Tag Archives: 1920s

Visiting Lovecraft Country

In 1990 Mark and I traveled to Rhode Island and Massachusetts for Lovecraft’s centennial. In company with the redoubtable Keith Herber and his friend Rick we visited Salem, Providence, and several of the towns that inspired Kingsport and Arkham. Keith was at that time writing his landmark series of books on Lovecraft Country for Chaosium and we could not have wished for a more engaging travel companion; when we return to New England next month for NecronomiCon Providence we will miss his sly smile and ready laugh.

One goal of our trip in 1990 was to try to rediscover Lovecraft Country by visiting each of the towns he had used as the basis of his famous fictional versions. When we stayed in a low-ceilinged Salem guesthouse which had been continuously inhabited for 300 years we were half expecting to see Brown Jenkin scamper across the counterpane.

Arkham cemetery

Arkham cemetery (Salem cemetery, Massachusetts, 1990)

Most of Lovecraft’s invented towns were based on two or three actual towns, frequently combing the geographic location of one with the architecture or atmosphere of another.

Arkham is generally based on Salem, however Salem is a sea port and Arkham is inland. Lovecraft probably originally based Arkham on New Salem, a town in the Swift river valley, which became the Miskatonic. The nearby town of Oakham most likely contributed to the fictional name.

Arkham

Arkham (Salem, Massachusetts 1990)

When proposals to dam the Swift river to create the Quabbin reservoir were proposed in the late 1920s, the ever-scrupulous Lovecraft felt forced to move his mythical town. Arkham became geographically identical to Salem.

The hamlet of Greenwich appears to be the inspiration for Dunwich, in terms of physical proximity to New Salem, although other, more rural towns were mentioned by Lovecraft as closer in spirit to its isolated “backwoods” atmosphere. Lovecraft, again for reasons of geographic accuracy, ceased to use Dunwich as a location once plans for the reservoir were mooted.

Dunwich

Dunwich (New England backwoods 1990)

The Quabbin reservoir was eventually created several years after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, and Greenwich was indeed razed and drowned. The reservoir features, unnamed, in ‘The Color Out of Space’, where nothing will make the narrator drink the new town water of Arkham.

Kingsport is based on Marblehead and the nearby Rockport.

Kingsport-houses

Kingsport (Marblehead, 1990)

Innsmouth is inspired by Newburyport’s architecture, but geographically placed on the fishing village of Gloucester. Hence the narrator of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ gets on the bus at Newburyport and then travels to Innsmouth.

Innsmouth

Innsmouth (Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1990)

With thanks to the following eldritch tomes for refreshing my failing memory:

Eckhardt, Jason C. Off the Ancient Track: A Lovecraftian Guide to New England and Adjacent New York,  Necronomicon Press 1987

Cooke, Jon. B. (ed.) H.P. Lovecraft Centennial Guidebook: A Handbook of the Weekend of Events Celebration the 100th Birthday of a Great Horror Writer. ‘Lovecraft’s New England: The Haunted Backwaters of HPL’, Murray, W. Montilla Publications 1990

At the time I took some notes of the epitaphs on the tombstones in the Salem and Newburyport graveyards. The notebook in which I recorded them is long lost, but these days we have Wikipedia to fill in the blanks. It is fitting, for this post, that the last words belong to the dead:

Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.

– Epitaph on a New England gravestone

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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.

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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.

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

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For reals.

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Okay then.

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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.

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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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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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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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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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