Tag Archives: Orient Express

The Pitch Has Dropped

Last April I speculated in this post on the Leiberesque qualities of the Pitch Drop. This University of Queensland experiment was set up in 1927 to illustrate that solids, under certain circumstances, act as liquids. Pitch was boiled and sealed in a vacuum over a funnel. Since then ever so agonisingly slowly, yet inevitably, drip by drip, the pitch has dropped.

The Pitch Drop

The historical Pitch Drop, courtesy of the UQ website

The Pitch Drop has become the world’s longest running and some would say, most boring, experiment. At the time of writing last year, the ninth drop was trembling on the brink – metaphorically speaking, as time moves very slowly for pitch.

The Pitch Drop exemplifies Deep Time, that washes around our own brief lives and cannot be hurried or slowed by any human agency. Lovecraft would have loved it, I am sure, as Deep Time features so constantly in his stories. In one of his letters he dismissed the entire span of human life on earth as (cosmically speaking) an ephemeral accident.

The Pitch Drop

The Pitch Drop live feed snapshot as of 29 April 2014 10:24 am, courtesy of the UQ website.

Professor John Mainstone was custodian of the Pitch Drop for fifty years yet missed all three drops that occurred on his watch, once by mere minutes. How’s that for cruel irony? And here’s a crueller blow. The ninth pitch drop has finally dropped. However Time had already intervened with stately finality for Professor Mainstone, who died in August last year. Sadly, the pitch drops for no man.

On this note, alert readers will notice in the photograph above that the nine previous drops have now been removed, to give the tenth drop a good long run-up.

Professor John Maidstone and his nemesis, courtesy of UQP, http://smp.uq.edu.au/content/pitch-drop-experiment

The late Professor John Mainstone and his nemesis, courtesy of  the UQ website.

The good news is that the current custodian, Professor Andrew White, describes himself as just “four pitch drops old”, thus showing the right mind set for the job.

You can see the Pitch Drop by live feed here. You can also join the band of devoted enthusiasts who are now waiting for the tenth pitch drop. Their motto is “Keep Up the Watch”. Their optimistic credo: “Only 14 or so years to go”. Just remember that as you watch the pitch, the pitch is also watching you.

It is of course a natural jump from time to trains. Check out this beautiful replica of a 1919 Orient Express dining car. Again, alert readers may notice a little something odd, especially about the scale and the interior.

Henrik Lego train exterior

Henrik Hoexbroe train exterior, courtesy of the Brothers Brick website

Yes, the heroic Henrik Hoexbroe has painstakingly created a 1919 Orient Express dining car, inside and out, in Lego.

Henrik Hoexbro Lego train interior, courtesy of the Brothers Brick website

Henrik Hoexbroe train interior, courtesy of the Brothers Brick website

Thanks so very much to our friend and fellow Horror on the Orient Express writer, Phil, for sending us the link. It really only needs a little Cthulhu and a few Lego figures with arms stiffly poised in horror, and expressions of tiny terror on their faces, to make the illusion complete.

You can see more of Henrik’s beautiful train on his Flickr page, along with other  train equipment and paraphernalia, all painstakingly re-created in Lego. This degree of exemplary craftsmanship, as well as tolerance of extreme eyestrain, shows a loving patience worthy of the tenth drop.

 

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Roll Library Use (and Dexterity)

Interior of the 'Old Man' building (1874)

Interior of the ‘Old Man’ building (1874)

This charming, and slightly alarming, photograph was taken in 1874 and shows the old Cincinnati Library. Five levels of cast iron balconies held what must have been an enormous amount of books while busts of Shakespeare, Milton and Franklin stood guard over the checkerboard marble floor (out of sight, below). The  Call of Cthulhu enthusiast can only regard this lovely literary edifice with awe, and wonder about the Occupational Health and Safety priorities of the 1870s, while considering how best to chase investigators through this three dimensional bookish maze.

Although considered the height of modern architecture when built, with central heating and an elevator, this delightful library was considered dilapidated and overcrowded by the 1920s. Sadly for those who love to combine reading with abseiling it was neglected for the next three decades and finally demolished in 1955.

On the topic of libraries, the new edition of Horror on the Orient Express has been re-edited with a bigger emphasis on  Library Use in the research sections of each scenario. The original publication gave information on the over-arching plot elements in the London chapter of the campaign, but subsequent cities would only provide research on their immediate scenario clues. So, we have expanded the library entries at cities along the way so that the investigators can keep researching and learning new things.

Where did we get this idea? From the playtesters, of course. Whereas the original 1991 scenario authors were mindful of the needs of their particular plot, it took the 2013 players to remind us that investigators will always seek answers. So, we thank our new playtesters, and in particular Darren who not only participated in the campaign from mysterious start to bloody end, but also helped us with real world research, and unearthed the marvelous photo above. We look at that and think he is missing the thrill of the chase – in fact, he is now helping on an all-new Call of Cthulhu project, so he has the mania now. There is no hope for him.

Providence Athenaeum - exterior

Providence Athenaeum – exterior

Finally, no post on libraries would be complete without some photographs of my favorite library – and also haunt of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and poet Sarah Helen Whitman – the Providence Athenaeum . When we visited the Athenaeum in 2013 during Necromonicon it was hosting a H.P. Lovecraft exhibition, appropriately enough in the basement. Given its literary history one expects investigators fleeing out every window, while formless horrors stalk the hapless librarians within. However we found a building of real beauty – a Temple to Wisdom, if there ever was one.

Providence Athenaeum - ground floor

Providence Athenaeum – ground floor

Appreciation of the library’s real world merits and aura of literary serenity has not stopped me from using it as the model for the Miskatonic University library ever since. However, anyone tempted to steal a volume of forbidden lore, be warned:

No one had seen me take the [book]—but still
A blank laugh echoed in my whirling head,
And I could guess what nighted worlds of ill
Lurked in that volume I had coveted.
The way grew strange—the walls alike and madding—
And far behind me, unseen feet were padding.

– ‘Pursuit’, Fungi from Yuggoth, H.P. Lovecraft

 

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A Provençal Dragon

Horror on the Orient Express placemat [Source: Chaosium]

The Wagons-Lit logo is two rampart lions. For Horror on the Orient Express merchandise Chaosium under Meghan’s sterling art direction has created a new and unique logo, putting a fantastical spin on the traditional image and updated the two lions to a tarasque and a manticore.  The tarasque is a Provençal dragon and thus an authentic European monster.

According to my handy  Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts (Walker & Co. 1971) the tarasque lived on the banks of the Rhone near the town of Tarascon. It was “bigger than an ox…with a lion’s head and mouth; its jaws contained vast teeth, it had six bear’s paws, a carapace studied with spikes and a viper’s tail.”   The redoubtable St Martha, yet another Biblical figure who somehow found her way to Europe, tamed it by drenching it with holy water.

In case the description is not vivid enough a delightful Tarascon statue  gives a presumably authentic view of the monster, given that it is located near St Martha’s tomb. To my eye, it looks a little worried. We can assume that the statue depicts the moment after St Martha tamed it when the monster noticed the approach of the good townsfolk of Tarascon, who failed to trust in its wholehearted conversion and stoned it to death.

Tarasque statue [Source: Tarascon website]

This week we were briefly excited when the pelaton in the Tour de France sped through Tarascon, but try as we might we could not catch a glimpse of the tarasque.

The manticore has an interesting lineage, born in Persia and making its way by rumor to Europe.  My Dictionary quotes Aristotle, quoting Ctesias (Alexander the Great’s personal physician, whose works are now lost): “the Indian wild beast called the ‘marticoras’ has a triple row of teeth in both upper and lower jaw; that it is as big as a lion and equally hairy, and that its feet resemble those of the lion; that it resembles man in its face and ears; that its eyes are blue, and its color vermilion; and has the faculty of shooting off arrow-wise the spines that are attached to its tail.” The same source notes that it can run as swiftly as a deer, no bad image for train. It is thought to born of garbled travelers’ tales of tigers.

Manticore [Source:

Manticore [Source: A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts]

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Orient Express, Guangzhou

A menu to remember

This train arrives in the most unexpected destinations.

Christian is one of our playtesters, but he is currently away for a month while travelling in Hong Kong and China. He just emailed us: “While missing the games back in Melb, I’m currently eating in the ‘Orient Express’ in Guangzhou!”

What did he eat? “It’s French cuisine – owner is a French guy. It’s located in the old French concession on Shamian island as Guangzhou used to be quite colonised like Shanghai.”

The Orient Express: wherever you go, there it is.

The dining car

The dining car

Paris via Guangzhou

Paris via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

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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

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Sirkeci Station

So you may have been wondering about our header photo. It is Sirkeci station, the grand terminus of the Orient Express. This photo is from a trip that Mark and I took along the train route in 2010 from London to Istanbul to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our writing about the train.

Istanbul's Sirkeci station 2010

Istanbul’s Sirkeci station 2010

Let’s face it, most big city train stations are approached through industrial estates. Sirkeci has to be one of the best situated stations in the world. To my mind its only rival is Venice’s Santa Lucia, where the unsuspecting first-time visitor walks out of the terminal to find the sea lapping at the edge of the station piazza. The sea! Will you look at that? Okay, it’s actually the Grand Canal, but it still smells pretty salty and really cements the impression of Venice as a city built on water. I think Istanbul and Venice are two cities that are best approached by train.

Venice Grand Canal 2010

Venice Grand Canal 2010

The Istanbul train enters the city along the shore of the Sea of Marmosa. The tracks pass Istanbul’s land walls – never breached, ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t mind a short history lesson – and still mammoth in ruin.

Istanbul Land Walls 2010

Istanbul Land Walls 2010

Then the train passes around the Golden Horn along the Bosporus, passing a jaw-dropping  array of beautiful buildings, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Istanbul’s apartment buildings pile up over the surrounding hills. It is a breath-taking entrance, even when bleary-eyed in the morning after a day and a night on a ramshackle yet lovable old train, including standing in line after midnight for an entry visa at the Turkish border.

Sirkeci station was built in the 1880s and according to the guidebook is one of the most famous examples of the European Orientalism school of architecture. Apparently is also holds a train museum, which Nick and Meghan visited on their research trip but we somehow missed. Instead, we found this oddly pathetic train, stalled out front the station forever, but never investigated further.

This train is not going anywhere

This train is not going anywhere

From Sirkeci station, if you turn right you cross the Galata Bridge to the Pera Palace hotel, beloved of the wealthy Orient Express passengers. If you turn left you’re in the heart of the Sultanahmet district. There you’ll find yourself slapped down in the middle of all that gobsmacking architecture you glimpsed from the train; the Blue Mosque, the Archaeological Museum, the Aya Sofia and the Topkapi Palace. If you keep going, assuming you can walk past the Basilica Cistern (and who’s going to resist going down to peek at an ancient  spooky columned cistern full of dark water and giant carp) you will trip over the Serpent Column and run smack into the last standing wall of the Hippodrome. Seldom has one train station offered entrance to so much.

Sirkeci station is at the heart of all of the scenarios in the new Horror on the Orient Express; the investigators will arrive or depart from the station in the Gaslight, 1920s and modern eras. There are some evocative departure scenes in the classic 1974 and superior 2010 versions of Murder on the Orient Express. Alas, we flew home to Australia from the charmless airport instead.

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Omelette aux Truffes

I am currently working on the Traveler’s Companion, a booklet for players. 1920s tourist information for  the Balkans has proven difficult to come by in English, especially with my 25% Library Use. The  area was beyond the itinerary of all but the most  ambitious Western European travelers and Baedekers shed no light for me. I trawled through some earlier material indexed at archive.org and found Through Savage Europe, the adventures of Harry De Windt, the intrepid correspondent for the Westminster Gazette and his trusty “bioscope artist”, the redoubtable Mr Mackenzie. Although published in 1907, well before our 1920s setting, this little volume gave me a lovely vignette of the Orient Express, as our weary and paprika-stained travelers climb aboard just outside of Sofia.  It evokes the train as a rolling Shangri-La and perfectly captures the wonder contemporary travelers felt towards the Express.

 Through Savage Europe, Harry De Windt, 1907 p. 195

Through Savage Europe, Harry De Windt, 1907 p. 196

Through Savage Europe, Harry De Windt, 1907, p. 196

Through Savage Europe, Harry De Windt, 1907, p. 197

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