Tag Archives: Venice

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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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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Terror in Venice

As the writer of Death in a Gondola for Horror on the Orient Express  it seems to me that everyone is picking up on the ghoulish gondolier theme. Terror in Venice is the upcoming expansion for the Call of Cthulhu card game from Fantasy Flight Games, and look what’s on the cover:

Terror in Venice [Source: Fantasy Flight Games]

Terror in Venice [Source: Fantasy Flight Games]

Who wouldn’t want to go for a romantic cruise through that slime-infested ooze? Although I don’t suppose that lady is enjoying the  ride. Perhaps she thinks that Deep One is after her champagne.

Fantasy Flight produce two games that Mark and I play at lot, Elder Signs and Mansions of Madness  (although I hate it when I have to solve those stupid cardboard clues). I enjoy  games involving pattern recognition but fail mightily at strategy and in chess have never really recovered from having an eight-year old beat me using Scholar’s Mate. Twice.  Elder Signs to me was the game of 2013 when the nephews went from sanity dribbling utter loss to destroying Azathoth at 9 minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Also Fantasy Flight always put a capable looking woman  on the cover of their Cthulhu games, a reminder that unlike in Lovecraft’s stories, investigators are not always men.

Venice has not featured as often as you might think in the litany of weird tales.  The only novel I can think of offhand is Wilkie Collin’s ripping supernatural detective fiction crossover, The Haunted Hotel.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins [Source: http://www.wilkie-collins.info/books]

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins [Source: http://www.wilkie-collins.info]

My favorite story, The Black Gondolier by Fritz Leiber, is set in Venice, naturally, but Venice, L.A. It features a gondolier made of primordial ooze (otherwise known as oil).  Leiber is very Lovecraftian in his weird tales as he re-casts  commonplace modern technologies in a bizarre and terrifying light.

The Black Gondolier and Other Stories [Source: Booktopia]

The Black Gondolier and Other Stories [Source: Booktopia]

So next time you’re in Venice, whether Italy or California, and a gondolier invites you for a ride, just keep an eye for tentacles sneaking out from under his jaunty striped shirt when you’re not nervously peering over the side.

Gondolas [Source: Europe 2013]

Gondolas at the Gritti Palace Hotel

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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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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]

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Revisiting Venice I – The City

So Mark’s play-testers have survived Venice, and are on to Trieste. As one player astutely observed, the real hero of the scenario was Venice herself.

I’ve re-visited Venice both in metaphor and in reality. I hadn’t been to the city when I wrote the scenario twenty odd-years ago. I had read John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, and I had always vowed to visit before I was thirty. I managed it, just.

Before I left my mother gave me a wonderful gift, picked up in a second hand bookshop, E.V. Lucas’s A Wanderer in Venice. E.V. Lucas wrote his guidebook to Venice in 1914. Aside from the Austrians no longer sunbathing  on the sands of the Lido, his lively tome is still an excellent guide. I could retrace his steps, see what he had seen, and count the winged lions along the canals at his side.

Lucas and Norwich generously gave me their Venice and their views still colour mine today. It was a city born of the printed word and pictured firmly in my imagination before I ever saw it in reality. And unlike most visions born in this way Venice was even more beautiful than I imagined.

Sixteen years later I re-visited Venice, this time with Mark. Venice is slowly sinking into its marsh. It had sunk several more centimetres by then, so at high tide St Mark’s Square was awash and the sea crept into the entry of the basilica.

St Marks at High Tide

St Marks at high tide

The city seemed to be losing the fight against two equally remorseless foes: salt water and tourists (of which I was one). Its beauty was all the more heartbreaking. The atmosphere of this city is unique. At night all is quiet and dark, with only the lights reflecting on the canal water.

Venice canal at night

Venice at night

Mark in Venice at night

Who is that figure lurking in the Venetian darkness? Oh, it is only Mark.

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