Monthly Archives: April 2013

Venetian Ghost Stories

When I wrote about the lack of weird tales set in Venice I did not of course mean a lack of ghost stories, of which the city has plenty.  She has a Casino deli spiriti (House of the Spirits), a calla della Morte (Street of Death) and the Ca’Dario, the so-called Haunted Palace.

Venice has a plethora of ghosts,  wizards, demons, supernatural lions and stone hearts, sneezing ghosts of stillborn babies, floating coffins thoughtfully bedecked with candles so the ferries won’t run into them, and squids with human eyes. Many of these treasures are handily collected in Alberto Toso Fei’s Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories. This is my favorite kind of book. Alberto knows what we spectre-loving visitors to Venice want. He has mapped out the phantoms by district then given a walking tour of each, punctuated by pauses for increasingly more grisly stories.

Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories [Source: Alberto Toso Fei’s website]

Possibly my favorite in this collection features Doge Enrico Dandolo. Dandolo led the Fourth Crusade to the infamous sack of Constantinople in 1204, and thus links to’ The Dark Crusader’, Geoff Gillan’s new Dark Ages Horror on the Orient Express scenario. Venice appears to have always had a rather uneasy relationship with Dandalo’s memory. My trusty 1914 guide, A Wanderer in Venice, wonders why there no statues or monuments to his name. This ghost story reflects that communal disquiet. In myth, Dandolo is condemned to pace around the walls of S.S. Giovvanni e Paolo in the Castello district. With two burning coals instead of eyes, and carrying a sword by the blade, he must eternally bloody his hands to atone for the innocent blood he shed. The passer-by is advised not to try to assist this grim spectre. Any attempt to help may only add to the total sum of blood.

The S.S. Giovvanni e Paolo also holds a grisly relic, another odd link to the themes of the Horror on the Orient Express. The ill-fated Marcantonio Bragadin was one of the Venetian heroes of the siege of Famagosta in 1571. When the city was taken by the Turks, Bragadin was flayed alive in punishment for his resistance. Then his head was cut off, his body quartered, his skin was stuffed with straw and paraded around the city mounted on a cow. The stuffed skin was taken back to Constantinople as a trophy of war, where nine years later it was stolen from the Arsenal of Constantinople and returned to Bragadin’s family. The family buried the remains in a niche in the south aisle. When the niche was opened in 1961, by a family descendant, it was found to hold a lead urn containing several pieces of tanned human hide.

The monochrome fresco of Bragadin’s martyrdom above his urn [Source: Associazione Circolo della Cultura del Bello]

This fresco is exceedingly tame by comparison with contemporary 16th century portrayals of martyrdom, and was memorably snubbed by J.J. Norwich in his monumental A History of Venice as “distinctly disappointing”.

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The Pitch Drop, in the Style of Fritz Leiber

A few posts back I wrote on Fritz Leiber’s Cthulhuesqe weird tale, The Black Gondolier, a story of dark conspiracy and paranoia, where as one of the characters declares, ‘we didn’t find oil, oil found us.’  The characters realize that oil, pooling in vast subterranean primordial lakes for millions of years, has achieved quasi-sentience, and now uses humanity for its own unknowable ends. The more we use oil, the greater its power grows. I can only guess that once it has gained enough power it will depart, a la the Colour out of Space, stripping the earth of all vestiges of life as it goes.

In this spirit, I introduce the Pitch Drop. And, please, note that pitch is a petroleum product.

University of Queensland Professor of Physics Thomas Parnell created the Pitch Drop in 1927.  He heated pitch and poured it into a glass funnel. Ever since the pitch has slowly – and I mean slowly, glaciers have nothing on this – dripped out of the funnel into the waiting beaker. Eighty six years later, the ninth drip is forming.

The Pitch Drop

The Pitch Drop [Source: University of Queensland School of Mathematics and Physics website]

You can see the fascination in the live webcast. Will the drop fall? You watch, and watch, and realise you’ve been sitting there unblinking, unmoving, and your eyes are sore.

No-one was present for the critical instants when the pitch drops fell during Thomas Parnell’s time. Then for some decades the Pitch Drop was shunted aside into a cupboard, until the sixth drop was forming.

Its most recent custodian, Professor John Mainstone, brought the Pitch Drop out of the cupboard and into the foyer of the Physics building. He started to keep an eye on it, determined to see a drop of pitch fall.

Professor John Mainstone with the Pitch Drop Experiment. [Picture: Adam Knott Source: The Australian]

Professor John Mainstone with the Pitch Drop Experiment. [Picture: Adam Knott Source: The Australian]

The sixth drop fell on a weekend in April 1979, unseen.

At this point, Mainstone became quietly obsessed. In July 1988, the Pitch Drop was on display at Brisbane’s World Expo. Mainstone noticed the seventh drop about to fall and kept an unblinking eye on it. At last, he left to fetch a drink. On his return five minutes later with his refreshing beverage he saw the seventh pitch drop lying in the beaker, its fall again unseen. At this point he should have realised he had no hope but he is an experimental physicist. He persisted.

By November 2000, Mainstone was sure the eighth drop was about to fall. He was travelling overseas, secure in the  knowledge that he and his colleagues had set up a 24-hour digital camera focused on the Pitch Drop. This time, the drop’s fall would be recorded no matter what. We can imagine his joy when his colleagues emailed that the eighth drop had fallen. We can also imagine his chagrin when he received a second email that began with the words, ‘oh no.’ There was a malfunction in the camera’s digital memory at the critical instant. The eighth drop again went unrecorded.

Now in April 2013, the ninth drop is about to fall, although “about” is a relative term in the viscous world of pitch. This time Mainstone and his colleagues have three cameras, including a live webcam, fixed on it. This time, someone will see it. Or will they?

Don’t they realize? Of course they don’t. They’re physicists. They believe the pitch to be an inert lump of matter that confirms to the reassuring laws of the known universe. But I can see what is going on. It is the Black Gondolier all over again. The Pitch Drop wants us to watch it, ha ha, oh yes it does, for its own unknowable ends, but it does not want us to see the drop. I don’t know how it will manage it. It may need to black out the entire state of Queensland. But I am sure the ninth drop will again fall unseen.

In the meantime, have another look at it. Go on. Watch as the seconds tick by. Sit slack jawed, not eating, not drinking, barely breathing, … just …. watching … Time does not mean anything anyway, not when you’re a drop of pitch waiting to fall, waiting through decades as you have through all the millions of years before. And dwell on this.

“We didn’t find oil. Oil found us.”

We are not watching the Pitch Drop.

It is watching us.

Images and information are from the Australian newspaper’s excellent article by Trent Dalton, Pitch Fever, on this strangely endearing by-way of  scientific investigation.


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Other times, other Expresses II

We’re looking here at more brave, insane or intrepid individuals who have lovingly recorded their experience of running or playing Horror on the Orient Express.

Clicking any of the links below will reveal spoilers.

Bret Kramer’s blog post Memories of the Orient Express  on his blog, Tomes in Progress,  is indeed just that. He reminiscences about running the campaign through a nostalgic haze of 20-odd years, and casts a dispassionate eye over the foibles of players, Keepers and writers alike.  He also has a ton of other Keeper aids and hand-outs, and is one of the movers behind the long awaited Masks of Nyarlothoptep Companion.

Call of of Cthulhu, or Constantinople or Bust is an endearing diary version of one gang’s train journey, told in diary format by the different characters and complete with appropriately movie star photographs of the cast. I particularly like a photograph they unearthed for the Sofia  scenario. Thank you Simon, for your brave sacrifice. We fellow soldiers in the Trenches of Horror salute you. 

Simon's Eyeball [Cthulhu or Bust]

Simon’s Eyeball [Source: Constantinople or Bust]

Another 1920s version by Leonard Bottleman starts in the single calm narrative voice of Franklin Meyers, as a recap to the now scattered investigators.  However by the time the team reach Belgrade, different narrators, and a strong hint of panic, emerge. The story includes the maps and characters from the scenarios  as an aid to the reader, and as always I am in awe of how so many Keepers found so many ingenious ways to plug plot holes and keep things moving and entertaining.

Some Keepers have cleverly translated the campaign out of its 1920s roots.

Gaslight diary sets the story in 1890, and was played as a World of Darkness campaign and recorded by Derek Morton. The account is The Diary of Tweeney Sodd  and it’s a note perfect rattling easy Victorian pastiche, but its writers have used white writing on black background rendering the entire story into squint-o-vision. Copy and paste, readers, to enjoy such gems as: “I am not sure what was going on but Nigel had brought his shotgun with him.”

Yellow Dawn Session notes is a cyberpunk take on the Express by the seriously talented and deeply weird David J. Rodgers. It takes the Express to a sanity stretching Sofia. It also features a very classy image of the head of the Sedefkar Simulacrum.

Head of the Sedefkar Simulacrum Statue – image by sirylok

Head of the Sedefkar Simulacrum Statue – image by sirylok

So the train steams ever onward into new worlds of fantasy and imagination.


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Terror in Venice

As the writer of Death in a Gondola for Horror on the Orient Express  it seems to me that everyone is picking up on the ghoulish gondolier theme. Terror in Venice is the upcoming expansion for the Call of Cthulhu card game from Fantasy Flight Games, and look what’s on the cover:

Terror in Venice [Source: Fantasy Flight Games]

Terror in Venice [Source: Fantasy Flight Games]

Who wouldn’t want to go for a romantic cruise through that slime-infested ooze? Although I don’t suppose that lady is enjoying the  ride. Perhaps she thinks that Deep One is after her champagne.

Fantasy Flight produce two games that Mark and I play at lot, Elder Signs and Mansions of Madness  (although I hate it when I have to solve those stupid cardboard clues). I enjoy  games involving pattern recognition but fail mightily at strategy and in chess have never really recovered from having an eight-year old beat me using Scholar’s Mate. Twice.  Elder Signs to me was the game of 2013 when the nephews went from sanity dribbling utter loss to destroying Azathoth at 9 minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Also Fantasy Flight always put a capable looking woman  on the cover of their Cthulhu games, a reminder that unlike in Lovecraft’s stories, investigators are not always men.

Venice has not featured as often as you might think in the litany of weird tales.  The only novel I can think of offhand is Wilkie Collin’s ripping supernatural detective fiction crossover, The Haunted Hotel.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins [Source:]

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins [Source:]

My favorite story, The Black Gondolier by Fritz Leiber, is set in Venice, naturally, but Venice, L.A. It features a gondolier made of primordial ooze (otherwise known as oil).  Leiber is very Lovecraftian in his weird tales as he re-casts  commonplace modern technologies in a bizarre and terrifying light.

The Black Gondolier and Other Stories [Source: Booktopia]

The Black Gondolier and Other Stories [Source: Booktopia]

So next time you’re in Venice, whether Italy or California, and a gondolier invites you for a ride, just keep an eye for tentacles sneaking out from under his jaunty striped shirt when you’re not nervously peering over the side.

Gondolas [Source: Europe 2013]

Gondolas at the Gritti Palace Hotel


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Other times, other Expresses

We’re excited that Horror on the Orient Express has taken on a life of its own. People like it. They write about it. They create new stories and they ride the train in other times and other places. Here are a few of the brave souls who have recorded their experiences online. is a community created by Paul of Cthulhu for online discussion and friendship centered around Call of Cthulhu. It is a great place to discuss the game with fellow Keepers and frequently authors from all companies producing licensed Call of Cthulhu material. Almost all started as fans first, and writers second. Forums are clearly organized according to your Cthulhu-of-preference, Gaslight and Classic, Ancient, Modern, and all other theatres of horror.

The particular strength is the podcast recorded by Paul and friends, or Yog-radio as they style it. Years ago, the Bradford Players sat down to play through Horror on the Orient Express in its entirety, and they recorded the playthrough in surround-sound. It’s like a radio play with occasional dice. It was also collected as Lovecraftian Tales from the Table, which also includes their playthrough of Masks of Nyarlathotep as well as tons of nifty extras such as props, trailers, music and more, including interviews, one of which is with the nefarious trio of Richard Watts, Geoff Gillan and Mark.

The characters played by the Bradford Players during the audio playthrough will be included as NPCs or even replacement investigators in the Strangers on the Train section of the new edition of Horror on the Orient Express.

Lovecraftian Tales from the Table

Lovecraftian Tales from the Table (

 The radio play inspired Nick Marsh to create a novelization, The Express Diaries. This is a superb hardcover, illustrated by Eric M. Smith and a wonderful map by Steff Worthington. The format of the novelization is in diaries and letters.

The Express Diaries (Nick Marsh)

The Express Diaries (Nick Marsh)

When not recording bad things happening to good people on fine trains, Nick Marsh is a vet. He has a writing website which links to his amusing blog, Maybe It Should Happen To A Vet.

Finally, comic artist Jason Thompson was inspired by the podcast to do some marvelous illustrations of the characters. Jason has also illustrated Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath so he is all right by us.

Sketch of the Bradford Players characters by Jason Thompson

Sketch of the Bradford Players characters by Jason Thompson [Source:]

All of this activity started with our train but really is the triumph of Paul Maclean, and everybody who posts, blogs, discusses and occasionally rants at

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Period photos galore

Serbian police [Source: Horror on the Orient Express blog]

The photo above comes from Wolfram’s splendid Horror on the Orient Express blog. Bookmark it right now, and go there often. Wolfram is looking forwards to running the campaign, so he is amassing period photos and posters, and collecting them all together so that everyone can benefit. So, do take advantage of his good work. Many thanks to our friend Jeff Carey for sending this one our way. He found it while prepping the luxury playthrough he is presenting at GenCon for our exceptional backers.

The photo is timely for this week’s playtest. The investigators are in Vinkovci in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and the town is filled with Serbian police intent on finding the perpetrators of a recent outrage. Oscar Rios has outdone himself with this scenario. Listening to the criticism that the 1991 campaign is too linear, he has crafted a piece with so many different strands of investigation that the players have no shortage of things to do. They’re loving it.

Thanks Oscar. Thanks Jeff. Thanks Wolfram. We love our new international community of train friends!

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