Friday, 30 November 2012

Review: K.W. Jeter's The Dark Seeker

JETER, K.W., The Dark Seeker, TOR Books/Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., New York, NY, USA, 1987.

Octavo; paperback, illustrated embossed wrappers; 317pp. Mild shelfwear and a cancellation hole-punch to the covers; spine creased; light toning of the pages, else fine.

I’d heard a few whispers along the grapevine about Jeter – that he was a good writer and worth checking out – but the opportunity to investigate didn’t arise for quite awhile. When I finally picked up a copy of this book, I almost didn’t buy it, because the cover artwork and design are so awful. But I decided that I shouldn’t be cover-judging and forked over my cash for it. I’m extremely glad that I did.

The story involves a group of researchers who dabble with an experimental drug, allowing them to mesh consciousnesses, with a view to applications in battlefield situations, where the formation of a gestalt-mind between combatants would be of practical value. However, the drug also releases the darkest, innermost tendencies of those taking it, pushing them towards acts of depravity and wanton destruction. The action takes place some years after the experiments, when the researchers are on heavily-regulated prophylactic chemical inhibitors and have been re-located, found ‘Not Guilty by reason of Insanity’, after a series of horrific murders which the drug – a discrete entity they refer to as ‘the Host’ - forced them to commit.

We follow Mike Tyler, living in Los Angeles with his nurse girlfriend Stephanie and her son Eddy, idly testing the boundaries of the limits which his medication places upon him, bridling against the regimen but seeing how far he can go without it. Things are dull but otherwise fine, until he receives a call from his former wife Linda who calls him to say that ‘Slide’ - an old criminal associate of theirs and part of the experiment from the research days – has taken their child Bryan away from her, the child that Mike thought was dead.

From here on, the pace is unrelenting as Mike tries to find his son, keeping at bay the semi-retired detective Kinross, who has a crusade against the researchers, and the cash-poor journalist Bedell, who squandered a mint made from his book about the experiment and its crimes, and who has a sample of the drug stashed in his house. On top of this, Mike has to balance his re-surfaced hysterical ex-wife and his new love and her child, whilst trawling through the wreckage of his past and his old – very damaged – associates to try and find the Host-addicted Slide, before something horrible happens to the son he thought he’d never see again.

Fans of Frank Belknap-Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” (which I reviewed earlier) will sense a resonance with this story: the power of deadly and unpredictable drugs and the depths to which otherwise civilised individuals will descend if the barriers are removed, is tensely explored. In Long’s story, the “foulness” is embodied by the Hounds themselves and is the price paid for dabbling; in Jeter’s tale, the Host springs into “foul” phantom existence from the deep, dark desires of the gestalt-mind. I’d suggest that any Keeper thinking of incorporating the Plutonian Drug into their adventures should read this book to gain some real insights into the effects of these kinds of toxins on the minds and bodies of the users.

Jeter’s prose is sharp and precise, sketching to perfection the subliminal flashes, visual aberrations and mental distortions of the characters involved. As well, his ability to conjure the locales of the L.A. milieu work brilliantly: the hard, modern environment really underscores the bleak worldview of the broken researchers. Actually, I couldn’t think of anywhere else that this story could have been set, since Jeter is clearly channelling the Manson Murders as part of his story-telling. I was thinking, as I read, that I could see where things were tending, but the ending caught me completely by surprise: I enjoyed afterwards, the fact that Jeter had flagged all of these options as to the final resolution and had then done something completely unexpected. A masterful stroke!

Five tentacled horrors from me!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Congo Library

I’ve mentioned previously that the Congo is ripe for Mythos storytelling with a solid presence in the canon material. Quite apart from the story “Arthur Jermyn”, there are Congolese references in “Herbert West: Re-animator” and of course the excellent “The Picture in the House”. Add to this David Drake’s chilling “Than Curse the Darkness” (1980) and the Congo starts to look like Mythos-central. And that’s before we investigate the cryptozoological weirdness that’s been happening there since the 18th Century. Or the black magic.
(Of course the sheer cruelty and depravity that takes place in the Congo on a daily basis is fairly disheartening and can mitigate strongly against using the locale as a playground: sometimes the Real World can be just too depressing...)

The following are books and other published works which may be of interest to an adventuring party:
Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo (“Report on the First Voyage Around the World”)
“When I opened it to the title page my wonder grew even greater, for it proved to be nothing less rare than Pigafetta’s account of the Congo region, written from the notes of the sailor Lopex and printed at Frankfurt in 1598...”

HPL, “The Picture in the House”
Antonio Pigafetta’s work relating to his voyage of discovery with Magellan has been monstrously handled throughout its history. Not published in its entirety before or after the author’s death, it has been reproduced piecemeal – severely edited in any form – until the Nineteenth Century, whereupon the original was destroyed after being finally published in toto. Even then it is to be suspected that the entire work was not reproduced, but rather edited to the satisfaction of the publishers at that time, its more fantastic elements being consigned to the flames. Before this, excerpts of the work were published by many groups in the years since its composition, with emphases upon particular elements of the narrative: this thinking led to the infamous Regnum Congo for example, with its disturbing illustrations by the Brothers de Bry, printed in Latin in Frankfurt, 1598. Another such printing in Paris in 1784 was interrupted by Papal authority and the entire staff of the publishing house handed over to the Inquisition.
In and of itself, the work is secure in its claim as one of the first narratives of the opening up of the Pacific region and of the circumnavigation of the globe; the issues begin when Pigafetta starts to borrow heavily from his relationship with the sailor ‘Lopex’, of whom little is known but of whom much is suspected. Pigafetta claimed to have filled in the blanks of his knowledge about various locations from notes and oral information provided him by this infamous seafarer; if this is the case, then Lopex was privy to an excessive quantity of worldwide blasphemies, including cannibalism, demon-worship and infanticide. It is noteworthy that this individual is not included in the list of the survivors of Magellan’s voyage.

Ignoring the more historically (and socially) acceptable copies of the Relazione published since 1874, there are several versions of this work of interest to the student of hard metaphysics. Many of these versions have been augmented by sick minds that sought to embellish their perversities and subsequently diluted their potency; of the remainder, the following are of interest:
(Source: H. P. Lovecraft, "The Picture in the House")
Italian: Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo; Antonio Pigafetta; Venice, 1524 (published 1874); Sanity loss: 0/0; +0 percentiles to Cthulhu Mythos; average 2 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None
Latin: Regnum Congo; Abridged from A. Pigafetta, woodcut illustrations by the Brothers de Bry; Frankfurt, 1598; Sanity loss: 1d4/1d8; +5 percentiles to Cthulhu Mythos; average 8 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: “A Means of Extending Life” (Food of Life); “To Punish An Enemy” (Cause Disease); “To Entrap the Spirit” (Bind Soul); “Awakening The Flesh” (Compel Flesh); “Another Punishment” (Wither Limb)
French: Abominations Africaines; Translation by Giuseppe Balsamo, Count Cagliostro; Manuscript only, 1782, only two copies known to have been made; Sanity loss: 1d3/1d6; +5 percentiles to Cthulhu Mythos; average 4 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: “Moyens de prolonger la vie” (Food of Life); “Ratatinez-vous le membre” (Wither Limb)
English: Some Queer Accountes of Explorations to Strange Laundes; Translation by John Wilmot, Lord Rochester; London, 1676; Sanity loss: 1d2/1d4; +3 percentiles to Cthulhu Mythos; average 3 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: “Of the Culinary Artes of Savages” (Food of Life)
Since the 1700s interest has centred upon strange, unidentified creatures inhabiting the jungles of the Congo region. Cryptozoologists have theorised that relict dinosaurs, survivors from eons passed, inhabit the forests and have gained supernatural reputations amongst the indigenous populations, specifically the Pygmy tribespeople. The most famous of the “Big Seven” monsters of the Congo basin is the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, and adventurers have been in search of it, or evidence of its existence, since 1776 when reference to it was first made in the following text:
Histoire de Loango, Kakongo et autres royaumes d’Afrique

“It must be monstrous, the prints of its claws are seen upon the earth, and formed an impression on it of about three feet in circumference. In observing the posture and disposition of the footprints, they concluded that it did not run this part of the way, and that it carried its claws at a distance of seven or eight feet one from the other.”
Abbé Lievain Bonaventure Proyart
Proyart was an eager historian and wrote many books, especially the biographies of former French Kings. His "History of Loango, Kakongo and other African Kingdoms" is based on his firsthand experiences, working as a missionary in those parts.
The translated excerpt printed above is considered the first printed statement concerning the existence of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, although the name is not specifically used. Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz, sent by the German government to perform a survey of Cameroon in 1913, had the Proyart excerpt firmly in mind when he began looking for evidence of the creature there. He later wrote in his report that the beast was
"...very much feared by the Negroes of certain parts of the territory of the Congo, the lower Ubangi, the Sangha, and the Ikelemba rivers."
He was the first to use the term Mokèlé-mbèmbé in print and described the monster as brownish-grey in colour, about the size of an elephant and with a long flexible neck.
While many might argue from Proyart’s description that the tracks he describes are possibly those of an elephant, any reader making a Biology, Animal Husbandry, Zoology or similar Roll, will know that elephants do not possess claws, and yet the description mentions these with some specificity.
French; Abbé Lievain Bonaventure Proyart; 1776; 0/1 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; 1 week to study and comprehend

Spells: None
In 1914, John Pinkerton published an omnibus of what he considered to be the best excerpts from various accounts of the explorers of Africa. It contains that section of Proyart’s work recounting the discovery of the strange tracks.
English; John Pinkerton: A General Collection of the Best & Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World (17 vols.); 1914; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; 3 weeks to study and comprehend; someone looking only at the Proyart entries would take only 3 days

Spells: None
Of course monsters aren’t the only thing found in the Congo; rubber, ivory and huge mineral wealth are available too. The Belgian occupation of the region was notable for the ruthless cruelty with which it treated its indentured work force, and soon the outrage felt by the rest of the world was being announced in journals and other organs across the planet. The following two are perhaps the most famous:
The Crime of the Congo

By the early years of the Twentieth Century, international attention was being brought to bear on the state of play in the Congo. Missionary reports, travellers’ narratives and government leaks from Belgian sources were slowly revealing the horrors that the native populations of the region had come to know as part of their daily lives. Public outcry soon followed and several works were published to spread the word even further: Conan-Doyle’s work is perhaps not so well known as Mark Twain’s (see below) but it carries the weight of more textual research and listed sources. Keepers may decide to apply the parenthetical SAN roll listed below for reading the atrocities in this and Twain’s work if they so choose; otherwise there is no penalty for reading this book.
English; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; 1909; 0/0 (0/1) Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; 1 week to study and comprehend

Spells: None

King Leopold’s Soliloquy

"This work of 'civilization' is an enormous and continual butchery ... All the facts we brought forward in this chamber were denied at first most energetically; but later, little by little, they were proved by documents and by official texts ... The practice of cutting off hands is said to be contrary to instructions; but you are content to say that indulgence must be shown and that this bad habit must be corrected 'little by little' and you plead, moreover, that only the hands of fallen enemies are cut off, and that if the hands are cut off 'enemies' not quite dead, and who, after recovery, have had the bad taste to come to the missionaries and show them their stumps, it was due to an original mistake in thinking that they were dead."
From Debate in Belgian Parliament, July, 1903.
Applying his usual razor-sharp wit to the emerging scandal of Belgian rule in Africa, Twain came up with this zippy pamphlet designed to harpoon King Leopold II as much as it informed the ignorant public of the state of affairs in the Congo. Filled with (at the time) graphic images of the treatment of natives, along with photographic material of handless Congolese workers, Twain’s harpoon was pointed and barbed.

Told as a complaining tirade against international nosey-parkers, ‘King Leopold’ whinges and whines his way through a self-serving justification of his actions in the African heartland, claiming his rule as religiously-motivated and civilising, backed to the hilt by a God who surely wouldn’t have let him get this far if He didn’t approve.
The book reveals how taxes levied under Leopold’s rule caused widespread starvation and the eradication of whole communities; it also quotes information published by an American missionary, William Henry Shephard, concerning an 1899 massacre of over eighty Congolese men, women and children by mercenary natives – the cannibal ‘Zappo Zaps’ - paid for by the Belgian Government.
English; Mark Twain; 1905; 0/0 (0/1) Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; 1 day to study and comprehend

Spells: None


Today, the Congo is a war-torn region, emerging from decades of oppression, both political and ideological, and trying to find its feet in the Twenty-first Century. The stain of superstition and racial division – not only between blacks and whites, but also centuries-older bigotry based along tribal lines – are being thrashed out in violent and repressive confrontations, while the immense wealth of the nation is rapidly being amassed by the privileged few. With all this in the background, the search for the Mokèlé-mbèmbé continues.

“One of the most exciting things about Africa is that, at least since the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, the Congo basin has not undergone further climatic and geophysical changes ... Animals evolve and survive because they adapt to changing environments. Conversely, when conditions remain stable for extended periods, some well-adapted species continue to survive and even flourish with very little physical and behavioral alteration. And that is what we find in the Central West African jungle-swamps where, for example, crocodiles have persisted unchanged over the past 65 million years. What other ancient creatures might still lurk in this vast expanse of seemingly changeless, ageless, largely unexplored primeval forest?”
Roy Mackal, cryptozoologist
Roy Mackal comes across rather like Richard Attenborough’s character in “Jurassic Park” – idealistic, slightly cracked and not securely connected with reality. His desire for there to be a dinosaur living in the jungles of the Congo far outweighs his ability to carefully measure the facts at hand. The results of his searching for the Mokèlé-mbèmbé boil down to some unusual ripples on a lake surface and the earnest assurances of Pygmy witnesses that they saw a Diplodocus in the water, just like the one in the book Mackal showed them. (And no realisation, or acknowledgement, from Mackal that possibly they chose the biggest animal pictured hoping that it would equal a greater reward.)
Still, Mackal got a book and television program out of his wanderings, along with publications in (semi-) respectable journals. His enthusiasm has also fired the imaginations of others including a Japanese film crew that thundered off in his wake to catch the beast on film – to no effect. It’s a miracle that he survived his wanderings, although he did quite a bit of damage to scientific credibility.
A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokèlé-mbèmbé

English; Dr. Roy P. Mackal; 1987; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; 1 week to study and comprehend

Spells: None
“The Search for Evidence of Mokèlé-mbèmbé in the People’s Republic of the Congo”, article in Cryptozoology magazine, number 1: pp.62-72

English; Dr. Roy P. Mackal, J. Richard Greenwell and M. Justin Wilkinson; 1982; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; 1 day to study and comprehend

Spells: None


Congo Journey

“Dokou, suddenly alert, looked straight at me. ‘Samalé [the forest demon] has three claws,’ he said, breathing hard, his voice harsh and cracked. ‘On each hand,’ he shouted, ‘Samalé has three claws! Long and curved, strong as steel, sharp as hooks!’ He stood up and leaned across the desk, his pupils dilated, his lips retracted, his irregular yellow teeth exposed. ‘But he only cuts with two!’ He raised his right fist as if to strike me, crooked out two bent fingers, and slashed the air in front of my face.”

Redmond O’Hanlon
British naturalist Redmond O’Hanlon, took an interest in the efforts of Roy Mackal and decided to investigate if there was any truth in the rumours of a large dinosaur dwelling in the Congo near Lake Télé. Taking an unsuspecting American friend with him and forming a party from some of Mackal’s team of guides and advisors, he went upriver into a dangerous and unpredictable world, where the presence, or not, of a forest-dwelling monster soon became the least of his concerns.
This is a grimly humorous travel account, one where you have to laugh otherwise you’d blow your brains out. O’Hanlon’s naturalist observations rapidly become secondary to the hair-raising escapades that he and his friend Lary wander blithely into. This is white-knuckle stuff: you have to keep reading just to see if they make it out alive, and the relief when it’s over is palpable. After it’s finished all you can do is shake your head in despair for the condition of the human race.
English; Redmond O’Hanlon; 1996; 0/1 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +10%; 2 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None
Of course, it goes without saying that Keepers looking to set their adventures here should read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (or watch “Apocalyse Now”, perhaps, if your story is set in the modern era). I don’t think I need to go over that text as it is so well-known, other than to say it should be the first port-of-call for Congo gamers. If possible, try to get an edition that includes Conrad’s “Congo Diary” as it is a good source for discovering how to get to the Congo and then proceed upriver.
Listen out for the drums!


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Review: The X-Files - Season 3: "Hell Money"

Review: The X-Files – Season 3: “Hell Money”

GATES, Tucker (Dir.), 2007 (first aired 1996), X-Files, Season 3: “Hell Money”, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC.

Season three of the X-Files is where a whole bunch of FBI weirdness really falls into place. I don’t mean the “mythology episodes” – the ones wherein Mulder and Scully get to the bottom of What’s Really Going On; I was never a big fan of those episodes. The ones I like are the standalone ones that tell their own tale and don’t wallow in their own conspiracy crapulence.
So what does Season Three have to offer? Well, Scully gets a dog and then loses a dog; Mulder gets whistled back from the dead by means of a sweat lodge, a packet of sunflower seeds, and a Navajo medicine man; Scully fights with her sister and then her sister gets shot; Mulder receives a warning against dabbling with auto-erotic asphyxiation, and Skinner goes on an impending-divorce-fuelled bender and sleeps with Samantha Carter from Stargate (and people say there’s no such thing as conspiracies!).
Along the way, there are some of the best episodes the show ever came up with: “DPO” wherein Giovanni Ribisi gains the ability to throw lightning bolts and zaps Jack Black in the back; “War of the Coprophages” in which Mulder is convinced that aliens are invading the planet by means of remote-controlled, cockroach-shaped robots; “The Walk” which has one of the most vicious and unrelenting villains the show ever generated, despite having no arms or legs; “2Shy”, a cautionary tale about online dating wherein Mr. Right is a fat-sucking vampire; and of course, the Emmy-winning “The Final Repose of Clyde Bruckman” a classic piece of television writing if ever there was one. And I don’t even have to mention, surely, the gloriously gleeful “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”…
But then there’s “Hell Money”.
I have a penchant for all things Chinese, and so a Chinese-themed episode was bound to light my firecracker. Written by Jeffrey Vlaming, the story concerns an illegal gambling ring in San Francisco’s Chinatown where the losers are forced to donate randomly-selected body parts to an underground organ trafficking ring. Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate the death of a man immolated alive in a crematorium and the trail leads them to a crooked cop with a weighing conscience and a vicious, rigged game of chance.
The thing that appeals to me the most about this episode is that there is absolutely nothing supernatural or paranormal going on at all. It’s like an episode of “Scooby-doo” without the silliness.
Of course, the investigation takes place during the annual Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, so there’s a lot of talk about the afterlife – ghost banquets, offerings to the dead, Hell-Money and so forth – but there’s no mystical whatsit at the end of the trail. If this bothered the ever-expectant Mulder, I’ll bet that it was sheer relief for Scully.

James Hong plays the eerily-creepy organ thief and proves – as he stated in Blade Runner – that he only does eyes…with a few kidneys, hearts, and lungs on the side. His speech to Scully at the end of this episode, justifying his actions as giving hope, not taking lives, is pure evil, chillingly delivered. As a point of interest, this is one of Lucy Liu’s first film appearances: she does a creditable job of playing the invalid daughter of one of the gamblers, but it’s a long way from Charlie’s Angels.
If I have a quibble with the episode, it’s the treatment Mulder and Scully have of the cop (played by B.D. Wong) assigned to help them on the case. From the get-go, they distrust him and treat him with suspicion, despite the fact that there’s nothing that he does overtly that would incline them in that direction. It’s true that he turns out to be crooked, but you can’t blame him given the cultural pressure that’s being applied. I put it down to the average FBI agent’s innate ability to smell a rat (or maybe slipshod pacing in the writing process).
The other cool thing about this installment is that, even having exposed the syndicate and their hideous activities, nothing changes. The bad guys simply fade away and set up again somewhere else, eliminating any bothersome loose ends by throwing them in the crematorium incinerator.
As the credits roll, the viewer is free to imagine James Hong’s character smoking and chuckling and saying:
“And you thought we wouldn’t get away with it. You pesky kids!”
Four-and-a-half tentacled horrors.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Rubbings, Sketches & Their Associated Problems

Carvings in stone are tricky to record: sometimes they are so fine as to be nearly invisible; occasionally, they are damaged or worn to an extent which obscures them; they can be located in places of difficult access. Nowadays there are digital electronic means of pinning down the information contained on a slab of rock, or etched into a wall: topographical laser scanning, or high-definition digital photography for example. In eras passed, researchers depended upon the work of trained artists to record images and text, or they produced rubbings.

Rubbings are made by covering an incised or raised text with a sheet of paper and then rubbing across the paper’s surface with charcoal, or graphite, in order to leave an impression of the carvings beneath. In essence, this provides the researcher with a quick copy of the piece and provides good information in terms of the dimensions and shape of the work; a downside of the process is that irregularities of the stone or other material, which would otherwise be unseen, are also highlighted and may be read into the text as part of the design. The reduction of the carving to a monochrome format has similar results.
Sketching the text, bringing in the skills of a trained artist, would seem to be an improvement over this process. With the correct implements and techniques, the basic elements of the design can be maintained, such as size, layout and proportion. The downside is that the information necessarily passes through an interpretive state by being relayed through the artist; even the best artist can make assumptions about an image that will damage elements causing confusion in the final analysis. As well, artists can take shortcuts in an attempt to complete work in a pressured timeframe; they may well gloss over details deemed to be irrelevant; or leave sketches unfinished to be completed later back at camp or the studio, with the essential loss of accuracy that an imperfect memory dictates.

As an example take these three images: the first is a kangaroo taken from a catalogue of the Museum compiled in the late 1700s by Sir Ashton Lever. No-one in their right mind would call this an accurate representation: the creatures are too spindly and rat-like; there has been too much attention paid to the forearms and the anatomy of the leg on the main animal; and that whimsical little hunting scene in the background is just too fantastic.

The next image is a coloured engraving from a catalogue of the world’s peoples, dating from the early Nineteenth Century. This image purports to be of a family of Indians from the Arctic regions of North America, and I’m sure all such people of the time were this ruddily complected and European-looking!

The final image is taken from French wallpaper manufactured in 1805, showing a scene of a typical Hawaiian cultural activity. Hawaiian? It could be Ancient Greek; it could be a fancy dress ball imagined from a Jane Austen novel. The point is, accuracy has left the building. It's at these points during gameplay that the Keeper needs to remember to call for Art, Craft and Archaeology skill checks.
So, in the final analysis, modern recording techniques would seem to be the best. At first glance this would seem to be the case, but everything becomes less than perfect when the Mythos becomes involved. An extremely dangerous Mythos text can affect and distort any attempt to pin it down. Equipment may fail, batteries can drain of power, memory cards and flash drives wipe themselves clean. In the past, attempts to store some Mythos texts in electronic formats have caused server fires, de-gaussing of hard-drives and software corruption. It would seem that technology is no assurance of quality.
Investigators should be aware that any recording of an original Mythos source is going to be less than perfect. As with the recording of any Mythos material, each iteration, at every remove from the original source, becomes more error-ridden and fraught with danger. Keepers should construct the chains of their information with this thought in mind.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Review: Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico

Review: Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico

The Conquest of Mexico by William Hickling Prescott, illustrated by Keith Henderson, with an Introduction by T.A. Joyce
Chatto & Windus, London, 1922

Two quarto volumes; hardcover, with gilt decorative motifs on front boards and gilt lettering on spine; 965pp. [480pp. + 485pp.], untrimmed with wide margins, top edges gilt, many black & white illustrations; monochrome map of the Gulf of Mexico as pastedowns and endpapers. Boards rubbed and spines sunned and slightly soiled; upper board fore-edges show mild insect damage; light bumping to corners and shelfwear to spine heads and tails; previous owner's inscriptions in both volumes along with retailer's bookplate on front pastedowns; scattered spotting to prelims.; browned page edges; top edges dusted. Good to very good, else.

At the risk of proving myself to be a complete nutcase about ancient South American civilisations, I present as today’s review something that might just qualify as an actual Mythos tome. It’s gloriously quirky and beautiful to behold, so I just had to share!

Thanks to Spanish missionary efforts like those of Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatan, original documents pertaining to the indigenous cultures of South America were mostly destroyed before any analysis of their contents could be carried out. This meant that everything we know about these civilisations comes from the Spanish and Portuguese records of their conquests and occupation. In the past what scrolls were taken back to Europe were largely dismissed as nothing more than patterned textiles; it wasn’t until the early Nineteenth Century that they were identified as textual documents and the business of their translation was begun.

In the full flood of this investigation, William H. Prescott penned his two epic histories – The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru. These were necessarily compiled from Spanish and Portuguese textual sources but swiftly became a mainstay in studying these regions of the New World: in fact Col. Percy Fawcett swore by his work as part of the preparations for his doomed explorations in Brazil. Published in 1843, the work stood the test of time for a further 80 years before any serious questions as to its accuracy were voiced.

Prescott worked only through the documents which he had amassed in his home in England. He had no access to studies in Anthropology, Ethnology or Sociology as these disciplines were in the first stages of their establishment. On top of this he was also nearly blind. That he managed to exert his imagination and critical faculties to produce such a compelling narrative of the clash of cultures which the Conquest comprised, and to bring to life the characters of Cortes and Montezuma, is an incredible accomplishment.

Keith Henderson, the illustrator, made a personal commitment to attempt the illustration of Prescott’s work whilst pinned down by other duties during the Great War. Once freed of the conflict he spent hours in the British Museum with T.A. Joyce (head of the Department of Anthropological and Oriental studies and who wrote the Introduction), learning about the Aztec culture and honing his style for the purpose of illustrating the text. Much of the first section of Volume One is decorated with marginal line drawings taken from the Codices available to him at the ‘Museum and they help to ground the introductory back-story of the Conquest in an ‘ancient’ sensibility. In later sections, Henderson’s precise linework captures the bizarre confrontation of 16th Century Spanish armour and the garish battle costumes of the Aztecs. He becomes, as he states in his Introduction, a fly on the wall of these great events, and in depicting them, takes us along for the ride.

The coming years may see the inevitable decline in publishing productions as beautiful as this is. Until then, I’ll keep bringing them to your attention.
And of course, I give this the full five tentacled horrors!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Wacky Weaponry

The period between the Wars was an interesting time for firearms. Most English and German gun manufacturers were keen to claim the exclusive right to outfit the armies of their respective countries and the competition was very fierce. Many guns made at this time are still in use, since their construction is sturdy and their precision still comparable to firearms made later on. Many peculiar guns, such as the Nagant, displayed innovations whose benefits were marginal at best; however, they showed a willingness on the part of their inventors to explore the realms of possibility in design that stood independent of the economic concerns which restricted production later on.

I’m not an advocate of guns; I do not condone their use or free distribution throughout any society. Frankly, they cause more problems than they solve. So, kudos for Call of Cthulhu for making them practically worthless against the agents of the Mythos! Rather than being of any real use, the following list is a catalogue of character accessories more than anything else.
Apache Revolver, 1869

Fin-de-siecle Paris was a hotbed of political factionalism and notable amongst these voluble idealists were Les Apaches, an anarchist movement bent upon removing government from the citizens’ daily round. Not above throwing bombs through shop windows or vitriol into the faces of political figures, these fanatics invented some curiously ingenious weapons to combat the ‘Forces of Control’.
Chief among these is the ‘Apache Revolver’. This is a concealable gun with no barrel, so its use was limited to close-range attacks, ideal for assassinations. The grip of these pistols was usually formed from a set of knuckle-dusters, for fighting off assailants, and occasionally they even sported a folding knife, bayonet-fashion before the trigger. These guns were made in Belgium and subject to buffets and other rough handling; consequently, they malfunction quite often.
Since the gun has no trigger guard, users often made sure to empty the chamber under the hammer, to avoid shooting themselves if the gun went off unexpectedly. Unless players make this stipulation when wielding one of these weapons, have them make a Luck Roll to avoid discharging the gun if they fall, are tripped over, or become involved in some similar type of misadventure.
Base%: 20
Damage: 1D6
Range: 2m (6ft)
Shots/round: 1
Capacity: 6
HP: 4
Malfunction: 80%

Buntline Special, 1931

According to legend, Ned Buntline, a reporter in the wild territories of the Western Frontier in the US, created these weapons to thank Wyatt Earp and other western lawmen for adding ‘local colour’ to his writing. Sadly, the story is a complete fabrication, and the concept of the gun was invented by a biographer of Earp’s in his account of the gunman’s life. Still, word got out and the Colt company was pestered about the weapon until they relented and started manufacturing them. Thus, this wacky firearm came into being: it’s basically a standard single-action .45 “Long Colt” revolver with a barrel from 10- to 18-inches long. Some of these also have a detachable stock which can be screwed on to give better stability.
The theory was that the longer barrel made the bullet travel on a surer trajectory, meaning that accuracy would be improved; if so, the benefits were marginal. More likely, opponents would take one look at this berserk ‘hand-cannon’ and head for the hills in fear.
Base%: 30
Damage: 1D10+2
Range: 20m (60ft)
Shots/round: 1
Capacity: 6
HP: 10
Malfunction: 00%

Nagant, Belgium/Russia, 1895-1950

A solid-frame revolver that may be found in a single-action or double-action format, the latter being more common. An unusual weapon: as the hammer is cocked, the cylinder is pushed forward so that the mouth of the chamber engages around the rear of the barrel. This, together with an especially long cartridge with the bullet concealed inside the case, makes a gas-tight joint between cylinder and barrel. The gun was designed this way in an attempt to prevent a loss of power to the bullet through gas leakage from the chamber. The benefits from all this tinkering are, in fact, marginal at best.
However, since one never knows who, or what, may lurch out at one when one is at a chic function, having a gun that doesn’t leak cordite fumes and smoke onto one’s gloves is a blessing.
Base%: 20
Damage: 1D10
Range: 15m (45ft)
Shots/round: 1
Capacity: 7
HP: 11
Malfunction: 80%

Reform Pistole 1913, .25 semi-automatic cartridge pistol

Patented in 1906 by August Schuler of Suhl in Germany, this four-barrelled pocket pistol was designed for personal defense. Re-loading is time-consuming but many find the advantage of rapid shooting adequate compensation. Gas pressure auto-ejects the first three spent rounds and the specially-designed hammer shape ensures that the spent cases are deflected away from the shooter’s face.
This small-frame double-action semi-automatic was released for sale in 1913. Those encountering it for the first time must make a Mechanical Repair roll to understand its complexities, especially as the four-barrelled magazine must be completely removed in order for re-loading to occur
Base%: 20
Damage: 1D6
Range: 3m (9ft)
Shots/round: 2
Capacity: 4
HP: 5
Malfunction: 00%


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Review: Colonel Percy Fawcett

FAWCETT, Brian (Ed.), Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z, arranged from the manuscripts, letters, log-books and records of Col. Percy Fawcett, The Overlook Press/Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., New York, NY, USA, 2010

Trade octavo paperback, illustrated wrappers, 312pp., 16pp. of monochrome photographic plates, one photographic illustration, a map, and many line drawings by Brian Fawcett. As new.

I know that Pagan Publishing did a piece on Fawcett in The Unspeakable Oath, Number 16/17 (2001) and, to be honest that’s where I first heard about him. I read another book concerning him later (see below) and so, my interest already piqued, I fell upon this particular volume the moment I clapped eyes on it.
No offence to Brian Appleton and Co. at the ‘Oath, but the sidebar treatment they gave Colonel Fawcett was a bare scratching of the surface. If anyone needs a template or role-model for the archetypical Mythos investigator, look no further than this excellent tome. First published in 1953, Hemingway considered it inspirational reading and kept it handy; many other readers compare it favourably to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which is a completely reasonable accolade, although Fawcett’s observations are far darker and often more disturbing than anything found in Conrad’s book.
Brian Fawcett inherited his father’s papers and began reading them during the two-hour siesta that interrupted his working day as an engineer in South America. Over time, he collated them into the present volume and edited them together as a compelling narrative complete with footnote annotations to highlight various incidents and provide extra information. Pleasingly, the text is not always smoothly joined together, and topics jump between paragraphs here and there, however not in a way that interrupts the narrative too greatly; rather these shifts emphasise that the work is a compilation from several sources and underscore the admirable job that has been done in working the whole into a single entity.
The text covers Fawcett’s explorations into the Amazonian forests over the period 1907 to 1925, the year of his disappearance. His writings describe a lawless and totally inhospitable frontier territory ruled by rubber entrepreneurs who ruled their slave work-forces with whips and guns; he encounters wild animals and Indians with poison arrows; he is attacked by giant spiders, monstrous serpents and man-eating fish. Then there are hideous diseases. In fact, some of the diseases that he mentions, while trying vainly to aid the afflicted, are enough to give anyone nightmares: fungal lesions that cause faces to rot away; gastric worms that force the afflicted to swallow mouthfuls of earth; and that bugbear of Amazon travellers, the Candiru, a tiny barbed fish that lodges in the orifices of the human body and causes massive internal infections.
"I visited a Frenchman in the Riberalta jail who had murdered his employer in a fit of jealousy. While imprisoned he was fed by his woman, whom one day he seized and strangled, and he was condemned to death. He escaped and fled into Brazil, thanks to the judge who sold him a file!"
The focus of Fawcett’s travels in Brazil initially were the delimitation of the boundaries between Bolivia and Brazil, a task given to the disinterested Brits since their results would be impartial, and which would help ratify the rubber boom taking place there. Thereafter, Fawcett turns his attention to the legends of a massive lost city, remnant of an ancient, unrecorded civilisation and which was stumbled upon by gold seekers in the 1700s. H. Rider Haggard (no less!) gave Fawcett a strangely-conductive 10-inch tall basalt stone carving, supposedly taken from this lost capitol, and he took it to several psychometric readers to have it analysed: they told him sufficient to believe that he was on the trail of the survivors of lost Atlantis. If that doesn’t sound like the actions of a Mythos investigator, then I don’t know what does!
We’ll never know what he found at the “Lost City of Z” because in 1925, he and his eldest son vanished into the jungle, never to be heard of again. Some contend that natives beset them and did away with them; however, Fawcett always made sure to treat the indigenes of South America very well and had acquired a reputation for doing so. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding. Otherwise, they may have met with some terrible accident – a flash-flood, or the crumbling of a rock face. Or perhaps they discovered some hidden secret at the City, something that would not let them return to tell the tale? At the present time, no-one can say.
Five tentacled horrors.

Not that the mystery was allowed to rest there. Other adventurers determined to find out what happened to the Fawcetts and they set out to locate them.

Brazilian Adventure, Peter Fleming
The Reprint Society, Ltd. / Jonathan Cape, Ltd., London, 1940 (first published 1933)
Octavo; blue cloth with gilt-lettered, black morocco spine label; 376pp., photographic frontispiece, 2 maps and a monochrome diagram; top edge of the text block dyed black. Binding rolled, corners bumped and spine sunned; preliminaries embrowned and with some offsetting; edges toned. Lacks dustjacket. Else good.

Nowadays the title of this book makes it sound like the re-telling of an unfortunate proceeding at a beauty salon; however, we can move on past that barrier and once more immerse ourselves in the jungles, insect swarms and plague-infested wilderness of the Matto Grosso
In 1930, Peter Fleming answered an advertisement in the Times of London’s ‘Agony Column’, seeking for brave adventurers to engage on a voyage to Brazil, there to seek the truth about the disappearance of Col. Percy Fawcett. At that time a literary editor for The Spectator, Fleming was almost immediately hooked by the prospect and signed on.
Unlike, Fawcett’s narrative, which resounds with doom and grim determination in the face of adversity, Fleming’s tale is a completely different beast. Fleming is a product of his time; an almost Bertie Wooster-like character, self-deprecating, wryly amused and unwilling to take himself too seriously. Even through the most desperate straits of his travels there is a solid vein of dry humour colouring the re-telling, and this makes for vivid and very entertaining reading. As an indication of his puckish nature, he even imitates the classic photograph of Fawcett in the frontispiece of his own book, hands in pockets and complete with the classic pipe.
Fleming (younger brother of the far more self-important Ian Fleming and a far better writer) never did find out conclusively what happened to Fawcett, but after 3,000 miles and the discovery of a new river tributary of the Amazon, he pens a thrilling, amusing and highly entertaining narrative of his failed attempt full of interesting observations.
I give it three-and-a-half tentacled horrors