Tag Archives: Paris

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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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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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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