The Curse of the Bog-Fiend

Hey everyone!

I’m keeping the Halloween spirit going all this week, today with some short fiction! Remember the board game A Touch of Evil, and the excellent expansion, Something Wicked? Well, this was a session report I wrote up following a game with Inspector Cooke vs the Bog-Fiend a while ago, and thought it’d be an idea to share it with you guys this week. So sit back, and enjoy!

Something was wrong in Shadowbrook. Anybody who spent any amount of time in the town couldn’t shy away from that fact. However, nobody could say precisely what it was. I suppose that’s why they called me to the town. As a police inspector, I pride myself on my intelligence and my cunning – if anyone could get to the bottom of what was happening in Shadowbrook, I like to think it would be me…

It was raining when I arrived. The town, nestled in the dip of a shallow valley, had a slight haze surrounding it. My arrival caused no little surprise among the locals, but when they realised who I was and where I came from, I like to think I detected a slightly more positive shift in their attitude. I made at once to the manor house of Lord Hanbrook, with whom I had had some past dealings, and was apprised of the situation fairly quickly by a meeting of the town elders.

For weeks now, the countryside around Shadowbrook had been sinking. I admit, I was at first slightly nonplussed by this fact. However, where once was firm ground, good roads, and arable pasture, there was now fetid swamp. Hanbrook called me in when a local lad named Jack had disappeared, only to turn up one Sunday morning dead, having drowned in one of these newly-appeared swamps.

The locals were understandably afeared. Hanbrook appeared more concerned that he was losing the use of his land for rents, but the locals had different ideas. Age-old legends about bog-fiends began to surface, the stuff told to youngsters to make them more obedient, though this time repeated as fact. Well, I was unperturbed, and set off in my investigation.

I was staying at Hanbrooks manor, where one night I discovered a secret passage that led, it seemed, into the bowels of the earth. I followed the tunnel for what seemed like an age, and was utterly baffled – yes, I! – when I emerged at the monastery I had passed by on my way in to the town. The monastery, it turned out, was well-equipped with all manner of tomes and scriptures on the locality, and my perusal of the library there turned out to be quite fruitful.

I determined to return overland to Shadowbrook to converse more thoroughly with the locals, but a chance encounter at a wayside inn that evening turned me from this course. I was given a battered old book by a hooded stranger, who insisted I take it “for when the time comes”, before he left. That night, I studied the ancient text – which called itself the Book of Death – and determined to return to the monastery the following morning, having developed a strange inkling that there was more going on there than I had first thought.

The following morning dawned bright and crisp, and I walked up to the gate expecting to be met by one of the friars, yet no sooner had I arrived at the outer walls than the bells began to toll ominously. The monks began to scurry off in different directions, like ants under attack, and I had a prickly feeling as if something were not right here. Turning my gaze about the place, I kept being drawn to the mist-shrouded island across the lake – Echo Lake, I believe the locals call it. However, when I turned back to the monastery, I found myself set upon my hooded, masked individuals!

Two of these men – for men I assumed them to be – came at me with knives, while the others seemed to be whispering in some unknown language. My time in Shadowbrook had been strange up to that point, but now it had turned absolutely deadly! I searched my person for anything to use as a weapon, and fortunately came upon a crossbow I had purchased some time ago. I managed to loose a bolt at the nearest of the fiends, and  – just like that! – the other devils vanished.

Squaring my shoulders, I marched up to the great West Door of the monastery and, seeing it open, slipped inside. Something at the back of my mind was telling me that the monastery lay near the heart of my investigation, and I determined to root out the cause of it. While wandering the echoing cloisters, however, I found myself attacked once more, this time by a short, stocky figure in a cowl. I had at first thought it one of the monks, but when that cowl fell back, I was shown the error of my judgement. The face that stared back at me was a cruel one, pallid and evil, with incised markings on the forehead and cheeks in the shape of a “x”. Luckily, my crossbow made short work of him, and with one bolt in the stomach, he fled back into the dusty catacombs from whence he came.

It was following this attack, however, that I felt the compelling need to return to Shadowbrook. Not a moment did I waste as I once again took to the road. As I drew nearer to the town, it seemed that my adversary had not been lax in his work. Vast swathes of the countryside had begun to simply sink; there was no other way to describe it. That haze of rain once more engulfed the town, but it was in no way enough to have brought about this much widespread flooding. However, my greatest shock was reserved for when I reached the crossroads just outside of the town.

Standing on that slightly raised bluff overlooking the town, it was as if Shadowbrook had been flooded. The town square was completely submerged, but not with rain water, or from the nearby river having burst its banks. This was a murky, green-tinged swamp, wreathed with clouds of buzzing mosquitoes. Not one townsperson was to be found, and I rather felt then that I had failed to save them all. However, as I stood gazing down on the land, a lone rider emerged through the mist – Lord Hanbrook himself.

The townspeople had fled when the swamp water began to rise out of the ground in the night, and were now temporarily housed on his estate. He bade me come with him to the crumbling ruin of a pre-war keep, where, he believed, the foul demon had made his lair. As we approached, it became increasingly obvious that something had happened close-by, for there was barely any solid ground to stand on. When we came upon the keep, however, the sight before us was one of foul horror.

A hunched figure, with a vague look of a man about him, sat in the dark recesses of the crumbling keep, gibbering to himself in a tongue not unlike the creatures that had attacked me in the monastery. It was completely naked, its skin a mottled blue-green, scaly in parts and weeping a slick, greasy ooze. When we drew nearer, its head came up quickly, revealing a scaled face with bony protrusions extending from either side, almost like a crown. It spat something evil-sounding, hissing and cursing in that unknowable tongue.

Hanbrook wasted no time in attacking the monster, and after my momentary horror, I too joined in the fray. The foul creature appeared to turn away our blows without so much as a gasp of pain, and it looked like we would not prevail. However, Hanbrook managed to subdue the beast long enough for me to get a shot with my crossbow right in the demon’s face, which elicited a disgusting wail. To my utter shock, the fiend’s final act on this earth was to rake its ghastly claws across the throat of Lord Hanbrook, causing my friend’s life to bleed out as did the foul beast’s own.

Whatever spell the bog fiend had placed upon the town of Shadowbrook was evidently broken with its passing. I returned to the town, with Hanbrook’s body carried by his faithful mount, to discover the swamp had disappeared, and the townsfolk returning to their homes and their lives. I charged Hanbrook’s corpse to the care of the doctor, and without a second look, left the town of Shadowbrook behind, hopefully forever…

There’s something lurking…

It’s Tuesday, so that means it’s game day here at spalanz! Today I’m going to do a small blog on a game expansion, largely because I have an exam tomorrow and need to keep the little grey cells ticking over on that. So following on from Arkham Horror last week, I’m going to take a look at ome of the smaller expansions, The Lurker at the Threshold!

The Lurker at the Threshold

Chronologically  the penultimate expansion for the game (not counting revised editions), the Lurker was the final small box released. Each of those expansions is closely associated with a particular Ancient One from the base game, and Lurker is aligned with Yog Sothoth, a being who transcends time and space. Within the mythos, the Lurker at the Threshold is an avatar of the Ancient One, and the “collaboration” between Lovecraft and August Derleth explores this.

…great globes of light massing toward the opening, and not alone these, but the breaking apart of the nearest globes, and the protoplasmic flesh that flowed blackly outward to join together and form that eldritch, hideous horror from outer space, that spawn of the blankness of primal time, that tentacled amorphous monster which was the lurker at the threshold, whose mask was as a congeries of iridescent globes, the noxious Yog-Sothoth, who froths as primal slime in nuclear chaos beyond the nethermost outposts of space and time!

Anyway.

The expansion includes all-new cards for the base game. In addition to new spells and items, there are also several new decks. Firstly, there is a Relationship deck, which provides a relationship between you and the player to your left. These often provide bonuses or other special effects to emphasize the cooperative nature of the game. The other decks all interact with The Lurker himself, a new Herald that follows on from those first introduced in Dunwich Horror.

The Lurker at the Threshold

The Lurker appears to be something of a benevolent force, providing help to the investigators almost as if he were a Guardian. However, it is help that comes at a price. If the investigator accepts the aid of the Lurker, he must then take a Dark Pact card (seen below the Ancient One sheet in the above picture); of themselves, these Pacts also seem to be quite helpful, offering you the alternative of accepting power tokens over losses to sanity, or indeed to spend in the place of clue tokens. Unfortunately, the other deck associated with the Lurker is not so welcome. The Reckoning deck (the cards to the right of the Ancient One sheet above) comes into play whenever a gate opens. Reckoning cards function with varying degrees of hindrance to the investigators – from causing you to move to an Other World, to forcing the discard of clue tokens or the loss of sanity or stamina, based on how much power you have amassed.

Another new component in this expansion is the new gate stack. Unlike in the base game, where the gates open to a single Other World on a specific location, the gates in Lurker at the Threshold have been “modified” so that all sorts of craziness goes on, from gates to multiple Other Worlds:

The Lurker at the Threshold

to gates that actually move around the board:

The Lurker at the Threshold

It’s very fitting, and ties nicely into the special abilities of Yog Sothoth from the base game, with whom I would only ever play this expansion.

I would say that this is my joint-second favourite of all the Arkham expansions, alongside The Black Goat of the Woods and second only to The Dunwich Horror. Playing with the Herald (and, quite honestly, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t) adds in so much variety, the gamble of accepting the Lurker’s help can make for some really awesome role-playing-esque moments! Indeed, it was during a game with this expansion that I first tried my hand at writing some weird fiction! For your general amusement, I present: There was something lurking on the threshold…

Harvey Walters knew there was something lurking on the threshold of time and space, though his research at Miskatonic University had failed to uncover any real clues. How could he know it was Yog-Sothoth, waiting to devour the town of Arkham? Making a deal with renowned gangster, Michael McGlen, he determined to conquer the other worlds and find the clues necessary to piece together some form of defense for this town.

The two men split up early in their quest, Harvey heading downtown while Michael focused his search on the Uptown area. By a strange twist of the mythos surrounding Arkham, both men found themselves switching places, and gates to other dimensions and worlds began to blossom like the petals of a rose. The hunt was on!

Michael, perhaps less accustomed to the perils he was facing than his more academic partner, began to show the signs of strain at first. After an encounter with an Elder Thing, he began to suffer from Panic, but strove on in his quest, despite Hearing Voices at almost every turn. He roamed through Southside, meeting Professor Armitage at the Historical Society who offered to accompany him. Perhaps it was the companionship of another of these academic types that bolstered his spirits enough to investigate Rivertown. After a near-disastrous adventure through The City of the Great Race, he decided to remain where he was, shielded by the “safety” of the Black Cave he had found. Oh, how wrong he was. While roaming the twisting, winding passageways, he found a friend in the hulking figure of Tom “Mountain” Murphy, but the trio were soon to know peril like no other…

Harvey Walters, disturbed by the rising level of terror in the town, was furiously gathering clues from every corner, and using his eldritch wisdom to seal gates once he had explored them. His years at the University had taught him a thing or two about spell-casting, and his facility with the Sigil of Hermes Trismegistus gave him an edge in his battle with the occult powers swirling through the town. His exploits had earned him enough renown that, stopping through Ma’s Boarding House, he earned the help of his fellow academic Oliver Grayson, who offered to lend his own knowledge of the occult in the quest against the Great Old One. 

Alas, terrible news soon reached the pair of professors. 

Michael, while remaining with his allies at the Black Cave, had twice been sucked through portals to other dimensions, and yet both times had managed to see himself returned safely to Arkham. However, it was on his way back from the Plateau of Leng that catastrophe struck. By a cruel twist of fate, his luck ran dry and the gangster was lost in time and space – the very realm of Yog-Sothoth. The worst was presumed, Michael had perished in his attempt to return one final time to this world, and it can only be assumed that his companions also perished in the void. 

Harvey and Oliver were on their own.

It was now that Harvey began to give in to temptation. His eldritch knowledge had made him aware of a presence, a Lurker on the Threshold of time and space, that could perhaps help him as he made a final push to liberate the town of Arkham from the pall of the Great Old One. With a copy of the King James Bible for some measure of comfort, if not protection, Harvey entered into a Soul Pact with the Lurker. After a fight with a dreaded Cultist, during which he contracted a Blood Disease, Harvey further gave in to the Lurker’s promise of power by making a Blood Pact with the fiend. Whether he shared this with Professor Grayson or not is unclear. 

The two professors now made a last-ditch attempt to seal the gate to the Plateau of Leng, perhaps doing so in memory of their fallen comrades. Harvey immediately used his arcane gifts to Find the Gate back to Arkham, and with all of his knowledge combined from the clues he had amassed against the coming of Yog-Sothoth, managed to seal the sixth gate through to the other world. 

Nobody rejoiced in Arkham that night. Nobody would ever know that they had come within terrifying moments of being plunged into the horrifying abyss. 

When Harvey Walters eventually regained his consciousness the following morning, he was still clutching to his battered copy of the King James Bible…

goo

The Lurker at the Threshold

Buy it from amazon:
The Lurker at the Threshold

Bigger’n a barn!

After taking a look at the classic Lovecraftian tale Call of Cthulhu last week, I thought it’d be good to write up another blog on perhaps my all-time favourite story from Lovecraft that I have read so far, The Dunwich Horror.

imag0142

Another story that I first read in the summer of 2012, while Call of Cthulhu was a little surprising to me in being so disjointed and just not what I had been expecting at all, Dunwich Horror was a much more conventional story to me, I found myself instantly enjoying it for what it was.

The story involves the strange goings-on with the Whateley family of Dunwich, a small town in the upper Miskatonic valley. Not too long ago, Lavinia Whateley gave birth to the hideously malformed Wilbur, who has grown to adulthood in a shockingly short space of time. The Whateleys have been continually modifying and enlarging their farmhouse, and the mysterious Old Man Whateley has been buying increasingly large numbers of cattle, though his herd has not visibly increased in size as a result. Then Wilbur’s grandfather vanishes, followed not long after by his mother, and still the cattle keep disappearing…

Wilbur ventures to Miskatonic University to consult their copy of the Necronomicon, but the librarian Dr Henry Armitage refuses him permission, and also sends word to his colleagues to similar effect. Wilbur breaks into the library at night, but is mauled to death by a guard dog. Armitage and his colleagues Professors Rice and Morgan catch a glimpse of his goat-hoofed body before it melts into thin air before them. With Wilbur dead, the strange invisible entity in the Whateley farmhouse runs amok across Dunwich, leaving devastation in its wake. The three professors arrive on the scene with the necessary magical paraphernalia to combat the beast, and manage to render it visible just before they destroy it, with the realisation that it was in fact Wilbur’s brother…

The story is one of tremendous suspense as the nature of the beast is gradually revealed to us – though even in the end, we don’t really know for sure what it was the professors disposed of. The description is certainly what we’ve come to expect of something along the lines of Yog Sothoth in the years of RPGs and board games, of course – all tentacles and eyes and gelatinous form:

“Bigger’n a barn… all made o’ squirmin’ ropes… hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step… nothin’ solid abaout it – all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together… great bulgin’ eyes all over it… ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’… all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd in heaven – that haff face on top!…”

(I think it’s important to point out here that Lovecraft often employs dialects in his writing, and the above extract is intended to connote the sort of grungy local rather than the entire story being told in that manner!)

I mentioned in my Call of Cthulhu blog how much better an introduction to Lovecraft’s work this story would be, and I definitely stand by that here. It’s a more conventional story, for sure, but it gives you a better idea of the way Lovecraft writes, for instance his academic types as heroes, his wonderful word-painting when it comes to describing these otherworldly monsters.

The Dunwich Horror is definitely my favourite of Lovecraft’s stories that I’ve read so far, though I do admittedly have a lot of them that I’ve not yet read! But it’s highly worth getting a copy – the Penguin Modern Classics edition has also got a few other worthy mentions, including the delightfully creepy Thing on the Doorstep! Well worth a read!

Answer the Call!

I’m taking a break from my Star Wars reading schedule to talk about another branch of fiction that has held me in its sway, albeit only recently – weird fiction. The names of Lovecraft and Cthulhu are of course well-known in pop culture, and even beyond, but I only seriously decided to investigate what all the fuss was about in 2012. As it happens, I bought the first volume of Lovecraft tales and left it on a shelf for five months before actually looking to see what it was all about.

Call of Cthulhu

The first story I read was, naturally, The Call of Cthulhu itself. And I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I suppose I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that. Lovecraft has a wonderfully gothic, verbose manner that I really enjoyed from the off – lots of high-flung prose overflowing with adjectives and similes like nothing I’ve ever read before. While there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism to his works, such things must be looked at in context, and while this is not intended to excuse, I find it difficult to understand people who dismiss him now for writing what was accepted at the time. It’s the age-old thing of judging the past by the present.

However, what I found most unsatisfying with the tale was its presentation, I suppose. The story is basically one of the narrator’s investigation into the cult of Cthulhu, prompted following his discovery of some papers in the possession of his late uncle. As such, it jumps around a bit, from describing events in 1925, to events in 1908, then back to 1925. Essentially, the tale is one long report, because nothing really happens within the story itself – the narrator describes what he read among his uncle’s papers, which leads him on to describing a police raid some years previously, which leads him back to describing a diary he then read. While these events range from the bizarre to the terrifying, there is very little dynamism because we’re seeing them all through the narrator’s filter – and the narrator is clearly in no danger because the events did not feature him.

All in all, I was a little put-out. In particular, I failed to see how this tale could have proven to be the seminal work of gothic horror and weird fiction that it appears to have become, much less spawn an entire “Cthulhu mythos” around it.

That was all back in 2012.

Over the past two years I have, in fits and starts, returned to Lovecraft’s fiction, reading other tales from the three-volume Penguin series. In this time, I have come to gain a fantastic appreciation for Lovecraft as a writer, and also to completely re-evaluate my thoughts on this tale, which I read again this morning.

There are a couple of points which I think need to be understood about Lovecraft, in order for you to really appreciate his stories for the classics that they are. Aside from the fact that gothic horror, I would contend, is not meant to be ‘scary’ in the sense we have come to appreciate the word nowadays, a lot of Lovecraft’s work is first and foremost cosmic horror. He isn’t reliant on supernatural evil such as vampires and werewolves, but instead on the terror of the impossible made manifest, and the threat more to his protagonists’ sanity than to their actual physical well-being. Indeed, there aren’t a great many physical injuries described in the stories I have read thus far. Rather, it is the threat of insanity that is the biggest terror in his work. That, coupled with the fact that his protagonists are usually scholarly, professor-type characters, who are no doubt even more afraid to lose their grip on their mind, all adds to the creepiness.

We have become so much of a visual-based society in recent years that the power of words in the imagination seems to have lost its ability to work as effectively, I feel. Take, for instance, this first description of the god Cthulhu:

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. […] A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

Is that better at conveying the horror of the story than, say, this:

View this post on Instagram

#cthulhu

A post shared by Mark (@marrrkusss) on

Or this:

cthulhu_rising_by_somniturne1

Personally, I much prefer the written word. While it’s true that Cthulhu is a tentacle-faced demon god as per Lovecraft’s description, there are sufficient blanks in there to allow us to really creep ourselves out thinking about it. Particularly the eyes. But when we see it, it becomes a case of, “Oh, that’s freaky” and we move on. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Lovecraft’s stories that seems to centre on this fact: his stories lead up to a ‘big reveal’ that invariably isn’t fully described because of the horror that the protagonist is experiencing (so far, all of the stories I have read have been first-person narrations), which leads reviewers to feel cheated. To me, this misses the point. Lovecraft’s work allows us to exercise our imaginations in ways that horror nowadays doesn’t require. He gives us just enough that we are left with a sense of deep unease. But anyway.

The story is also one of suspense. Split into three ‘chapters’, the first deals with the narrator’s description of an earthquake, following which an outbreak of group mania occurred within the international artistic community, alongside unrest among what are clearly meant to be more primitive areas of the world. One artist somehow sculpted a bas-relief in his sleep of Cthulhu, and its appearance is strikingly similar to an idol recovered on a raid of a voodoo cult in the Deep South some years earlier. A cult is described as worshipping the Great Old Ones, who are said to lie dreaming, waiting for the stars to align before they return to conquer the earth in a fiery apocalypse. During the period of mania, it transpires that a boat was caught in a storm off New Zealand, and only one person survived. The sailor professed to not recall what happened during the maelstrom, but the fact that he came through it clutching at a similar idol spurs the narrator to find his diary, which describes the boat coming upon an uncharted island of weird geometrical proportions. Unwittingly, the sailors awaken Cthulhu, who chases the ship but is driven off by the one surviving sailor. His heroics unhinge his mind, and he mysteriously dies when he returns home. The narrator, convinced that what he has learnt of the cult of Cthulhu means he too is not long for this world, locks away what he has discovered in a box, hoping that, when he too is inevitably disposed of, his research will remain hidden.

The suspense that is built up from the description of the bas-relief and the inexplicable collective madness, through the voodoo cult ceremony in Louisiana, and culminating in the description of the discovery of R’lyeh and the awakening of Cthulhu himself is quite masterful. I’m only sorry that it took me two years to realise that! But as I said, I feel that it is a greater knowledge of Lovecraft’s work that has enabled me to appreciate this tale more for what it is. To that extent, I would probably not recommend this tale as an introduction to his work – either The Dunwich Horror or The Shadow over Innsmouth are much better in this regard, being more classically-proportioned horror stories. You also need to be prepared for the previously-mentioned prose – take the description of R’lyeh, for instance:

Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered slipperily up over titan oozy blocks which could have been no mortal staircase. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.

It is wonderful, I have to say! As another blogger puts it, the words flow ‘with a life of their own’, and the result is an imagery that really does leap off the page.

The biggest horror, for me at least, is not in the half-described Shoggoths or other weird creatures that torment Lovecraft’s characters, but in the Ancient Ones themselves, and the fact that they just don’t care about humanity. While later writers would attempt to create a pantheon out of Lovecraft’s gods, for Lovecraft himself, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth have no interest in humanity. They will bring about the end of the world not because they’re evil, simply because they will. And often, there is little that can be done to stop them. In Call of Cthulhu, the Norwegian sailor manages to drive Cthulhu off while he escapes, and the subsequent storm once more pulls R’lyeh to the bottom of the ocean, but Cthulhu hasn’t been defeated – as the narrator himself tells us at the end of the tale:

Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cries of men.

Since Call of Cthulhu was published in 1928, there have been all sorts of tales published within the so-called Cthulhu mythos. While Lovecraft himself is reputed to have preferred the term “Yog-Sothothery” for his work, the label has stuck, and even today weird fiction is being produced that adds to the mythos. For me, my love of boardgames has brought me to such awesome incarnations as Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Call of Cthulhu LCG, Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, and it is a familiarity with the tales behind these games that makes them all the more enjoyable. It seems Lovecraft’s fiction has successfully permeated most aspects of pop-culture, frequently gaming, though he has never transcribed well to film. Perhaps because most of Lovecraft’s brilliance lies in the way he has crafted his stories through words?

Cthulhu

 

(All extracts are from the Penguin Modern Classics edition, 1999, ed. ST Joshi)