Category Archives: Library Use

Posts about the cool things we have discovered about Europe and the train.

7th Edition Rising

Call of Cthulhu, 1st Edition

Call of Cthulhu, 1st Edition

As a personal reflection of how long we’ve been playing, here’s Mark’s copy of Call of Cthulhu first edition. We actually started with second edition in 1984. Mark threatens to photograph all his editions, including the one still wrapped in brown paper. Now that’s an exciting picture.

The 7th Edition Kickstarter campaign spearheaded by Charlie and those  talented Brits, Mike Mason and Paul Fricker, has one week left to go. It has  sped past its initial $40,000  goal and has just reached $330,000 so with no sign of stopping.  The latest stretch goal is Petersen’s Field Guide, a handy book of monsters, so you’ll  never be at loss to identify which blasphemous horror is destroying your life and sanity ever again. The rugose Dark Young picture was of particular use during the playtest for the [redacted] chapter.

Mike has a great blog, Angry Zoog, where he talks about 7th Edition, scenario writing, his upcoming trip to Gencon Indy, and more.

We’re excited that Horror on the Orient Express is a 7th Edition book. The revised rules maintain everything we love about Cthulhu but give players and Keepers a lot more flexibility at the table. Mike and Paul have been giving sage advice on the conversion of the 1991 material, and converted the statistics for the Strangers on the Train booklet.

Also just announced, the Temple Edition. You’ll recognize a similarity with the First Edition. But be warned you will need Credit Rating 99% to get one of these into your personal library.

The Temple Edition

The Temple Edition

1 Comment

Filed under Chaosium, Library Use

Train of the Dead

There was once a dedicated funeral train which traveled between London and the Brookwood Necropolis, Surrey. Brookwood was created in the 1850s. Its designers envisaged it as a garden ‘City of the Dead’ where London’s dead could rest in peace far from the overcrowded cemeteries of the city.

The train carriages were constructed and the branch line was laid out with all due consideration to Victorian notions of dignity and propriety.  The train carried mourners and coffined corpses. First, second and third class carriages were built for both the living and the dead, and nonconformists were carried in separate carriages to Anglicans. First class mourners and corpses paid a steeper price but their carriages were magnificently decorated. Conversely, one pictures poor corpses, like the recipient of this third class coffin ticket below, being laid out in something like a horse stall. 

Brookwood coffin ticket [Source: Wikipedia]

Brookwood was a cemetery built for profit, but the fares were fixed as a concession  for the poorer mourners and were never raised during the life of the train.  Sadly for the directors the Necropolis never received as many burials as the prospectus rosily prophesied. Towards the end of its life it seems that a fair percentage of its profits came from golfers, who disguised themselves as mourners in order to take advantage of the fixed fares to reach the nearby golf course.

The end of the line came, literally and figuratively, on the night of 16th November 1941, when one of the last raids of the Blitz destroyed the Necropolis station terminus at Waterloo. The station was never rebuilt, and the line closed.

The crest of the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company [Source: Wikipedia]

The  Latin motto translates as ‘a good life and a restful death’.

Brookwood Necropolis remains, overgrown and dismal. The rail lines and sleepers are long gone. A sad end to a good and useful train.

The Necropolis Railway does not feature in Horror on the Orient Express, but we wish it had. The idea of a train of the dead is irresistible to the thinking Keeper. Thanks to Dick, one of our fearless playtesters, for telling us about this extraordinary service.


Filed under Library Use, Travel

A New York Family in Venice 1923

In this charming home movie, a family catch a gondola ride in Venice while the the narrator, Naomi Bloom Rothschild, at  the ripe age of 89 years, gazes in wonder at her 3-year old self. In passing she speculates on the likely damp nature of the cellars in Venice. Clearly a native born New Yorker, it would be heresy to imagine a whole city without cellars.

The fashions are wonderful, and Venice has aged gracefully in the intervening decades. San Marco Square and the Rialto bridge look the same as they do today but with fewer tourists thronging the narrow ways.

We found it moving to look at the very canals and alleys where the investigators will run in such terror in our fictional visit to Venice.

Leave a comment

Filed under Library Use, Playtesting, Travel

Tree Hugging in Constantinople

Constantinople was a very cosmopolitan city in January of 1923, the month that is the intended setting for Horror on the Orient Express. However there was considerable anti-British feeling, founded in  Britain’s role in the Western powers’ military occupation of Constantinople (which lasted until the first Turkish troops entered the city in Constantinople in the October of that year) and the perception that Britain took the Greek side in many of the so-called “Eastern questions” of diplomacy.

This is a tumultuous time for the imperial city. The Sultanate had been abolished in November 1922. The Treaty of Lausanne, which would settle the question of sovereignty, was not to be signed until July 1923. Meanwhile, Mustafa Kemal, Ataturk, played brinkmanship with the European powers.

The  resultant potent mix of nationalism with political and military expediency sometimes manifested itself in some bizarre confrontations.

Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 - 1954) , Saturday 20 January 1923,

Kemalist Activities in Constantinople, the ‘Singleton Argus’, 20 January 1923 [Source: the Australian National Archives]

This backdrop of anti-British feeling worked wonders during the playtest to increase the xenophobia of the investigators. When brave Turks actually tried to save them, they ran the other way, leaving their would-be rescuers to a horrible fate.

This article was once again unearthed by Darren, our Stalwart Historian.

Leave a comment

Filed under Library Use, Playtesting

Honoré Fragonard, Creepy Anatomist

Warning: This post contains a photograph of an 18th century anatomical specimen of a human and equine preserved corpse.

Coincidence is by its nature a startling thing. A historical character can be deemed too far-fetched if found in fiction. Very few of the horrific images we have summoned up in Horror on the Orient Express  can surpass those found in the grotesques of the 18th century French anatomist, Honoré Fragonard.

Honoré Fragonard was a careful craftsman, an expert technician, and in his own way a genius. He specialized in the preparation and preservation of anatomical models, called écorchés. This translates as “flayed figures”. Medical students found them essential in the 18th century because of the lack of bodies available for dissection. I am sure the Horror on the Orient Express enthusiast can see where this is heading.

Écorchés were models of bodies with the skin removed, exposing muscles, blood vessels and skeletons. They were made out of different materials, bronze, ivory, plaster, wax, and wood. Fragonard made his from corpses. He kept his methods of preservation secret.

When Louis XV founded Paris’s first veterinary school in 1765 Honoré Fragonard was appointed Professor of Anatomy. He kept his position for six years, during which time he prepared up to 700 pieces although today only 21 survive. Unfortunately, Fragonard’s pieces became too… theatrical. He was expelled from the school in 1771 as a madman. He continued to work, selling many of his later pieces to the jaded Parisian aristocracy. Looking at these dates, we realize that he was at work in Paris in the same years as a pivotal NPC in the campaign. Fragonard died at Charenton in April 1799. We don’t think he died in the asylum, but the proximity is alarming.  

His surviving works are on display today in the Musée Fragonard d’Alfort, a museum of anatomical oddities in the École Nationale Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort. In addition to animal skeletons and dissections, such as a piglet displayed in cross-section, the museum contains a collection of what are dryly called teratology. In layman’s terms this means monsters, including preserved Siamese twin lambs, a two-headed calf, a 10-legged sheep, and a colt with one huge eye.

The Fragonard Museum [Source: the museum website]

Honoré Fragonard’s exhibits are all found in the final room and include:

The Horseman of the Apocalypse: a man on a horse, both flayed, surrounded by a crowd of small human foetuses riding sheep and horse foetuses.
Monkeys: A small monkey, clapping, accompanied by another monkey holding a nut.
The Man with a Mandible: inspired by Samson attacking the Philistines with an ass’s jaw.
Human foetuses dancing a jig; three human foetuses, arteries injected with wax.
Goat chest: a goat’s dissected trunk and head.

Contemplating this list you start to get an idea of why the school dismissed Fragonard as mad.

Below is a photograph of the rider and horse. Look no further if you are squeamish.




This is from centuries ago, but it it still a dead person.




For reals.




Okay then.




Sanity loss (0/1):

Rider and horse [Source: Wikipedia]

Rider and horse [Source: Wikipedia]

We found out about  Honoré Fragonard and his eerie echoes to our own fictional history only recently, with thanks to the work of Darren, our Stalwart Historian.

1 Comment

Filed under Library Use, Spoilers

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”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Chaosium, Library Use, Writing

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.


Filed under Library Use

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Library Use

St Valentine’s Train

This poster depicts what people suspected  went on in the Orient Express in the Victorian era.

What Victorians suspected happened on board the Orient Express.

The Lovecraftian canon does not look kindly upon Romance.  Few characters have any kind of love life, and female characters such as Lavinia Whately in The Dunwich Horror and Asenath Waite in The Thing on the Doorstep meet horrible ends – although it can be argued that Asenath was not, mentally speaking, female. The case for Romance is slightly more cheering when we turn to the monstrous. The white ape-queen of Arthur Jermyn and the Deep One princess of The Shadow over Innsmouth both get their man and survive to return home. 

This lack could be because the knowledge of the insignificance of humankind in the face of cosmic horror blunts the romantic impulse, or it could proceed from Lovecraft’s life experience. Sonia Greene loved her man and admired his vision but she could not get work in Providence and he could not live in New York. The marriage lasted two years.

Fortunately Romance blossoms when we turn to the Orient Express. The mere idea of sleeping compartments , of strangers of the opposite sex reposing in close proximity, provided much delighted scandal in the staid Victorian Age. Colonel Mann was an early partner of Orient Express visionary, George Nagelmackers. Mann had a less than respectable private life, but this did not stop him attacking the rival Pullman carriages on moral grounds. The Pullman carriages had an open interior rather than enclosed compartments. Mann profitably harped on the immorality of being in mixed company when in night attire. As  E.H. Cookridge notes dryly in Orient Express, ‘No one seems to have studied the interior layout of Mann’s boudoir cars with sufficient attention to realize that his private cubicles for two persons were infinitely more improper…’.

The popular view of the Orient Express as a hotbed of romance and scandal is vividly expressed in the image above, a poster for a nineteenth century French farce. We suspect that the clergyman in the compartment on the far right is dallying with a lady who might not be his wife.

In Horror on the Orient Express we have allowed for some love amid the madness.  Christian and Veronique Lorien are the epitome of a committed and loving couple. The star-crossed lovers in Venice may yet prevail with investigator assistance. The divine soprano Caterina Cavorollo sings in the salon car of the Orient Express, in a pure expression of love that speaks to the soul of all who hear her, even cloth-eared investigators who would rather face the Black Goat of the Woods than listen to opera.

Christian & Veronique Lorien

Christian & Veronique Lorien

Romance endures, sometimes for a price. For $3200 AUD per person, a couple can travel from Paris to Venice on today’s loving re-creation of the  Simplon-Orient Express. The overnight journey is a romantic gesture par excellence. Mark and I could not afford that on our 2010 trip. We booked on the regular  service but we didn’t get on that either. There was a strike and the train was cancelled. We had an exceedingly unromantic overnight bus trip to Milan instead. The Orient Express branded carpet at  St Lucia station in Venice was as close as we got.

Rolling out the red carpet

Rolling out the red carpet


Filed under Library Use

Library Use made easy

While Mark was running the Milan playtest the players got really interested in a mural in La Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. The Egyptian style mural was one of four in the roof of the Galleria, visible from their hotel room in the Hotel de la Ville (situated in the Galleria itself).

The mural’s Egyptian theme intrigued the players who had tickets to see Aida at La Scala. They spent some time trying to get a closer view. However there’s no closer view to be got without climbing the sheer stone façade of the Galleria. There’s a black and white illustration in the 1991 boxed set but showing a colour photograph to the players gives the image that much more impact.

Mark found some wonderful photos on Absolutely Faaabulous, a fashionista blog (of course; this is Milan after all):

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Egyptian mural above the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (Source: Absolutely Faaabulous blog)

Close up of the mural. (Source: Absolutely Faaabulous blog)

Close up of the mural (Source: Absolutely Faaabulous blog)

The same blog also passed on a delightful rumour about the mysterious properties of a mosaic of a bull in the floor of the Galleria. If you spin three times on one foot on the bull’s testicles, your wish will come true. This is not quite as romantic as singing along with the singer on the stage of La Scala but has certainly had a deleterious effect on the bull’s testicles.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele handily connects La Scala Opera House to the Duomo Cathedral, these three beautiful buildings forming the heart of Milan.

On another Google Images related note, why describe the luxurious hotel to your investigators when you can show them a picture? In writing the Travelers’ Guide I am listing some truly opulent hotels in all of the cities (with some mid-price options for the less spend-thrift investigators). Some of these hotels are still in operation and their websites often provide historical images. Here’s one for the Beau-Rivage Palace, Lausanne (Source: hotel official website):


When you’re trying to describe a luxury hotel a picture certainly works wonders. The players invariably gasp and head for the cheaper option.

This has all been a lot easier than it was the first time around in 1991. It is a great age to be running Cthulhu scenarios, where you can have arresting images delivered to the tabletop via tablet or laptop.

Leave a comment

Filed under Library Use, Playtesting