Category Archives: Writing

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

The Last Post

Horror on the Orient Express is at last pulling into its final destination. The first copies have arrived in backers’ houses generally with a resounding ker-thump, and a twinge of sore backs. You are warned, folks, the Thing on the Doorstep is actually a brick.

It was a two year journey, and far longer and stranger than any of us planned. To stretch the analogy, possibly to breaking point, we have dug the train out of snow-drifts, left friends stranded at out of the way stations, and scattered a trail of lost toothbrushes, odd socks and broken suitcases in far and foreign lands. However all these travails are forgotten as at last we hold the Brick  in our hands (and always remember, folks,  when picking it up keep your back straight and bend at the knees).

Stack of books - from Games from the Front blog

Stack of books – from Games from the Front blog

We already have a photo blog of the formal Unwrapping of the Campaign Box by Ty Snouffer from the Games from the Front blog, and a nice review on The Escapist by Adam Gauntlett (“Where the reprint expands on the original scenarios, it’s almost always for the better.”)

The short story collection Madness on the Orient Expressoverseen by the all-seeing editorial eye of James Lowder, will be out by the end of the year. The PDF is already available. Two of the original Horror on the Orient Express crew, myself and the erudite Geoff Gillan, have stories included in the anthology, along with a host of luminaries. It has an evocative cover, perfectly capturing that moment when one must confront the tentacled monstrosities that have taken over the dining car.

Cover art for Madness on the Orient Express

Cover art – Madness on the Orient Express

Like the people on the train above, this is our stop. But as our Kickstarted journey is ending, someone else’s is beginning: Bret Kramer of the splendid WordPress blog Tomes in Progress is crowdfunding the Third Issue of The Arkham Gazette, a magazine all about Lovecraft Country. If your investigators refuse to set foot on the Continent again after Orient Express, Bret will give them plenty of things to fear back home in the Americas.

Don’t be a stranger on the train. You’ll find Mark over at Campaign Coins. He also has his personal Twitter feed, more to do with our writing projects. If you want to haunt us, start there.

One more round of thanks before we go, first and foremost to the much lamented, redoubtable Lynn Willis, the original editor and visionary.  To Charlie Krank and Meghan McLean and Nick Nacario and Mike Mason and everyone at Chaosium who kept the dream alive, and took the reprint to heights we would never have dared dream. All the other writers, those who came back, those who joined us, and those who wished us well: Bernard, Carl, Christian, Darren, David, Geoff, Hans-Christian, Marion, Matthew, Michael, Mike, Nick, Oscar, Paul, Paul, Phil, Richard & Russell.

Most of all, we thank all you lovely Kickstarter backers, who kept faith in this ambitious project. Georges Nagelmackers could not have dug the Simplon Tunnel without help from his backers and without you this mighty tome would be but an unsavory gleam in a cephalopod eye. Together we have arrived at our destination, and now, alas, we part. This is our last stop on the journey of this blog. Our last post. Our last words, our last hurrah, and our last point of Sanity.

Good bye all, and thank you. It has been one hell of a ride.

 

Georges Nagelmackers and his train

Georges Nagelmackers, and his train, depart

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De Horrore Cosmico

It will be ripe in a yeare’s time to have up ye Legions from Underneath, and then there are no Boundes to what shal be oures.

In the new edition of Horror on the Orient Express we included “Sanguis Omnia Vincet”, a historical scenario by Oscar Rios set in Nova Roma aka Constantinople 330 AD. It tells of the events which set in motion the madness that follows, many centuries later.

That got us interested in Cthulhu Invictus. The playtest was particularly fun, and the players had a great time as investigators who were Roman soldiers. So, when Oscar Rios invited us to contribute a scenario to his new Golden Goblin Press project, De Horrore Cosmico, we jumped in with both sandals.

De Horrore Cosmico

De Horrore Cosmico

De Horrore Cosmico is Kickstarting now and many stretch goals have already been unlocked – in fact, not only did Mark help with the scenario, he will be making three Roman coins (a Sestertius, Denarius and Aurius) in his other gaming life as one half of Campaign Coins.

The idea behind the book is surely inspired by the divine Jupiter himself; Ancient Roman scenarios based on classic Lovecraft stories. Our scenario is ‘The Case of Tillius Orestes Sempronius’, a tale of a young man who has strangely lost his memory. Or as Lovecraft might well have put it, ‘From a private villa in Tusculum there recently disappeared an exceedingly singular person’. We very much enjoyed speculating on how the events of the story would unfold in an earlier age.

The other writers are the legendary Chad Bowser (co-creator of Cthulhu Invictus) and the imperious Oscar Rios, along with veteran authors Stuart Boon and Jeffrey Moeller, and new recruit, Phredd Groves. Lisa Padol is co-editing the book with Oscar.

Oscar then bravely decided to add a fiction anthology as a stretch goal and thus the idea for Tales of Cthulhu Invictus was born, edited by the wonderful Brian M. Sammons. I was delighted when my story ‘Signs of the Black Stars’ was accepted, especially as I based it on an obscure piece of Lovecraftania, ‘The Very Old Folk’.

Tales of Cthulhu Invictus

Tales of Cthulhu Invictus

Lovecraft was a lucid dreamer and the dreams he describes in his Selected Letters have an amazing, and occasionally, terrifying verve and momentum. You can see where the Dreamlands came from. On the night of October 31, 1927, inspired by the neighbours’ Halloween celebrations, Lovecraft had a nightmare from which he had to force himself awake, a dream of being an ancient Roman by the name of Lucius Caelius Rufus investigating a strange Iberian hill tribe. He wrote about his dream to several of his correspondents; it has that vivid and inexorable pace of nightmare that Lovecraft could summon up so well. You can read his description of the dream courtesy of the University of Adelaide. (Ia! Truly Lovecraft fans are found in strange, far places.)

In my story I decided the incident in which Lucius Caelius Rufus came so memorably unstuck was caused by a certain entity evoked in a wonderful invocation that Lovecraft generously passed on to a very young Robert Bloch, for use in his story, ‘The Shambler from the Stars’: Tibi, magnum Innominandum, signa stellarum nigrarum et bufoniformis Sadoquae sigillum. The quote gave me the title of they story, ‘Signs of the Black Stars’, and I used Caelius Rufus as a historical figure in an affectionate tribute to old Grandpa himself.

Our interest in Ancient Rome has long roots. As a child travelling with my Classics-loving father around Europe I visited many a Roman ruin. He once severely embarrassed my teenage self by reciting (from memory, bless him) Horace’s Ode to a Sacred Spring at an actual sacred spring near the Temple of Hercules in the ancient Roman spa town of Glanum. I’ve now read some of the Classics for myself, in translation I hasten to add, and I am only sorry that my true enjoyment of these works came too late to share with my father, who has now passed away.

Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
– Horace, A Lament For Quintilius

On a happier note, Mark has already co-written a project about Ancient Rome: QED: Cosmo’s Casebook is a game for history students in Year 7, in which you win legal trials in the time of the Roman Republic. The themes and lore are accurate, but there are also a lot of jokes. Mark had a great time writing this with fellow Orient Express author Nick Hagger, and videogame artist colleague Lewis Mitchell. The game is free, and you can learn all the secrets of the Ancient Rome – how did they clean their wigs (urine) and the never-fail cure for hiccups (kissing a she-mule).

QED: Cosmo's Casebook

QED: Cosmo’s Casebook

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Island of Ignorance

‘We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we should voyage far…’ – H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Island of Ignorance - the Third Cthulhu Companion, Golden Goblin Press

We’re delighted to spread the world that Golden Goblin’s Island of Ignorance is now out in PDF with the physical books soon to follow. Island of Ignorance kicks off with essays on fiendish cultists, devilish artefacts and new Mythos beings. Geoff Gillan’s essay on the Golden Goblin is expansive and entertaining, taking in the origin of the Goblin, its various manifestations, and its chequered history as mascot of a fictitious and ill-fated publishing company.

Scott David Anolowski’s essay on the Devil’s opera, ‘Requiem for Shaggai’, tells of a cursed opera that dooms all who try to produce it. I’m a big fan of the documentary, The Curse of the Gothic Opera, which follows the travails of an eclectic band of musical enthusiasts as they try to mount a production of Havergal Brian’s ‘impossible’ First Symphony. I could immediately see a similar scenario involving the investigators in ‘Requiem’.

‘With Blue Uncertain Stumbling’ by Jeff Moeller is a creepy and atmospheric scenario with a terrific back story that makes excellent use of what I assume are genuine myths of the island of Key West. I can really see the players and Keeper having a whale of a time with this one. Just mind the flies.

‘Consumption’ by Brian M. Sammons is a gleeful tale of small town conspiracy which offers a different play experience and would provide a change of pace for seasoned investigators who don’t mind a little, er, meat in their scenarios.

‘Darkness Illuminated’ by Jon Hook makes ingenious use of a morally ambiguous narrative – there are no good guys in this scenario, possibly not even the investigators.

‘The Lonely Point Lighthouse’ by Oscar Rios has a stand out setting, however the back story had plot holes that interfered with my enjoyment as a reader. A seasoned Keeper should be able to focus on the setting and situation, which offer plenty of opportunities to scare the crap out of the players.

‘Let the Children Come to Me’ by Mark Shireman uses child abuse. It has a trigger warning but this did not prepare me for the fetishizing of the description of the abuse in a section that only Keepers are going to read. This should have been edited out. I couldn’t read past the first page and thus can’t comment on the scenario.

To sum up Island of Ignorance has terrific scenarios but out of five scenarios, two use the disempowerment of powerful females as a theme, and two use the degradation of children. My feeling is that in the end the multiple calls on these themes unbalance the book.

What I love about this project is that  Golden Goblin ran a model Kickstarter campaign. It was well organised, had regular updates, and delivered on schedule. As final touch Oscar Rios and the gang thank their Kickstarter backers right out of the gates on the first page, giving straight back to those whose generosity supported the project. We know from experience that this takes dedication, time and effort.

I look forward to the next book about New Orleans, Tales of the Crescent City. I am also very happy that we have the good fortune to have one of our scenarios appearing in the next Golden Goblin Cthulhu Invictus  book, De Horrore Cosmico. This is scheduled for release in 2014. So keep an eye out for more Kickstarter Campaigns coming soon from Golden Goblin. Assuming there isn’t a repeat of than unfortunate incident where the entire warehouse burned down leaving behind two corpses, each clutching a statuette of a Golden Goblin…

Tales of the Crescent City

Tales of the Crescent City

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Walking College Hill

During Necronomicon Providence we walked the streets of Lovecraft’s beloved College Hill and surrounds. In those few days we toiled up and down and all around a remarkably steep hill, both by ourselves and with a Lovecraft’s College Hill Walking Tour led by the inimitable Rory Raven. Under Rory’s able guidance we toured the favorite haunts of Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. We learned a little of the colorful history of Providence, whose founding fathers were a lively collection of privateers, slave traders and determined defenders of religious and personal liberty.

Rory Raven's College Hill Walking Tour

Rory Raven’s College Hill Walking Tour

Highlights of the tour included houses mentioned in Lovecraft’s tales. The Fleur de Lys Studios housed the studio of that dreaming artist Henry Wilcox whose work made such an impression in The Call of Cthulhu. Mark was suitably horrified.

Fleur de Lys Studio

Fleur de Lys Studio

The Studio also has a connection to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of that superb weird tale, The Yellow Wallpaper. Her artist husband had a studio in the building. Lovecraft hated the Fleur de Lys building, considering it horrible Victorian pastiche, all the more insulting because it was across the street from the First Baptist Church, which he considered a near perfect example of American Georgian architecture. For art enthusiasts, I need to point out that the Providence Art Club, mentioned in my previous post, is on the same street and just up the hill. College Hill is a compact place.

First Baptist Church, Providence

First Baptist Church, Providence

The church is a beautiful building, and its dreaming white steeple could be glimpsed from many parts of Providence. Lovecraft attended the church a few times with his mother and aunts, however he early confessed atheism. Rumor has it that he was expelled from Sunday school after taking the side of the lions against the Christians. However much he disdained organised religion, Lovecraft loved the building and brought all his friends here. He even once sneaked in and tried to play ‘Yes we have no bananas’ on the church organ.

Considering Lovecraft’s early lapse, the church elders were remarkably tolerant of the Lovecraft enthusiasts, and allowed Neconomicon Providence to hold its opening address in the church. This splendid occasion, complete with opening speech by renowned Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi, was spookily interrupted midway through by a ghostly rendition of ‘Yes we have no bananas’.

We visited the H.P. Lovecraft Memorial Square. It was more a memorial crossing, but the thought was there. The sign certainly stood at a suitably non-Euclidian angle.

H.P. Lovecraft Memorial Square

Rory Raven proved so able a guide, both in his literary enthusiasm and love for his town, that on the last night of our stay I led my own, slightly inebriated, ghost tour of College Hill a for some friends, shamelessly poaching from Rory’s excellent Haunted Providence. Touring College Hill in the dark was a perfect farewell.

Haunted College Hill

Haunted College Hill

We visited an authentically hollowed graveyard, shunned the Shunned House, and viewed Charles Dexter Ward’s mansion from a safe distance.

Looking Down Angell Street

Looking Down Angell Street towards the Arts Club

At one stage I was convinced we were being followed by Brown Jenkins. That is, until our American friends assured me the animal skulking along behind us was a skunk. This was hardly reassuring to an Australian.

As you can see from this final picture, once again returning to Lovecraft’s beloved Prospect Terrace, I think our ghostly homage to Lovecraft and Raven formed a fitting finale.

Haunted Lovecraft Tour

Haunted Lovecraft Tour

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Sacred Spaces, and Why They Scare Us

Once aboard the Horror on the Orient Express the intrepid investigators should seize the chance to explore the many  famous cathedrals en route.  Not only do these cathedrals husband thousands of years of history, but in several cities they hold valuable clues to the mystery at hand.  Besides, climbing the bell towers of Europe is one way to keep fit and allow the fleet of foot to outrace, if not the ravening Cthulhoid monstrosity, then at least their less fleet friends.

Notre Dame Dragon

Dragon carving from Notre Dame, Paris [Europe 2010]

Cathedrals are also vast and spooky spaces. They are deliberately built on an inhuman scale to impress the faithful with their insignificance in the sight of God. If the Cathedral is in any way wealthy it will be packed with tombs, statues, mosaics, alter screens and carvings, gargoyles and effigies,  crypts and relics,  all of which can be used by Keepers to instill a few harmless horrors in their players. It keeps them alert, gets the heart pumping, and does them no end of good.

Interior of Aya Sofia, Istanbul [Source: Europe 2010]

Interior of Aya Sofia, Istanbul [Europe 2010]

The Horror on the Orient Express takes place in winter, a time of early darkness, and general gloom. The shadows clustering in the nave, and thickening amid the vaults of the ceiling far overhead, may indeed be caused by the dwindling daylight, or  perhaps something more sinister.  Do the investigators wish to wait and find out? That flapping sound from the bell tower is probably just a flag blowing in the wind. Does some intrepid soul wish to climb up, and see for themselves?

Notre Dame interior [Source: Europe 2010]

Interior of Notre Dame, Paris [Europe 2010]

The writer par excellence who evoked the horror of the sacred space was M.R. James. A Cambridge don, he wrote a mere thirty ghost stories. He is the writer to read if you seek an imp in a Cathedral close,  a demon guarding an Abbot’s treasure  or a devil-haunted vicarage. The antithesis of Lovecraft, M.R. James wrote in spare, erudite prose. His ghosts are glimpsed only in snatches, generally as his terrified narrator is running for their life and sanity. His haunts are utterly malevolent. Sometimes they hunt a murderer, or avenge a theft. More often their vindictiveness is attracted  by accident. The hapless hero of  ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You my Lad’ simply blows an old whistle and is hunted by a terrible figure “with an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen”, while the luckless protagonist of ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ draws supernatural ire merely by making a very unfortunate choice in wall-paper.

“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” [Source: Dream Quest magazine, G.W. Thomas]

The stories of M.R. James are very adaptable to Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in England and the Continent, featuring as they do a cast of bookish dons and antiquarian  scholars. The only problem in plotting these stories as scenarios lies in their inscrutable malevolence. There is often simply no way to fend off the haunt. In other words, no way to save the haunted.

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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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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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