Monday, June 29, 2015

Actual Play: Daughters of the Eel (part 1)

After their rescue from the horrible lighthouse of Doctor Reichmann by a somewhat less-than-above-board crew of sailors, Kahl and Herman found themselves at the town of Blighter's Manse. Blighter's Manse, a port town known for being a haven for maritime criminals, provides ample opportunities to make quick coin for two stranded adventurers. Following the word on the street, the two sought a little temporary employment with Gentleman Jim, a tavern owner with his hand in the local midnight economy.

The Rended Ewe, Gentleman Jim's establishment, turned out to be a rough waterfront tavern. The pair were ushered upstairs to Jim's office where they found a lanky, nervous man attempting to wear his mismatched clothes in what passes for style in a pirate-infested town. It seems they had come to Jim at just the right moment; he was in need of a couple discreet souls to row out to one of the prison hulks anchored offshore and retrieve an item that had been stashed among the convicts--a place no one would think to look for an object of value (1). Besides, Gentleman Jim explained, it is customary for ne'er-do-wells new to Blighter's Manse to run an errand for the established brokers just to show that they're mindful of how things are run in the town.

The item in question was a leather case that holds multicolored glass lenses (2). They were given a letter of mark to explain the situation to the prison hulk's warden. Should be an easy job: go out to the prison hulk, meet with the prison's warden, get the lenses, row back, put the lenses into Jim's hand. Twenty-five pieces of gold now, twenty-five more upon their return. An easy night's work, eh?

Jim arranged a boat for them, which was to be rowed by a man named Petrus. Petrus was an old dog of the sea--scrawny and on his last legs, but born to the oars. He said little as he rowed the duo out to the prison hulk, and seemed to ignore Kahl's proselytizing and religious hectoring. The few words Petrus had to trade were about Vanessa, a powerful woman who called the shots on behalf of Blighter's Manse's burgomaster. They were warned that she is not someone you want to cross.

As they approached the ship they saw that in a former life it has been a third-rate ship of some naval force, but was currently in a state of ill repair. Each of the ship's three masts had been sawed off, rendering it unseaworthy. Furthermore, each of the gun ports were empty of cannon; the shutter of each port had been replaced with stout iron bars--presumably to keep the prisoners within. The name in faded paint upon the prow read "The Harrow" (3).

Petrus tied the rowboat to the weighted rope ladder slung over the side of the ship's main deck and vowed to remain below while Herman and Kahl went to retrieve the object of their errand. Once aboard the ship, they headed aft, climbing the stairs to the sterncastle deck where they discovered a room that had formerly been the navigation room. Now empty of sextons and charts--with only a few torn and useless maps remaining on the table--the room seemed to be a dead end and the ship was beginning to appear to be not as inhabited as perhaps it should be.

As they left the navigation room in search of the warden and the mysterious lenses, they caught sight of movement across the room's windows--bone-white limbs, scurrying across the ship's hull.

Kahl and Herman weren't alone on the ship after all.



Friday, June 26, 2015

The Art of Ignacio Fernandez Rios

All of Ignacio Fernandez Rios's art is interesting, but I want to focus on this particular set of images I discovered while working on Wunderspire.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Historical Horror Trash

I've already covered my love of Penny Dreadful in a previous installment of All Weal Little Woe, but what do you watch in those moments where you want something less high-minded and less literary? Something a bit tawdry, a bit trashy--something that exists as bloody-minded soap-opera spectacle? 

Well, my friends, we live in a glorious moment of historical horror trash television. Might I suggest you check out:




Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Sphinx Without a Secret

He took from his pocket a little silver-clasped morocco case, and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside there was the photograph of a woman. She was tall and slight, and strangely picturesque with her large vague eyes and loosened hair. She looked like a clairvoyante, and was wrapped in rich furs.

'What do you think of that face?' he said; 'is it truthful?'

- Oscar Wilde, "The Sphinx Without a Secret"

* * *

A number of unusual creatures inhabit the fashionable Windward Towers district in Scarabae, but none are more talked about than Lady Lawlyn, the sphinx aristocrat and heiress who resides in a lush flat on Warduke Street.''

Lady Lawlyn poses riddles to those who have the good fortune to find her "at home" during calling hours. Those who solve her riddle can ask her for a favor (such as an invitation to an exclusive dinner party) or a choice bit of gossip. Those who fail to solve her riddle are not eaten, as was done in the old days; rather, they are deemed to be un-persons and ignored forevermore. "You are cut from society henceforth! I say good day, sir."

(First in a series on sphinxes. Thanks to Tenebrous Kate for inspiring this one.)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Reigning Cats and Dogs

Over the years I've met more than my fair share of writers that I admire, but meeting Tanith Lee in 2004 was an absolute treat. I was living in London at the time, and had the opportunity to go to a signing event for the newly reissued Mammoth Book of Vampires. The way it worked was you shuffled down the line of authors, each one signing your copy of the book and chatting a bit. When I got to Tanith Lee, she looked at me and said "You must be one of my fans." I'm not sure what gave it away; maybe it was the fact that I was wearing black velvet, maybe it was the way I obviously held her in awe.

Tanith Lee was literally two-fisting glasses of white wine and cracking bawdy jokes all evening. She was incredible.

Her writings are also incredible. Admittedly, they aren't to everyone's taste. Her fantasy and science fiction work are dream-like, not gritty or cast in the mold of epic sagas. Her characters are chimerical; I've always wondered if Ovid's Metamorphosis was a formative influence on her, as the transformation of physical and spiritual forms is a leitmotif running throughout her work. Her prose is rarely spare; it runs toward purple, but never breathlessly so. She is unafraid to write of eroticism in place of base sex or gratuitous sexual violence; she was more of a symbolist than an escapist, I think. She's certainly more Gothic than populist.

Tanith Lee's fictional worlds have been a huge influence on my own writings. You could hand me any of my Gothic, fantasy, or horror efforts and I could point out something that has her inimitable brand upon it. (Look at the World Between's nation of Scarabrae, then go read Lee's Dark Dance, for example.)

Since she recently passed away, I had it in mind to read another of her books. I have a large cache of her books that I've collected over the years; whenever I see a novel or collection by her in a used bookshop, I buy it. I haven't read the majority of what I have, but I treat them each as a singular bottle of vintage to be opened and enjoyed when the time is right. 

The one I reached for last week was Reigning Cats and Dogs. According to the bookmark I found tucked away in my copy, I picked this up in a shop in Whitby. I had heard that this was her "steampunk" novel, even though it was written before "steampunk" was a set of generic expectations. I should have known better: I went in expecting the usual light-hearted Victorian-with-contraptions jaunt. I was in for something entirely different, and far more rewarding.

There are what we might think of as steampunk tropes throughout: there are steam-powered conveyances, an alternate take on nineteenth-century history, and a few characters that seemed cribbed from the pages of Dickens. The ideas and symbolism in Reigning Cats and Dogs are rich; the secret society who commit murder to protect the larger populace was especially fascinating. But Lee's world-building results in a stranger fictive fabric woven from strands of the Victorian fascination with Egyptology, the dynamics of gender and sexual difference, and questions posed by modernity. (The ever-present and ominous advertising in her world is nearly as threatening as the unleashed violence stemming from one of the protagonists.) 

Reigning Cats and Dogs is surprisingly dark. Don't let the easy pastels and quaint Victorian garb depicted on the book's cover deceive you. The early portions of the novel establish a London-like City that is rife with prostitution, sexual abuse, poverty, and crime. Reinventing the Ripper's crimes in Whitechapel as a supernatural killer at work in Black Church, Lee dwells on how our past traumas inform the horrors of the present. The end is mystical, inward, and requires some work on the reader's part. 

If you find a copy, dusty perhaps on some second-hand bookseller's shelf, make an effort to get it to come home with you.

If you haven't read anything by Tanith Lee, you could always start with her award-winning story "The Gorgon," which can be read here for free.