Weird Fiction Part 5

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Here’s the next piece of my story cycle. June has been exceedingly busy, and July will be a test of my sanity. I just started grad school, I have to finish a Pathfinder project by the end of the summer, and there’s still a wedding to help plan. Not a lot of time for pleasure writing, but, it’s still pleasurable, so who knows.

Entry the fifth, the 12th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

Here we are. Obviously I survived, in some form or another. Obviously I am now back at Swantopelk Manor, a prisoner once again. Why bother to relate this part of the tale, concerning my upbringing and that first taste of freedom? Why bother when it doesn’t concern itself directly to my Great Work? I shall endeavor to answer this question, but first I must finish the tale, and relate my conversation with the Doctor. I remember it very well indeed, and have listened to the wax cylinder recordings to fill in the gaps in my (usually) crystalline memory.

And for the Demiurge Deck today, we draw The Pillory. The exquisite Sanguine Era illustrations feature a poor fool in stocks, surrounded by disapproving authority figures. Reflecting on the circumstances after my return to the Manor, I believe that lucky bastard had no idea how very fortunate he was.

I awoke. What I first noticed was a numbness below the region of my neck. This was unexpected, as the memories of my escape from the Retrievers flooded back to me. Perhaps having my body slammed against every support structure holding up Harrowgate had not done as much permanent damage as I had thought. Still, I couldn’t move a muscle except for in my facial region. A numbing agent in all likelihood. I focused my eyes from their initial blurriness and looked around. I noted, with a twinge of disappointment, that I was back in the Doctor’s workshop. There were the familiar cluttered tables, the mewling specimens imprisoned in their bell jars, and the gently bubbling vats. I was home.

The Doctor was there as well, sitting in a high-back tufted chair and smoking a damp cigarillo. The look she gave me could have withered the weeds out of our summer garden. There were only two occasions on which she smoked: when she was in deep thought regarding a problem or conundrum, and when she was unspeakably angry. The thought that she could be both at once was unsettling. She spoke in her dry, reedy tone-

You awaken at last. Welcome back to your home, my dear creation. We have had quite the little adventure, but it has now come to an end.”

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I tried to speak, but found I could only produce gurgling noises. The numbness I felt was so total and complete that I couldn’t even squeeze a puff of air from my lungs. Dr. Swantopelk smiled in a way that was unpleasant by anyone’s standards.

You will find it is quite impossible to speak. I wanted to have your full undivided attention as we have this little discussion, free of your usual flippant remarks.”

I settled for sticking my tongue out.

You have been a disobedient and willful creature since the moment of your genesis. More so than any other project of mine, you have confounded me with your love of mischief. And now I’ve been forced to use those miserable antiques to apprehend you. I’ve payed out of pocket for the damages you have indirectly caused, and been forced to pen a letter of apology to the Office of Gatekeepers and the Council of Plutocrats in Harrowgate. And poor Albadore had to have stitches! You have humiliated me, as well as yourself, with these wild escapades of yours.”

I rolled my eyes in the most dramatic fashion possible. Even with limited tools at one’s disposal, I find that impressive effects can still be achieved.

I see that my admonishments fall on deaf ears. And I know that your great fall did not damage your hearing mechanisms. Perhaps when you come to understand the nature of the punishment I’ve devised for you, you will learn to be a bit more contrite. Observe.”

The Doctor slowly rose from her chair and walked over to me. She gazed into my eyes, still smiling, and stroked my hair. She then gripped my temples, and lifted me up! At first I thought she had gained some ungodly strength in my absence, but the truth was far more dreadful. She tilted her hands and swung my head down, and with dawning horror I understood why I couldn’t feel my body. My body was nowhere to be seen at all. I had been reduced to my most basic form, my head.

She had been keeping me comfortable (and alive) with a drip solution fed into my cranium through rubber tubes. These now trailed beneath me onto the table, where I had apparently been resting in a petri dish. I gurgled and spat, my eyes likely bulging out of my head with outrage. I imagine this experience would drive a human mad, but remember that I had once been nothing but a head in the Doctor’s laboratory, meant to observe and nothing more. For me this was rather like being transformed into a baby. Still, having enjoyed the use of a body for many years, it was frustrating to say the least. The Doctor chuckled with sadistic delight.

Yes, you understand now, don’t you? This is a consequence of your actions! This is what happens when we are impatient! And look at what has become of that wonderful body I made for you!”

She carried me over to a gurney, where a lumpish form was concealed beneath a dirty sheet. With one hand she pulled it off, and there was my poor frame. It was bruised, battered, and betrayed. One of the arms had been lost, a leg hung on by a mere thread. It looked pale, and everywhere had blackish bruises and sores that oozed a viscous oil of the same color (my “blood” for lack of a better description). I did feel remorse then, not for the Doctor and her silly pride, but for my poor, dear body, which I had subjected to such strain on my adventure.

It’s quite a miracle that we recovered it, and you, at all. When I read the Retrievers’ report I couldn’t quite believe it. You fell, nearly 500 meters. You broke every bone in your body, and then you sank into the Strait. Thankfully what was left of your body went into torpor while the Retrievers fished you out of the mud. The carrion fish did a number on you of course. I’ll have to give you some rudimentary gills for next time…”

This was a positive note, at least she hadn’t decided to destroy me. Then, as if anticipating my thoughts –

I’ve put too much work into you to allow you to go gallivanting around, and ruin your precious body every time!”

She carried me back over to my tray, and dropped me unceremoniously on my side. After a few gurgles of protest, she thought better of it and set me upright once again. Facing me in her chair with steepled fingers, she seemed to be struggling with some sort of problem.

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Surely you understand that you would have had your chance to see the world? With your Great Work, I imagine you would have seen more of it than you cared to. But we must follow procedure! There are tests, measurements must be taken! In spite of your arrogance, you must know that you are not ready for all that!”

I regarded her coolly. I was no longer angry with her. I was curious. I wanted to know at last why she had made me. I think she saw that look, that spark of curiosity in my eyes. Had I summoned tears, or had I continued to defy her, it wouldn’t have moved her one bit. But that look of wanting to know, I think it broke her. She removed her spectacles and rubbed her forehead.

Yet, you performed rather well, didn’t you? I’ve received reports from the authorities as well. You impersonated several people, with impressive accuracy. You conducted yourself with foolishness at times, but cunning and charisma as well. I certainly didn’t train you for any of that. And the Retrievers. No one has ever given them the slip, but you certainly gave them a good run, didn’t you? I seem to have crafted a savant.”

It should be known that I have a great weakness for compliments.

Time is against us, always. We never have enough, and now, less than I thought. I grow old, as you can see. And your purpose must be carried out before it’s too late. When I saw you had escaped, I was furious. I wanted to have you destroyed, and to start it all over again. That was foolish, I admit. I am still too human it seems.”

At that she stood, and adopted her old expression of mild annoyance.

I have come to two decisions. The first, as a continuation of your punishment, is that you shall languish here in the laboratory, fully conscious, while I work to repair your body. I will not allow you the comfort of torpor. You will think on your stupidity and rashness, and when I am finished I will re-attach your head, IF, you can convince me that your are remorseful.”

I tried to look as much so as I could, although it’s difficult without body language.

Second, we will enter a new phase of your education. Your Great Work is to begin ahead of schedule, and for that, we must prepare you adequately. You will have reading to do, and when you have the use of your digits again, you will practice your writing. That is all. For now.”

She left, slamming the metal door of the laboratory. I felt many things then: elated, frightened, a bit confused, and desperate to know more. I felt all of those, in the phantom of my gut.

Images courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images

Weird Fiction Part 3

Utkin & Brodsky 2

And now, the last part of my short story. This brings us, more or less, up to the point at which I’ve stopped writing. So if I post more of the Creature’s journal entries, it will be new territory for him and I.

Entry the third, the 7th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

I have risen early and foregone my exercises, much to Dr. Swantopelk’s annoyance. Surely the woman understands that for me to write is essential, on the eave of my journey! She drew from the Deck this time, shoving the card in my face. As if that would help. Still, the daily draw is once again a portentous one, The Broken Portal. I say that a door with a broken hinge is still a door, just don’t slam it on your way out.

All that aside, I was getting to the good part. I had successfully escaped from my confinement with the doctor, and fainaigued my way onto a transport steamer. Now I approached the Great Bridge of Harrowgate. I had read often of this marvelous city, but was not allowed to view any pictures.

The doctor was curiously withholding on certain subjects, and one of them was imagery, of any kind. I was never allowed to see paintings, sketches, or photographs of any of the places I read about. My books were also lacking in descriptions of common people and their customs. I assumed the doctor had her reasons, and she made up for it by giving me more fiction and fantasies than I could consume, but I never stopped wondering at these things.

In all that time, I had thought that the bridge was but a monument through which one entered the city. I discovered on the deck of that steamer that I was mistaken. The bridge was the city. It was an ancient structure, over 600 meters in height, and perhaps 200 meters in width. I remember that the ancient Eucrasians had it built, or so the prevailing theory went. It could have been someone older, and more inhuman. I had no trouble believing that this structure was beyond humans to conceive, as we came ever closer.

It had a frame of some strange, reddish metal. The architecture of many civilizations had been built into that frame, with the graceful black spires of the Gatekeepers on the bridge itself. There was little negative space left on the bridge after all these centuries. Many had built their homes and apartments into the scaffolds. I noticed too that the houses, factories and municipal buildings no longer stayed confined to the bridge, but spilled over onto either side of the Effulgent Strait, the city bleeding into the forests of Thornheim and the industrious townships of Billows. But it was one country now, and this was the gate. That struck me suddenly, how it was both a bridge and a gate, which controlled entry into the Sea of Eyes. A city and an artifact, an entity that was many things, and nothing definable at the same time. An entity much like myself.

I grew impatient to explore. I would disappear into the streets and scaffolding of Harrowgate, and return to the doctor, along with her lessons and experiments, when it so pleased me. The ferry finally docked and the passengers and I jostled each other onto a waiting platform. This was rigged up to some complicated machinery with cables, and lifted our platform upwards. As we rose, I caught glimpses of the Rafterhoods, the slums where those unfortunates who couldn’t afford the limited space of the bridge surface lived in squalor. Along with these were the Dunworks, the shipyards that lowered and raised their commissions with colossal cranes. They rained sparks and spewed black viscosities into the water below.

Soon enough we came to the surface, and I gripped the railing in fear and excitement as the wind whipped my hair (which now was short, wavy and brown). I stood on the Grand Mese, the road through the top of the bridge, connecting the Principalities in their commerce. I could see the palaces and High Offices of the Gatekeepers, those mysterious plutocrats who ruled the city, and some say the whole continent. Beyond was the Yawning Bay, always curtained in mist, and on the other side the Sea of Eyes, which glittered with the light of the fattened sun. I had never been so high up, and I was seized by momentary vertigo. The ships and steamers below were now like toys, and the city that spilled out onto either side of me looked like a black, smoking woodpile.

I spent some time walking the Grande Mese, being as careful as I could to avoid the steam-cars and the horse-drawn curricles. There were all manner of folk traveling in either lane, pilgrims, merchants, and simple people no doubt returning home from their labors. From the north there came Billowers, Tatterfolk of all different stripes and colors, little Terceans scuttling along on business for their Queen, and a few Melancholian Aesthetocrats dressed in black and indigo. In the other lane coming from the south across from me, I saw extravagant Thornings, mud-stained Vetchmen, and an imperious Ichthyan with his retinue of glass-domed armigers.

I must have looked quite the bumpkin, but I could not conceal my awe. Here was a kaleidoscope of images, sounds and smells. So much more than the doctor had ever allowed me to taste in the laboratory. I was free, uncontrolled, I wanted to let my skin free to dance in the street, while my bones and innards roiled on the pavement screaming for joy. Yet even in that moment of triumph, I knew that I shouldn’t be too indiscreet. If I revealed any oddness about myself, I might be discovered by the authorities and dragged back to the doctor before I was ready. After some time seeing the sights on the Grand Mese, I took a public elevator to one of the Rafterhoods. There was something I had been itching to try, and I guessed that I would have more luck finding what I sought in darker corners.

So many of my stories, like the capers of Mad Poller and Whistlejack, involved the characters having social interactions in a pub, and imbibing generous amounts of alcohol. I was never allowed a drop of drink when I lived with the doctor, even at parties, and now I was determined to try some. In retrospect, this was the very height of foolishness. If I wished to continue being in control of the course of my life, I needed to be in control of my faculties, but alas, I hungered too much for new sensations.

I departed from another creaking elevator into the smirched alleys of the Rafterhoods, eagerly searching out a drinking hole. I came across a suitably hoary establishment called the Ebullient Bass, marked with the simple image of a gutted fish. Men, and other things, spilled out into the street, their faces jolly, or nauseated, but frequently both. This was exactly what I had sought. I sidled in through a portal framed in pipes, and sat before the barkeep. The interior was red and smoky, drowning in bustle and noise. I didn’t know what to order, and more importantly I didn’t have any money to do it. I quickly left the bar and retreated into the shadows, before I drew the publican’s suspicion.

I had used my abilities to acquire what I needed on the steamboat, but that had attracted the most unpleasant attentions. Now I opted for a subtler approach. I spied a woman laughing and carrying on in a corner booth, her many ruffled skirts beyond understanding, and her hair stacked to the ceiling like a bird’s fortress. She wore a bag that surely bulged with treasures, and I had a thrilling idea of how to explore it’s contents. I concealed my fingers in my coat, and stretched them back and forth, repeatedly, until they lengthened and coiled about like snakes. I placed myself near the woman, but not too near, and let my slithering digits creep down to the floor, and into her purse. It took many attempts, as the woman kept many hairbrushes, and assorted feminutiae near the top, but soon I had a handful of greasy, wrinkled bills.

I returned to the good boniface with a smile cracking my face. I asked for something strong and fiery, and he (or possibly she, the form was lumpy and ambiguous) shrugged and poured me a glass of something brown and granular. I could swear that something swam in the depths of the glass, unaware of the world around it. I decided to open it’s world, and tipped it back down my throat.

What occurred afterward is best left to another entry in this journal. I have not the strength to continue in any case.

Artwork: Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin

Weird Fiction Part 2

Utkin & Brodsky 1

Here is the next installment of my short story. The Creature escapes from the home of his creator to explore the wider world, and get into some mischief.

Entry the second, the 6th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

After a round of calisthenics in this bracing winter weather, and a few body-molding exercises, I am once again in the right mind to practice my journaling again. The Demiurge Deck has granted me the Flushed Face. The Face on the card does not smile, I wonder what causes it to flush so?

I had last left off with my escape from Dr. Swantopelk’s laboratory. I feel before I continue on that thread, I should explain a few things about my Great Work. At the time, I had only received the vaguest hints that the doctor had created me for any concrete purpose. I knew that I was not the first of her living, self-aware creations, and I may not be the last. I had many theories about why I was made, but none of them could be confirmed. I thought that by seeing more of the outside world, and understanding the lives of natural beings, I could make more sense of this riddle. In fact my adventures would result in my learning of the Great Work, but not in the way that I suspected.

I worked my way through dense woods and fields, avoiding Suet Flies and the hungry Woolbeasts. Overland travel has never been practical or safe, with the aggressive wildlife and persistent growths, and so it was to my benefit that few were walking the overgrown paths. I would look up and occasionally see a misshapen cargo blimp staggering on it’s way towards the city. I doubt that any blimp operator would think twice at seeing me cut through the wild land, but paranoia and ignorance ruled me. I shaped myself to look like the earthiest, hairiest yeoman I could imagine from my books, and kept to the undergrowth.

I eventually arrived at a fishing village called Blumderry, with transport steamers bringing traffic to the city. I attempted to make myself look a bit more civilized. I was still wearing Albadore’s well-pressed uniform, but it was now somewhat tattered and the proliferant lichens of the woods had already started to grow on my arms and shoulders. No one was suspicious however, and I was able to make my way through town unhindered.

I found Blumderry quite fascinating. The buildings were ancient brickwork, and rotting wooden tenements all crowding together. In a place that has been civilized for some time, the voracious lichens and fungi will only grown on the outskirts. There were working folk hauling in their catch of Greater Salt Shrimp, an old man playing the bellow-box on a stool and singing a bawdy tune. I even saw my first Ichthyan, wearing a frilly pink dress, and having her scales polished at a salon. I couldn’t stay and enjoy the sights for long, I knew the doctor had likely discovered my escape, and sent her family’s Retrievers after me. And besides, even greater sights awaited me in Harrowgate, the greatest city in the world. I had no reason to dawdle, but I realized I was unequipped for a journey by boat.

I remembered that people in the outside world made use of currency for trade and transactions, and in my haste I hadn’t thought to steal any from the mansion. And no, I didn’t feel guilt at having the thought! Guilt is a difficult emotion for me to process first of all, and I knew the absence of a few ducats wouldn’t cause the doctor to lose sleep. Anyway, I was penniless, and I wondered how I would buy passage on a steamer. I had to think of something quick, as the next ferry was ready to leave, and I may have been trapped in that village for some time.

I remembered my novels of romance and intrigue, namely the Adventures of Madame Velderine and her Lewd Monacle, and decided I could try out seduction as a means of passage. I went into a clearly abandoned home, where I found a tall, cracked mirror. I had to filch a meat pie from a bakery (that I did feel rather guilty about) to fuel a transformation, and then got to work. Within a half-hour I had removed my hirsuteness and resembled a comely young female, slender and blonde. I remembered from my stories that men preferred females with large mammary glands, lips, and bottoms. I didn’t have nearly enough calories burned to grow more fat or muscle, but I improvised by inflating some air-sacs in the breasts. Soon they ballooned outwards rather nicely, and bounced a bit. I was surely irresistible. After rifling through more abandoned houses (the village was full of them, I suppose the local economy had seen better days), I found a tattered old gown to wear, and a broken suitcase. Disguises would surely be useful.

I marched down the main street to the ferry, my new mammaries bouncing so much I could hardly see ahead of me. I stood in line with the rest, trying to look like I fit in. I drew quite a few stares, which I took as a good sign. When I reached the end of the queue, where a mustachioed chaperon took tickets and identification, I adjusted my gown (which was torn in a few strategic places), and put on a look of confusion and distress. I told him that I was a seamstress looking for work in the city, and a scowling rake had made off with my papers, money, and my best clothes. Perhaps I was laying it on a bit too thick, but my my looks did what my words could not. The chaperon, filthy pig that he was, took immediate pity on me and ushered me into a first class suite. He sat me down and offered me a mug of hot bokum. It was the first time I had tried the spicy elixir of the Mabase, and I found it much to my liking.

Still, at that point it was an unfortunate distraction, as that ape of a chaperon tried to force himself on me! His face was all bristles and reeked of shellfish, he pinned me to the wall and ran his vile tongue over my face. I understood little of sex then, and was caught quite off guard. I protested, and gave him a slap to remember. Undeterred, he responded by groping my chest, so hard did he squeeze me that there was a sudden pop, followed by a gentle hiss. It was his turn to be caught off guard, and I took the opportunity to break my mug over his meat-slab of a head. When I was assured he was unconscious, I stripped the scoundrel and thoroughly tied him up in bedsheets. Since my previous disguise was ruined, one breast hanging like a wrinkled gunnysack, I made use of his uniform. His appearance was not to my liking, so I altered myself to resemble a character from one of my romances, since I was apparently now living in one (albeit one poorly plotted).

I made myself scarce for the rest of that voyage, looking busy on the fore-deck, and avoiding other crewmen. The experience with the chaperon was unnerving, but not unexpected. I knew that those who included seduction in their arsenal often faced such hazards. Still, I had done well for him, and my prize lay ahead, the Grand City of Harrowgate! It rose just over the horizon, first it’s baroque towers, and then the arch of the Great Bridge itself, straddling the Effulgent Strait.

Though I ache to continue the story of my adventure, and describe the wonders of that dream city, I grow weary once more. I should save my strength, and tend to my muse, for another entry. In that way I will be able to give Harrowgate true justice with my words.

Artwork: Town Bridge by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin

 

If Not Now, Then When? If Not You, Then Who?

Unknown Armies

THE TIME IS NOW. One of my favorite RPG’s, the occult horror classic Unknown Armies, is on Kickstarter, and there’s only 4 days left! I should probably mention that it’s hit 500% of it’s original funding goal, so y’know, it’s doing fine. But I want to geek out about it because it is such a good game, and I’m unspeakably happy that it’s getting more attention and love right now.

The Kickstarter is for the 3rd edition of the game. It was originally released in 1998, and now it’s experiencing a revival. The new edition will be released as 3 core books, with an additional two setting books released as stretch goals. I’m feeling slightly grumbly about the multiple books (cuz I’m poor), but also excited that fans will be getting so much material. The project is currently being helmed by Greg Stolze, an incredibly talented writer and game designer who was one of the two geniuses behind the original game. He has since gone on to create the One-Roll Engine, and several awesome story games.

This man is, in my opinion, the finest writer to ever work in tabletop games, period. He writes excellent fiction and fluff, but his real (and subtle) talent lies in writing text for the rules. Reading the rules for an RPG can sometimes be a slog. They’re often dry and abstract, but unfortunately they’re the most important part to study if you’re the GM. Stolze writes rules in a clear, conversational style that is always easy to grok, and often as much fun as learning about the world. Reading a rule book by Greg Stolze actually makes me excited.

So, one may ask, what makes this particular game so special? What is it even about!? The setting is the modern era, mainly in the USA. It focuses on a loose, disorganized “Occult Underground,” made up of weirdos and outcasts who compete for power and influence. Some of the Underground is represented by cabals of mystically aware people, or sometimes by crazy loners known as “Dukes.” In a typical game, you have a group of people who are exploring their own personal paths to power (and usually, corruption and insanity), and also coming into conflict with others who want the same thing.

It’s special because of it’s themes and influences, and it also features well-designed rules combined with a fun and unique system for magick (note the “k”).

  • While most urban fantasy or occult horror settings feature traditional vampires, werewolves, and hermetic-style mages, UA draws influence from different genres. David Lynch, James Ellroy, and Tim Powers have all been sited as influences. While Grant Morrison or Robert Anton Wilson have not been specifically mentioned by the authors, those writers also do a good job of evoking the weirdness of the setting.
  • A central theme is human responsibility. There are no ancient alien gods, no shadowy monster societies that secretly rule the world. It’s all just humans. We are the monsters, we are the ones responsible for the world we live in, and we’re the only ones who can change it. I like the freedom and power this gives to players in the narrative, and the way it affects world-building.
  • The game runs on a pared-down percentile dice system. Think Call of Cthulhu, but much easier to learn and play with.
  • Magick comes in several different forms, but it follows a “postmodern” theme (syncretic, self-conscious, rebellious, deliberately different). My favorite are the “adepts,” who are so obsessed with a particular worldview that they can change reality. Every adept has a school, like Entropomancy (chaos magick), or Dipsomancy (alcohol magick), a set of ritual behaviors that help them gather power (for the above examples, taking crazy risks and getting drunk), and taboos that they must avoid to hold on to their power. These are built around the idea of risk and consequence. On the quest for power, you are going to take risks, and most likely lose a part of yourself along the way.
  • There are lots of other things that make the game unique and well-recommended, including a very influential system for representing and roleplaying stress and mental illness, brutal and realistic combat, and fast-and-loose character creation.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and if you’re interested in the Kickstarter, jump on board while you can. Better late than never after all!

(He said, writing this post at the absolute last second).

 

Forays into Weird Fiction

Weirdness1

A few months back, I started working on a short story. I have since stopped working on said story, and I’m so busy with other things lately that it’s taken the back-burner by necessity. But rather than let it languish in the lightless dungeons of my documents folder, I thought I would share the current version here. It’s origins are strange and difficult to explain.

Sometimes I enjoy drawing fantasy maps, just for fun. Years ago, when I lived in Portland, OR, I was very lonely and isolated, and a little crazy. Over the course of one rainy evening, I made a large, complex map on a poster sheet, which was in turn inspired by a fake deck of illustrated cards I had made, which was in turn inspired by Edward Gorey’s Fantod Pack. By the time I was finished, I had made a strange and gruesome world that was fertile ground for storytelling. Here’s the map –

Weird Map

THEN, a few years later, I finally got up the gumption to start writing a story that was set in this world. I had pretty clear ideas from the get-go what I wanted the overarching plot to be about (this may grow into a novel), and I had an idea of the general structure (epistolary, travelogue). I struggled, however, to create a protagonist that I would be invested in, and who could carry the story along, so I think that’s why it took me so long to use this material. Before I post the story, I should also explain the title for this post, Weird Fiction. It’s a term that’s been bandied around a lot, and I’m not really using it correctly. It usually refers to horror fiction from the late 1800’s, early 1900’s like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and later H.P. Lovecraft. There’s also the New Weird, which is more fantasy and science fiction, like Jeff Vandermeer or China Mieville. I’m drawing way more influence from the latter group, and at the time I created the map, I was also reading a lot of Walter Moers and Edward Gorey. So anyway, here’s the first part of the story, tentatively titled “The Terratologue.”

Entry the first, the 4th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

I begin this account at the urging of my creator, Dr. Aldona Swantopelk. If my Great Work is to begin in a timely manner, I must grow accustomed to the habit of writing, sharing my thoughts and observations. This journal will in time become an integral part of my mission in this world, and to ignore it would be to ignore that very same mission. The doctor has also encouraged me to make use of the Demiurge Deck before writing an entry, that I may contemplate the draw’s possible meanings. Today I have drawn the Egress. How appropriate.

Still, I was uncertain where exactly to begin. The good doctor has taught me letters and the arts of expression, but not yet how to spin a good yarn. She has explained that I need only cover the events of my life as they have occurred thus far, embellishments being unnecessary. It shouldn’t be hard, I haven’t been alive for very long compared to her. I may as well start with her initial experiments.

She desired a being who could look upon the world with fresh, innocent eyes, and thus understand it differently. I came to discover that her intentions were more complex, and far more specific, than that. But for the first few years, that’s the explanation I was given. My body was grown from various exotic fungal cultures, and the flesh of cadavers acquired from the Harrowgate Institute. Through Dr. Swantopelk’s ingenious understanding of anatomy, biology, and the cutting edge of industrial sorcery, I came into the world.

At first I was but a head. A “seed,” as the doctor was fond of saying. I was made to observe, and so I should learn how to do that first without any distractions, or so the reasoning went. I personally believe my creator was impatient to start my life, but I have never told her as such. When I tell visitors to the doctor’s estate about this early phase, they are quite horrified, but without any history of enjoying the use of limbs or torso, I did not miss them. Eventually, I was grown organs and lungs, contained within a rubbery sack of fluid. I resembled a sort of sad worm, at least in the doctor’s photographs, but still with a very human head.

At this point I was taught to speak, and I enjoyed many thrilling conversations with the doctor about the nature of my existence, and hers. Upon request, I was grown arms, and with those in place I got up to all sorts of mischief. While I didn’t miss having limbs, I was determined to enjoy my new ones. When the doctor found me crawling legless out of the laboratory into the middle of one of her parties, trailing viscous slime, gasping, and causing a terrified stampede, it was decided that I would stay confined to quarters for the ascertainable future.

Still, in spite of my youthful indiscretions, Dr. Swantopelk and I got along famously. I was a quick pupil, and she an inexhaustible teacher. In some tales of creator and created, such as the natural philosopher Destregus and his Marvelous Meat Woman, there develops a sort of parent-child relationship, or even romantic love. There were no such inappropriate definitions between us, though there was, and is, love of a sort. I love the doctor as much as I am fascinated by her, and fascinating she is. Her tireless manner, her keen mind, and her somewhat inhuman quirks.

Ha! What jocularity! Me calling her inhuman I mean. I look now like any other man does, but human I am not, and I have no wish to be. Humans have no purpose that anyone is aware of, whereas I have a distinct reason for being.

So, eventually the doctor instructed me on how to make better use of my fresh body, after allowing me to grow into a fully-developed, adult form. My fungal components worked in concert with my more meaty parts to allow me to make “adjustments”. In other words, I could change my physical form, within a reasonable set of limits. Cosmetic changes are fairly simple. With a modicum of effort and a little time I found I could flush my skin to a darker or lighter hue, grow or drop hair, and even change the shape of my face a bit. More complex changes require considerable time and quite a lot of calories (not to mention a mirror). I once ate three roasted mud hens and a mountain of toasted grains to make myself look like a 3-meter tall bearded woman. Poor Albadore the butler missed his dinner that night.

I had always been vaguely aware of these abilities, as they were present in the form of a tingling, or tickling sensation in my skin. If I concentrate, this tickling can be turned into a warm feeling (darker skin), or a prickling (hair), and if I “push,” it becomes a pleasant sort of pain that penetrates my innards, and that pain can be “steered” to mold my actual flesh. I hope anyone reading this account will forgive my crude choice of words, I do my best within a limited human vocabulary.

My creator found my emerging masculine traits to be rather curious. She had not discussed gender or sex with me to any great length, and I suppose she expected me to discard the idea of being one thing or another. I can see where she is coming from. She herself is something of an asexual anomaly among her species, having little interest in either persuasion. Even to look at her, it can be hard to tell where she stands in the dichotomy. She has always looked like a tall skeleton to me, with great staring eyes. Her ribs are more pronounced than her breasts. Still, I find her beautiful in her own way. In fact, I find skeletons beautiful in their own way.

As for the matter of my manhood, it is rather hard to explain. I suppose it is simply “me”. Perhaps the source material for much of my body came from male samples, and there was some kind of “echo” of manliness in my cells. Perhaps I was simply fascinated by what I didn’t know. Whatever the reason, by the time I had been alive and under the doctor’s tutelage for three years, I had settled on a nice growth of body hair and a masculine chassis. I even grew genitals, although they still don’t function quite the way they’re supposed to. In spite of that, I can be a convincing woman, or anything else if need be.

Over the years, I cultivated myself into quite the specimen, with the doctor’s careful guidance. I learned a number of languages, studied art, philosophy and science. I dabbled a little in the esoteric arts, but the doctor did not seem to think this was important in my education. I was voracious when it came to learning, always asking questions, always burning my way through every book and document she brought me. There was little else I could do after all, Dr. Swantopelk only took me outside her estate on short excursions. Her gardens were strange and lovely. The hanging lavendias and the perfumed mince-caps crowding her walkway were enchanting. The sky suggested infinite possibilities to me, of limitless explorations under the sun. But I would soon be ushered inside to return to my lessons.

My understanding of the outside world came from my readings, and the few times I was allowed to interact with the doctor’s guests at her soirees. I was desperate for real experience of the world, but the doctor insisted that I become fully “socialized” before we attempted a trip to Harrowgate. She underestimated the strength of my desire, or so I thought at the time. I made ready to perform an escape from the laboratory, although with the full intention of coming back, one must understand. Albadore, the butler, was at a certain point permitted to bring me meals. The poor man never got quite used to me, being of peasant stock and rather superstitious in outlook. I engaged him in a discussion one evening about horse husbandry, and while he was distracted I clonked him on the head with a weighty bunsen burner, and stole his clothes. I strapped him into my bed-gurney (this wasn’t my first attempt at escape, and the doctor had felt it necessary to start strapping me in before bed) and made off into the night.

I had studied geography, history, and current events. I knew that Doctor Swantopelk’s ancestral manse lay to the north of Harrowgate, overlooking the Yawning Bay. I also knew that in the Gateway Principalities, one had to have proper identification if traveling between cities, or at least someone to act as your guardian. I had neither, so I kept to the shadows.

I grow weary now of relating this history. I must rest before I launch into the tale of my first excursion into the outside world, unaccompanied. As I look out the laboratory window, a brownish fog drifts in over the Bay. If I could, I would let it drift into my brain as well, so that I could lose myself in unconsciousness all the more quick;y. Clarity and memory must take their rest, so that they may take their place again when next I seize the quill.

I may post more of the Creature’s adventures after his escape from the laboratory, but that’s a long enough word count for one post I believe!

Featured image courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Image’s photostream, no known copyright restrictions

November’s Cold Chain

Bonesy

Greetings all,

I have taken sort of a month off, and there are a number of reasons why. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I was hired for two different freelancing gigs! Hurrah! I would rather not share the details of these projects until they are (hopefully) on their way to being published, but I will tease out a few details. For one of them, I am one of several contributors working on a sort of “monster manual” for a house-made RPG. The deadline for this came up a lot sooner than I expected, so I’ve spent the last few weeks hammering away at it. The other project is an adventure module for the Pathfinder RPG, to be published by a third party company. I’m excited to be working in Pathfinder again, and this will be a less daunting project than last time (in that I don’t have to write a novella-sized adventure).

So I had the rather unrealistic notion that I would work on these two projects, maintain a writers blog, and lots of other things besides –

  1. Familial obligations around the holidays
  2. Assist in the planning of my wedding (I proposed to my partner before I started writing this blog, but still, YAY!)
  3. Apply to Grad School (I am an educator/childcare specialist by trade, I want to join the big leagues as a public school teacher)
  4. Work two jobs (after-school and substitute teaching, sometimes I work 50 hours a week!)

Yeah, no, I can’t do all that stuff at once, and as much as I love working on Castle Mordrigault, it’s kind of low-priority compared to these other things, BUT, I’m not giving up on it. I just recognize that I need to slow down the new posts, probably to once a month. Once we arrive at spring, I imagine I’ll have more free time.

But as long as I’m taking the time to hang out at my favorite coffee shop and write, I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I’m consuming these days. I also realize that I promised some recommendations based on great world-building, so I’ll get to that too.

80Days

  • 80 Days – How have I had time to play games this month!? I’ll tell you how! I take the bus everywhere, and I get a lot of reading/gaming done in transit. I decided to check this one out because I heard the lead script writer was amazing, the very talented Meg Jayanth. I was familiar with her work from Sunless Sea (she wrote some of my favorite islands in that game), and her other Storynexus project, Samsara. After playing 80 Days, I now consider myself a full-blown Jayanth fan, and I’ll be following her work closely. This game is so good, SO GOOD! It’s a post-colonial, steampunk alternate-history retelling of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. It’s probably the most replayable, addictive text adventure I’ve ever played (although it’s not strictly text). And I love the world-building, of course. As a woman, and person of color, she brings a fresh, interesting, and thought-provoking look on what what the world could have been (or maybe should have been).

FlintPart2

  • Flint – I know, I know, Niall needs to shut up about Fallen London. But this is a very special time in the Neath, and I must spread the word. One of the games lead writers, Alexis Kennedy, has written a massive, two-part “Exceptional Story” for those players with a certain subscription. It’s all about exploring one of the settings most mysterious locales, the Elder Continent. The subscription is $7, and if you buy it in the middle of the month, you’ll get to play both parts of Flint (nearly the length of a Choicescript game), AND whatever special story they write next month. And of course, the rest of Fallen London, which is amazing and totally free. I just finished playing Flint and it was really, REALLY good. Like, after playing through it for 20 minutes, I felt kind of drunk on great stories. The ending was slightly anti-climactic (maybe I just made the wrong choices) but I feel like they’re going to continue the story later anyway. So, if I haven’t convinced you to try FL yet, this is the time!

And to close, here is a reading/viewing/playing/listening list that I composed for the last post, with the intention of reviewing each one. I’m just gonna list them here, but you should assume that because they’re here, they are objectively amazing and you should check them out. I tried to include something from a different medium each time.

  • The Scar – Novel by China Mieville
  • Finder – Comics/Graphic Novel series by Carla Speed McNeil
  • Grim Fandango – PC adventure game by Lucasarts and Tim Schafer
  • Eclipse Phase – Role-playing game by Posthuman Studios
  • Welcome to Night Vale – Radio Show Podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, no known copyright restrictions. The phrase “November’s Cold Chain” is borrowed from the Tom Waits song, “November.”

Thoughts on World-building Part 1

AliceAndTheFrog

About a month ago I went to Topatocon. It was a memorable event and I hope they organize another one next year. There were lots of great panels, and interesting people in the comics and games community to get acquainted with, but one panel in particular stuck with me. That was Evan Dahm‘s excellent talk on the process of world-building. Mr. Dahm is the creator of riceboy, and many other exceptional fantasy-adventure comics. He is a talented, prolific creator, and an all-around swell guy. The discussion got me thinking about my own approach to world-building, and some of the creative people who have influenced that approach. I am, of course, a devotee of genre fiction, so most of the names that will be dropped are science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers.

Evan Dahm’s panel touched on a few major points that I felt were important. His advice on world-building was meant to be applied to any medium, but pretty much all of his examples were prose fiction, so the terminology I use will focus on that as well. I’ll try to sum them up as follows –

  • When introducing a reader to a fictional world, the writer needs to think carefully about how they will enter into it. A fictional universe is always going to feel alienating to some extent (for people like me, that’s the main attraction), so to what degree should your protagonist(s) also feel alienated? Should you go the way of Alice, Harry Potter, or the Pevensie siblings, where they start their journey in our own, recognizable world? Or should you try the more modern approach of dropping your reader right into the world, with little or no explanation of how it all works? For that approach look to George R.R. Martin, or Gene Wolfe. There’s also a kind of “middle path” as well, the way of the Great-Grandfather of Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit take place in a very detailed fantasy world, but it’s revealed in slow increments, and it begins in a very recognizable place, the Shire. Bilbo and Frodo’s home feels a lot like any peaceful, pastoral community from the real world, and that’s definitely intentional. Tolkien’s audience would likely have had a bit more trouble engaging with his massive world, if they had started in Gondor or Rohan.
  • Effective world-building doesn’t just focus on detail and consistency. There’s a tendency among a lot of writers in genre fiction to add obsessive detail in their worlds, right down to languages, architecture, and the very laws of physics. Magic in particular is something readers and writers seem to get fixated on, treating it more like a science or system of rules rather than… magic. Evan Dahm’s opinion (and I agree with him) is that while that level of detail helps for immersion and making things believable, it can result in a work of fiction that features too much exposition. A writer should know when to geek out about their fictional world, and when to tell a good story. Exposition on the subject of the world is fine, as long as it reinforces other things like characters, mood, or thematic subtext.
  • A fictional world should help the reader engage critically with the work. I was really glad that this was included in the panel. It’s my belief that every fictional work, whether done intentionally or not, has some sort of message in it. It is impossible to avoid this. Choices about characters, representation of real-world minorities and other groups of people, these all say something, and hopefully the writer keeps all of these things in mind. Dahm used Ursula Le Guin as a model for how to do this the right way. I believe genre fiction can be used for more than escapism (not that I’m totally against that), and Le Guin’s work show us that it can work even better than most styles in getting us to think about our politics, our environment, and ourselves.

SO, now for my own thoughts on the process (I have a feeling this is going to turn into a multi-part post). Evan Dahm mentioned a lot of amazing writers who have influenced him, many of whom I also enjoy, or am learning to enjoy – Ursula LeGuin, China Mieville, Italo Calvino, and Angelica Gorodischer, all of these writers are builders of fascinating and memorable worlds. If nothing else, these writers have taught me how to really capture the feel of an imaginary place. I recommend checking them out.

Mappa Mundi

So those are all important things to keep in mind. I have a few odd techniques for getting myself thinking about a new setting. I like to think that these methods are consistent with the other things I was talking about. I’ll list a few, and I’ll try to make them a little shorter –

  • Draw a bunch of maps – I love maps, I love ’em. Few things are more exciting than cracking a new book and seeing a hand-drawn map in the first few pages. The mysterious locations, the evocative names, they all create a sense of anticipation for the reader. In the words of Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.” As a writer, I find that making a map, even before I write anything, can be a great way to visualize locations, and also the journey that your characters will take in the story. I even started making a story-game some years back called Mappa Mundi, which was pretty much all about this idea.
  • Surround yourself with inspiring visuals – This can mean drawing a lot of your own pictures or doodles, if you like doing that (I do). Or you can amass a collection of images and pictures that really speak to you about the mood and feeling of your world. Inspiration should come from many places, not just other people’s stories. If you can describe your (prose fiction) story as a mix of visual art pieces, that’s a good thing. Oh! And music! Music is totally the way to go too! I listen to a lot of soundtracks.
  • Surround yourself with inspiring stories – Here I’m mostly talking about real-life stuff. I read the news, I occasionally read narrative non-fiction, I read a LOT of history books, and sometimes popular science. A fictional world is always going to mirror the real one to some extent, so it might as well mirror the interesting parts.
  • Try something collaborative – There’s a lot of ways to brainstorm world-building ideas with the help of friends. One of my favorites is a story-game called Microscope, which totally deserves it’s own review at some point. In that game you work with a group of people to come up with a fictional time-line for a setting. It focuses on history as a way to add detail to a world.
  • Character Bios – Write a characters life story, right up until the point you’re using them. Include small moments, family, mundane descriptions. I’ve only recently put this method to use, and I find it produces some interesting details that you might otherwise ignore. This is world-building with a focus on character development, so the weird things you create have a connection and an emotional context to the supposedly real people you are also creating. I find that writing bios also ends up creating a lot of interesting little details about everyday life, food and clothes, all that stuff.

Okay, I  should probably cap it here. Next time I’ll be listing and reviewing some of my favorite examples of great world-building from different mediums. Until then!

Images taken from the British Library Database, no known copyright restrictions