Category Archives: Writing

Posts about the writing and editing process of the new edition.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

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]

3 Comments

Filed under Spoilers, Writing

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Writing

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

11 Comments

Filed under Writing

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]

3 Comments

Filed under Writing

Attenzione! Cthulhu

When I asked Pookie to update the list of English-language European Call of Cthulhu scenarios  for the “Continent of Horrors” essay in Horror on the Orient Express, I was looking forwards to hearing about dozens of new adventures that I had missed in my years in the wilderness.

Pookie did his job with flair and diligence, and recently turned in the revised manuscript. Alas, my imagined dozens did not appear. In fact, excluding our campaign, we ended up with less than 20 European scenarios in total for the 30-year life of the game and many of those are now out of print. Has anyone out there played a T.O.M.E. scenario lately?

Glozel est Authentique, by Stephen Rawling. [Source: Grognardia blog]

Instead, good ol’ Lovecraft Country remains the firm favourite for writers (and, I presume, players), with so many scenarios now set in Arkham that frankly, if I lived there, I would goddam move.

Looking back, this makes me even prouder of what we managed with Horror on the Orient Express, which alone seems to contain nearly one-third of all English-language scenarios ever set in Europe. This is made slightly more odd by the fact that it is mostly written by Australians; but then, as a culture we are often looking somewhere else. You get a good view when you’re living at the end of the world.

Eddie Izzard has a line where he says “I’m from Europe, where the history comes from”. You could just as well say that Europe is where the horror comes from.

Vampires and werewolves slaughtered their way across that blood-soaked continent centuries before they all got stylists and agents and underage paramours, and Elizabeth Bathory and Vlad the Impaler did not start their dark exploits in New England. The tales of Guy de Maupassant and Hoffman, the novel Der Golem and the films Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; these are all European nightmares. Fulci and Argento and Bava were serious about their cinematic horror, and Del Toro is at his best in the Spanish settings of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Black Sunday, dir. Mario Bava. [Image from Art of the Beautiful-Grotesque blog]

European editions of Cthulhu have been supplemented with new scenarios set in those countries, but I’m not aware of any of these ever having been translated back into English. It’s our loss, really; furthermore, the Spanish and French editions of the game are beautiful.

La llamada de Cthulhu

La llamada de Cthulhu (Spanish edition from Edge Entertainment]

Once you step away from the 1920s period though, the European setting opens up. Naturally, Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu Dark Ages are all about European history, and there are excellent scenarios and campaigns for both. That was a direct inspiration for us to use those settings to reveal the dark history of the artifact at the heart of Horror on the Orient Express, and we were fortunate to snag Oscar Rios, the foremost scenario writer for Invictus. Both scenarios are now completed and I’m looking forwards to running them over the next few weekends.

After the 1920s, Europe has its darkest hour. Our campaign is set in 1923, just as the Deutschmark is at its lowest ebb. (As P.F. informed me in an email, German hyperinflation had reached a point where they stopped printing serial numbers on the  currency because they were not worth forging.) The seeds were sown then for the worst horrors of all: the Second World War and the final solution.

It’s hard to think of anything more evil than real-world Nazism, but Modiphius are giving it a crack by adding in the Mythos with their Call of Cthulhu setting Achtung Cthulhu, which is now on Kickstarter. This looks to be a tentacle-stepping thrill ride of pulpy goodness; I always figured Hitler must have had some Deep One blood in him. The first campaign Zero Point by Sarah Newton is out in PDF and it’s  great. Part One: Three Kings is set in Czechoslovakia, Part Two: Heroes of the Sea is in Dunkirk, and the upcoming Part Three: Code of Honour promises to bring us Istanbul in 1941 (“city of spies, intrigue and adventure!”)

The printed versions are coming, so get on the backing wagon. Perhaps after their trials on the Orient Express, your 1923 investigators (or their sons and daughters) can take up the fight against the Mythos once again when the dark and Stuka-filled skies of 1939 roll around.

It seems like  European Cthulhu gaming is finally kicking into gear. Achtung!

Achtung Cthulhu Investigator’s Guide & Keeper’s Guide [Modiphius]

8 Comments

Filed under Writing

Infamous Orient Express Editor

Dean from Cthulhu Reborn was recently going through a cache of old documents handed to him by Horror on the Orient Express writer Geoff Gillan, and found the following epistle. It is addressed “Dear Famous Orient Express Author” and signed “Infamous Orient Express Editor”.

I had forgotten all about this. It’s the form letter I included when I sent out the 8 numbered editions of the typescript manuscript for the original campaign. This was the version before it left Australia and went to Lynn for editing. I donated my copy of the ms. a while back to Paul of Cthulhu for the archives at Innsmouth House, aka the home of Yog-Sothoth.com.

Here is Dean’s scan and typescript of the letter. It’s not quite a Letter of Note, but it was cool to see this again after 20+ years. Warning, it contains a Bad Word.

HotOE-Editor-letter

Letter to the authors, 1991.

Dear Famous Orient Express Author,

This is it, your personal copy of the entire manuscript. Hang on to it, because whatever Lynn publishes, it's going to be different in many billion ways. The Willis Edit is going to be as different from the Morrison Edit as, say, the Morrison Edit was from your own work.

Which brings me to my next point. I'm sorry, but I did what I hadn't planned to do when I started out on this: I changed things. In some cases not much, in some cases quite a bit. These were my objectives:

  • To try to keep the page length down. Where something was said twice, or perhaps not said in the most economical way, I pared it back.
  • To mesh with the entire back story, as interpereted by me. If your scenario tossed up something that I couldn't work with, it went.
  • To conform to certain conventions that I developed while working on this. The principal one was, I wanted to avoid predicting the investigator's emotions and actions as much as possible.
  • Unless the plot required it, or something needed to be explained a bit, I did my level best to avoid inserting anything new into your work. I hope you can still look at all (or, at least, most) of it and think, yep, I did that.

    I've had my own scenarios rewritten. I've found in them things that I would not have put there myself. Some added to the work, and some detracted from it. In one case I found something in there which I found morally repugnant (I may be on thin ice here. I set a horrible situation up; the editor just explained it in a way that I would never have). So I know that when someone has been clomping through your prose, it's a bastard of a thing to have to look at. But I also came to understand that, when you're editing a roleplaying book, which is after all a product to be marketed, you have to shape it in the way that makes most sense to you. So I did.

    I don't really mean to grovel or snarl here, I just wanted to let you know that things happened. I reckon that, as it stands, it's a fucking great book. I hope you'll agree, without a diminished sense of your own invaluable contribution to it.

    Cheers,

(signed)

    Mark
    Infamous Orient Express Editor

There it is, 1991 Morrison trying to placate the authors. You’d have to ask them if it worked or not. I’ll write more about editing then and now in a future post.

And, as for the “morally repugnant” scenario, I think I know the one I was referring to, and I ran it again recently without thinking twice about the content. 1991 Morrison was so sensitive. Looking at it again, I think the editor really did just come out and say what I’d put in there psychologically, and in doing so made the scenario more true. If you can’t stand the horror, stay out of the abattoir.

Thanks again to Dean from Cthulhu Reborn for dragging this missive out of the archives for me. He does splendid work, and has recently cooked up some super PDF versions of three of our scenarios from long ago, originally published on Shannon Appel’s Chaosium Digest:

Free Call of Cthulhu  PDF scenarios by Gillan, Love & Morrison, from Cthulhu Reborn

Call of Cthulhu scenarios in PDF by Love, Gillan & Morrison [from Cthulhu Reborn]

The PDFs are all free, so go and download ’em!

 Dean has just put out his first full commercial release. Mutable Deceptions Volume 1: Jazz Age Newspapers is a nifty PDF generator for creating your own 1920s and 1930s style newspaper handouts for Call of Cthulhu or other games. I’m using it to make additional newspaper articles for the current Horror on the Orient Express playtest. It’s swanky. And, at just US $5.95, a bargain.
Mutable Deceptions Volume 1: Jazz Age Newspapers

Mutable Deceptions Volume 1: Jazz Age Newspapers

5 Comments

Filed under Writing

The Dream Cities of Istanbul and Providence

A seat is now empty, but the train moves on. Let us follow Randolph Carter, and journey in search of cities lost in time and dreams.

As part of my research for the Traveler’s Companion, I’m reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. This isn’t the place to talk about Pamuk’s stature as a writer. It is Pamuk’s Istanbul that I am concerned with here, the city of his childhood in the 1950 and 60s, and how this can be related back to a Lovecraftian experience of Istanbul in the 1920s.

Pamuk evokes a city of winter, of darkness, of shadow, of twilight, of gloom and poverty. He lingers lovingly over every detail of the slow ruin of the grand old mansions lining the Bosporus. Pamuk’s city is permeated with an aching consciousness of loss, huzun,  a Turkish word he re-interprets as a communal melancholy suffered by Istanbul residents, arising from a deep awareness of their city’s fall from greatness.

Lovecraft’s twilight city, his dream Providence, is a fleeting glimpse filled with ‘the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things, and the maddening need to place again what had once had an awesome and momentous place.’

These are two very different writers confronting the same vision, and both writers assert the primacy of their dream city over the reality, to the point where reality shadows the dream. At the time of writing Istanbul, Pamuk had never left the city, and indeed had returned to live in the same apartment building that he lived in as a child. He felt the city fed his imagination and he would lose too much if he left. Lovecraft stayed in Providence and on College Hill, apart from a short unhappy stint in New York. He could not abandon the city that stood at the center of his craft. His tombstone reads, simply, ‘I am Providence.’

Pamuk also collected newspaper columnist jottings, some of which he shares in a chapter of Istanbul. Here is an admonition from our period, 1929, a final word on lost places and lost times:

“Like all the clocks that adorn our city’s public spaces, the two great clocks on either side of the bridge at Karaköy don’t tell the time so much as guess it; by suggesting that a ferry still tied to the pier has long since departed, and at other times suggesting that a long-departed ferry is still tied to the pier; they torture the residents of Istanbul with hope.”

H.P. Lovecraft's grave, Providence

H.P. Lovecraft’s grave with the dedication “I am Providence”. Photo taken on HPL’s 100th birthday; note the brain-shaped fungus, lovingly laid. (Providence, 1990)

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

Back on the train again

Welcome to Orient Express Writers, a blog about the writing and editing process for the new edition of Horror on the Orient Express for Chaosium. It first squirmed into the light of day over two decades ago. It will return in August 2013, just in time for Lovecraft’s 123rd birthday.

We’re delighted to be boarding the train again, and we’ve invited some new writers to jump on board. The publication would not be possible without the enthusiasm and kindness of everyone who supported Chaosium on Kickstarter. We thought we’d start this blog to share what we’re up to as we chug towards publication and beyond.

Man dies three times in one night. Let the horror begin… again!

3 Comments

Filed under Writing