-effect. Just before Mark play-tested the Dreamlands Express scenario I found him leafing through the Dreamlands bestiary looking for quagga and okapi. I hadn’t realized it was possible to mistake these real world animals for dream beasts, but I guess their names do look kind of made up.

The okapi, a pleasingly defined “giraffid artiodactyl mammal”, is fortunately still with us:

What this okapi photograph doesn’t show you is that okapi tongues are so long  they can lick their own eyeballs  [Source: themagazine.ca August 2009]

The quagga, alas, is not.

A South African sub-species of zebra, it was hunted to extinction in the wild. The last quagga died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883. I included the quagga in the Sona-Nyl description because one of the few things we now know about the quagga – the sound of its cry – was described in a poem. As Robert Silverberg notes dryly in The Dodo, The Auk and the Oryx, it is not a good poem, but it gives us today this one useful fact. I thought that any animal immortalized in poetry should have a chance to live on in Sona-Nyl, the Land of Fancy.

Quagga in the London Zoo, 1870 [Source: Wikipedia]

The other important Dreamlands animal is of course the cat. Lovecraft loved cats and the Dreamlands was one of the few areas of his fancy where he could give this affection full play. I had great fun with a cat sub-plot on the Dreamlands Express, where cats have their own compartment and are treated as full passengers. If the dreamers ask about this, they are given reasons taken straight from Lovecraft’s DreamQuest and The Cats of UltharFor the cat is cryptic and close to strange things that men cannot see; for the Sphinx is his cousin and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

So in closing, here are some cats of Istanbul. Remember, they are looking out for you in their dreams.

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a carpet

Cat of Istanbul, ready to take a nap on a carpet

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a windowsill

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a snooze on a windowsill

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a box of records outside Lale Plak music shop

Cat of Istanbul napping in a box of records outside Lale Plak music shop

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The Dreamlands Express I: The Geography of Dreams

Warning: Here be spoilers…

I cannot live up to the enchantment of Christian’s previous post about Poissy but this post is also concerned with coincidence and other odd ways in which a writer’s mind works.

A fragment found folded between the seat and the wall on the Orient Express:

Last night in my compartment of the Orient Express I dreamed of a train so marvelous that in the morning my pillow was wet with tears of joy. It was no creation of iron and steam but of airy palaces borne aloft on the backs of vast beasts. Yet when I woke my heart was sore, for someone on this marvelous train did kill a cat, and in that land this of all things was forbidden.

Istanbul Cat 1

This cat has just read the last paragraph and is not impressed.

So somehow a Dreamlands Express has shunted itself onto the back of the Orient Express, no mean feat for a dream world where technology has to be ‘fixed’ for at least 500 years in the waking world before it can exist.

This Express was born out of a discussion with Mark about a key issue with the plot of the Horror on the Orient Express. One particular enemy is simply too strong and can reduce unprepared parties to “one insane investigator, a 12-year old, and an NPC whose player has left to go to College”. Don’t laugh. That’s a near-direct quote.

Was there a way to provide  a weapon against this enemy for weaker parties while allowing stronger parties to tackle it on their own?  That was how the Dreamlands Express evolved, first with a fragment of an idea for the weapon, then an idea for a murder, then an idea for a mystery. Finally the train itself lumbered into view.

I don’t want to talk further about the scenario. I do want to talk about itineraries though. I compiled the train’s route  using the descriptions from an old copy of the H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands supplement and the haunting visions of Lovecraft’s stories. We then had to make some pretty strange decisions about some of these dream cities.

The city of Aira, for instance. It was the dream of the shepherd boy Iranon, in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Quest of Iranon. It was listed in both the text and the map of the early editions of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, but has vanished from the latest edition (something we did not actually know until informed by Steff Worthington, resolute map artist). Did Aira actually ever exist, and if it did exist could it be visited?

The city of Zar in country of Zak posed a textual problem: was it the city of Zar in the Country of Zak, or the City of Zak in the country of Zar. Or was it just Zar. Or Zak. Lovecraft is no help as he contents himself with obscure hints; “no dreamer should set foot upon the sloping meadows of Zar, for it is told that he who treads them may nevermore return to his native shore.”

Finally, who or what is the eidolon Lathi that rules over the city of Thalarion? A definition I found spoke of Helen of Troy’s starring role in the Illiad, when ancient historians of Classical Greek world agreed that Helen was never in the city during the Trojan war. By placing her there Homer created an eidolon, a ghost of a woman who never existed in that time or place. How does that help us evoke Thalarion, whose ‘streets are white with the unburied bones of those that have looked upon the eidolon Lathi’? If they’re unlucky, your investigators will find out…

‘The Quest of Iranon’ by H.P. Lovecraft originally appeared in Weird Tales March 1939. [Source: FineBooks Magazine]

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