Monday, March 6, 2023

Genius Loci

I ran a session of Call of Cthulhu, something I'm not sure I've really done since I was in high school. What follows is a write up of "Genius Loci," one of the adventures included in the book Doors to Darkness. If you want plan on playing through the adventure, skip this recap! Spoilers ahead.

The Characters

Sirus Mean, former boxer and hobo

Leslie Cowell, antiques dealer

Hazel Murphy, flapper

Tony Tunacelli, wiseguy

The Events

The characters were all members of the Arkham Historical Society. Larry Croswell, one of their fellow Historical Society members and a noted author on the subject of New England folklore, had checked himself into the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum due to the mental strain that came with completing his latest book. Leslie received two letters from Larry. The first was a hand-written note in which Larry claimed he was in danger at the asylum and that there was something "wrong" with the institution. The letter ended with a plea for rescue, as he was not being allowed to leave even though he had checked himself in to the asylum.

The second letter was type-written and said that the first letter was written in the midst of an anxiety attack and was to be disregarded. Since the letter was signed "Lawrence," when Larry only ever goes by Larry, Leslie had reason to believe that it was a forgery. He brought the letter to his friends in the Historical Society, and as a group they decided to visit Danvers State Lunatic Asylum to check on Larry.

At first, Dr. Berger, the asylum's superintendent, did not want to let the group have an audience with Larry, as he said that Larry was currently in a state of violent agitation. However, he was persuaded to allow them to have a brief interview. The orderlies, large brutes armed with truncheons, led the group through the J Ward. Moving through J Ward was like descending into hell: the smell of urine and feces failed to be masked by chemical disinfectant, they were greeted with a cacophony of screams and sobbing, and the inmates all appeared to bear hideous scars or were missing fingers, hands, and other limbs. Even the orderlies were hiding raised puckers of scarred flesh underneath their uniforms. They remembered that the receptionist at the front desk was missing part of her ear.

Larry was as yet unmarred by his time in J Ward. Larry was insistent that something was deeply wrong in the asylum; he had been moved to J Ward, where the most dangerous inmates were kept, only after expressing a desire to leave. He also noted that the inmates were afraid of the staff, especially Dr. Berger. They pledged to get Larry out of the asylum, one way or another. On the way out of asylum, each member of the group tried to shoulder-check the orderlies to send a message that they would not be daunted; however, each of them was shoved by an invisible force--they would swear that it wasn't the orderlies who had pushed them.

The group then split up to research the situation, pursuing disparate avenues such as local newspapers, libraries, historical societies, and a call to a lawyer. Here's some of what they discovered:

  • The Danvers State Lunatic Asylum had been built on Hathorne Hill where the home of Judge John Hathorne, one of the judges in the infamous Salem witch trials, had built his home.
  • The asylum had been plagued with a bad reputation since its construction, and was noted to have low rates of recovery for its patients and higher than average incidents of fatal accidents.
  • The asylum's reputation improved when Dr. Shine became its superintendent. Dr. Shine was a world traveler, and it was reported that he had a strange granite disk featuring an artistic symbol placed on the grounds near the asylum's reservoir. 
  • The asylum's reputation took a downturn when Dr. Berger, Dr. Shine's successor, assumed control of the institution. Dr. Berger had the disk destroyed when he built an amphitheater build by the reservoir.

That night, during a raging rainstorm, the group decided to do a little night reconnaissance by the asylum's reservoir since it had come up multiple times in their research. Hazel spotted a strange puddle on the grounds; instead of water, it seemed to be filled with a blue-gray fluid. Hazel thought she spied something emerge from the puddle and scurry away, but the creature could not be found. Trying to plumb the puddle's depths revealed that it appeared to be bottomless.

The pieces of Dr. Shine's granite disk were unfortunately not to be found; they group hoped that replacing it might "cure" the asylum of whatever ailed it. While he was exploring the grounds, Sirus was jumped by an escaped madman who held a knife to his throat. The man introduced himself as Andrew MacBride; he said that he had been let loose on purpose and that Dr. Berger wanted him to kill the interlopers. MacBride let Sirus go, but Sirus promptly punched him in the face--but got a nasty cut on the arm for his troubles.

The rest of the group heard the scuffle and ran to help. Tony kept MacBride at bay with a pistol. The maniac claimed that something otherworldly lived in the asylum and its grounds: "a power that lives in the walls and the halls and the gardens." He also said that Dr. Berger planned to sacrifice Larry to the entity on the night of the new moon, which was only a few days away. At this point, the group could feel pressure building, like some sort of sentient atmospheric event was about to occur. As it reached its apex, they could see streaks of red energy in the night sky coalescing around them. The force brought a few of the investigators to their knees.

And then, Andrew MacBride's head exploded.

The group beat a hasty retreat after that.

Their sanity a bit worse for wear after their little adventure, the group hatched a violent plan. Posing as a lawyer, Leslie phoned Dr. Berger and made plans to meet with him off the asylum's grounds. (Dr. Berger agreed, though he pointedly let slip that he knew exactly who he was actually talking to.) The group ambushed Dr. Berger on a lonely country road, boxing him in with their cars. Dr. Berger insisted that even if they killed him, "the process" would continue as usual. A brief gun battle took place, and Dr. Berger was left in a shallow grave.

Time was now of the essence, so the group made plans to rescue Larry from the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum under the cover of night. Their plan involved arming themselves with tommy guns and dynamite via Tony's underworld connections. Picking a lock to avoid the asylum's main door, the group found the interior of the institution eerily silent...until they breached J Ward, where they found orderlies and unrestrained inmates fighting each other and cannibalistically feasting on the flesh of the fallen.

The group bravely fought their way to Larry's cell, with Hazel attempting to play gun moll and failing cataclysmically. Larry was cowering unharmed in his cell, so they grabbed him and fought their way past lunatics and murderers. At one point, dynamite was used to clear the way of madmen. 

As they piled into their cars, the group could feel the familiar pressure building once more.

About to thank the group for his rescue, Larry's head promptly exploded in a mist of red gore that splattered all those riding with him.

It was at this point that all of the investigators' sanity broke. Peddle to the metal, they roared out of town, leaving Danvers and its damned asylum behind them. Only when their gas ran out would they be able to regroup and begin to process what they had just been through.