Thursday, August 27, 2015

On Fantasy

As I see it, there are two main strands of speculative fiction: that in which there is some degree of pretence that things certain historical peoples were deluded about were actually true, and that in which wholly speculative propositions are made that nobody has ever believed were true. This distinction can usefully be applied to differentiate science fiction from fantasy but there are obviously differing degrees to which individual texts are bound by these categories. Fantasy is predominantly a projection back into a historical-credulity-space in which belief in gods, magicians, fairies and demons are taken to be truth, whereas sci-fi mines a futuristic-speculation-space in which the assumed position is that certain predictions made about the future have come to pass. There is a tendency for fantasy to be less concerned with working out the possible ramifications of the fantastic elements than science fiction is with its speculative elements but that broad generalisation is subject to innumerable specific variations.

It is fantasy that I am most interested in, and for reasons which may be different than most. In his essay Epic Pooh, Michael Moorcock offers a criticism of elements of Tolkienesque epic fantasy as inherently conservative and reactionary, a means of mollycoddling the bourgeoisie with comfortable lies about the world. While Moorcock was primarily concerned with the political and social, rather than the ontological, an argument can be made that fantasy represents a kind of atavistic reality, one in which modern systems of categorisation are discarded in favour of something altogether more archaic. As an avowedly sceptical atheist I find the idea of actually believing the things mediaeval humanity believed to be distasteful, but at the same time find the fact that they actually did believe them fascinating. Adopting the everything-they-believed-was-true approach allows me to take the much-maligned role of the cultural coloniser, patronisingly aping the attitudes of a non-privileged other with an aplomb granted by the fact that the patronised, culturally-colonised other is largely extinct. This fact of their extinction also allows me to venture, unmolested by judgment, into scathing criticism and parody of the abhorrent attitudes mediaeval people held with regards to women, sexual servitude, torture, violence as entertainment, racism, abject thraldom to monolithic religion, cruelty to almost everything and intolerance of everything else. Of course, the everything-they-believed-was-true approach also falls foul of inherent contradictions when the heterogeneous nature of real historical cultures and their beliefs is taken into account. It can’t all be true.

My view of mediaeval people as predominantly ignorant creates an interesting paradox in terms of my attitude to the fantasy genre. If fantasy is to be believed, mediaeval people were not mistaken in their positions with regards to fairies and wizards. A rarely asked but very interesting question arises. If, in the context of the narrative, they are right about wizards, what else are they right about? The answer offered by lazy fantasy writers - the least interesting answer - is that the people of the fantasy world are indistinguishable from modern rational sceptics in Ren Faire costumes. These people understand their world in much the same way educated westerners of the late 20th to early 21st century understand it. Their belief in the existence of magic is supported by empirical observation. They believe in deities whose powers are demonstrably real. They believe in supernatural monsters who exist in an ecology alongside conventional creatures and whose supernatural powers are naturally occurring phenomena. Within this understanding of the fantasy world superstition is fact and therefore does not exist. All of which makes their world more rational than the real world. Which robs it of some of its wonder, to be sure, and also robs it of much of its perilous strangeness, which simply won’t do.

There are varying levels to which it is possible to take the apocryphal claims of mediaeval people as fact. I would argue that the further you allow yourself to travel down the rabbit hole of the mediaeval paradigm, the weirder the world becomes and the weirder the people themselves become. In comparison Legolas Greenleaf, say, who is an immortal scion of a line whose ancestors lived  before the first rising of the sun, is less weird than a mediaeval Englishman who believed that geese grew on trees, intellectually disabled children are fairy changelings and that burning cats alive is hilarious. The problem remains, and is even compounded, if you grant all the claims made by mediaeval people as true. Take for granted, for example, that the claims made in mediaeval bestiaries, wherein the intrusive ubiquity of religious parable and a general off-the-wall silliness usurps all observational naturalism, and you have a world in which the camel and the leopard can breed and that is where giraffes come from, where panthers breathe an intoxicating sweet fragrance, where mice are spontaneously generated by the soil and many stranger things are true - the world is almost unrecognisable. There is an approach that is sometimes taken which is to have a bet each way, to allow that some of the irrational claims made by historical people are true in the context of the narrative but disallow others, or relegate them to a shrunken category of mere superstitions. This feels like compromise.

There was apparently a belief that beavers self-castrated to escape from hunters

One of the aspects of working within a mediaeval fantasy paradigm that I find as powerful as it is underutilised is what TV Tropes calls deliberate values dissonance. This is what is being employed when the writers of Mad Men make Don Draper, obviously a protagonist and therefore relatable, prone to historically consistent lapses into chauvinism and insensitivity, which make him more fully realised as a character, more matriculated into the internally-consistent structure of the milieux. In much the same way, it would ring false to me to write an urbane roguish swashbuckler in an Elizabethan London who eschewed the bear garden, had no scorn for the lower classes nor festering racism in his heart. There is no reason why ideologies cannot be critiqued without resorting to artificial constructs. The beauty of described worlds, like the beauty in all of art, exists independently of moral judgments. The entity to which one writes is a human first, and it is invariably insulting to that humanity to tell comforting lies about the nature of the world. This is essentially what Moorcock was driving at in his essay, though I do disagree with him about Tolkien I concur with the general thrust: fantasy need not be meek. To my mind, in order that those who people the world be in some way historically concordant with the beliefs that they held, beliefs which the author utilises in constructing the reality in which they are embedded, some degree of estrangement from contemporary morality needs to be in place. To live in a demon-haunted world is to be haunted by demons.

M. John Harrison, whose work I have only recently made happy acquaintance with, is renowned for the scorn he has for world-building. In his essay, Whatit might be like to live in Viriconium, Harrison describes how the role of the invented world is not to provide a consistently intelligible reality outside the parameters of the narrative. Of his invented city, Viriconium he writes; “it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological”. While he explicitly states that the purpose and function of invented worlds in gaming contexts is different from those in which fictional narratives are based I am going to conveniently ignore this fact, or at least pretend I am writing fiction, and allow some of the constraints to fall away. It does not matter, in the context of the narrative the structure of reality can fluctuate according to the needs of the narrative. Acknowledging the potential for the role of constraints in honing creativity, I can at the same time reject the constraints when rejection is necessary. Harrison does this effortlessly, Viriconium fluctuates according to the needs of the narrative. Whatever is on the bill of goods that needs animating, the city can be rewritten around those ideas the better to bear them along.

This attitude towards world-building is liberating. There is a quality to any exhaustively detailed world that is tiresome and false. No world can possibly be as detailed as Earth (literally, because all invented worlds are contained within Earth). There are always ragged boundaries at the end of the author’s endurance where things referred to are obviously just names with no substance behind them and no more narrative to make them resonant. Tolkien’s primary criticisms of invented languages like Volapük and Esperanto is that they had no legends to make them real. The entire corpus of Middle-Earth writings exist ostensibly so that Tolkien’s invented languages would feel more alive. I take the approach that because invented languages are difficult to animate with invented history and difficult also to construct with any degree of verisimilitude without considerable philological expertise and painstaking effort, I do not ever use invented words. The words I do use are very often obsolete dialect terms, and often applied to obscure folkloric concepts drawn from the well of things benighted people once believed. This constraint serves a number of purposes; I do not have to construct a language and the history of that language, I can avail myself of the robust interconnectedness and developed sound symbolism of existing language to embed the concept more fully into the world, I can encode extra layers of meaning into the names, and I can create refugia where otherwise extinct words can survive, however briefly, and be repurposed. The employment of obsolete obscurities is also part of a strategy of estrangement wherein I can subvert expectations about familiar things the better to lead toward the mystery I am trying to reveal.

That there is a persistent vocabulary that can be used to refer to things nobody still believes in is endlessly fascinating to me. The things people believed to be true seem to be epiphenomena deriving from our limited and biased perceptions of the world and our capacity for confabulation and exaggeration. That nobody ever saw a fairy is beyond doubt, the fact that people from innumerable cultures independently held firm convictions that there was an invisible race of others with potentially malign powers bears powerful testimony to the fact that, as concepts, as delusions and as components of language, fairies were (are) real. This list of legendary creatures from a compilation of British folkloric material known as the Denham Tracts, incidentally a source of speculation about origin of the word hobbit, testifies to the proliferation of terminology used to refer to things that never existed;
"What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, Bloody Bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!”
In spite of my scorn for the barbarisms committed by historical people I find the things they imagined to be true fascinating precisely because I am one of them. The archetypes of mythology exist as archetypes because they fulfil some primordial niche in the human imagination. It is for this reason that they persist. I am in the habit of engaging in recreational reductionism in a lot of contexts and I am especially fond of mocking humanity in its hubris. I think there is a perspective from which we can view the latent human need to confabulate that is simultaneously humbling and ennobling, and one that need not resort to magical thinking. Human beings are composed of matter and energy, we are not merely embedded within cosmology, we are ourselves components of cosmological processes and part of the universe-in-motion. The mythic archetypes that so easily delude human beings are as much the product of naturalistic processes as anything else and it is precisely because they are part of the naturalistic process that they have such traction. They are ancient, primordial relics of our animal heritage. Magicians, fairies, monsters and otherworlds seem to lurk in the essential structure of our shared humanity. If they did not exist it would be necessary to invent them.

So when I think of the things I like to write about - the bill of goods – I keep returning to the same things; the nature of the world as imagined by the ignorant, how this crudely imagined representation of things can be described in a consistent way and whether there is any value in consistency, how there is a necessity to reserve some moral judgment with regards to those that people the narrative and even to embrace their immorality as a form of integrity, how everything seems to be extruded by the idiotic machinery of spacetime. For all these things I keep returning to fantasy. It would be interesting to imagine a future world that based a genre upon the delusions contemporary humanity holds, a kind of pseudoscience fiction, complete with messianically-empowered reptoid televangelists and anti-vax sasquatch CIA-insiders flying planes into buildings to foil Illuminati plans to control humanity with chemtrails. Discovering M. John Harrison has assisted me in debunking some of my own delusions: the Laighlands (Lowlands, Lawlands, Meagrish Realm) is not a place (it is actually Doggerland) and exists only as a means to convey ideas and emotional impressions into the brains of other primates. That is plenty.

I leave you with Ruskin, from Seven Lamps of Architecture, 

...the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Some Quasimortals

So I spend time writing one thing and then go off and write another that seems like it is a different thing until I realise that the roots of both of the things are somehow intertwined. I realise that I still have a paracosm and it has grown out of the same mind as the one that has always been there. In this sense, as was the case with Eddison and Tolkien and many others, one’s juvenilia can be utilised as the historical backdrop against which one’s mature work can be seen. [Insert obligatory disavowal of hubristic comparisons here].  The personal rewards of publishing the things I have written are insufficient for me to pursue just yet and the personal reward of pursuing the great interconnected thing beckons enticingly.

Writing is something I only ever pretended to be interested in in much the same way as everyone vaguely literate tends to express a desire to write at some point in their lives. But for much of the time I spent writing I dabbled fecklessly and was generally shambolic in my irregularity. Now I am trying to dig my way out of a creative stalemate I am finding that writing might be a useful neurological exercise and not just as a self-reflexive practice but also as a means of sharpening the wits.

The way I figure it, when anyone conceives an artwork of any description they start with an idea that manifests as a series of emotional impressions. For me it is like a dumb, pre-verbal looming-out-of-chaos of mingled glory and sadness and bitter irony and deadpan hilarity and the process of trying to capture it is always always crude. The enunciation of the idea changes the idea. For me, writing seems like amateur carpentry, whatever unspeakably wonderful thing glimmers at the edge of consciousness, its representation is splintery and rickety and has too many nails.

Over time the translation into carpentry grows less rickety.

'I am that astonishment from which you write in those brief moments when you can write.'

Russell Hoban, The Medusa Frequency

Also, while I am throwing in quotes, this is Thomas Pynchon from Mason and Dixon describing something vaguely familiar;

“The Astronomers have a game call’d “Sumatra” the the Rev­d ­often sees them at together,-  as children, sometimes, are seen to console themselves when something is denied them, - their Board a sort of spoken Map of the Island they have been kept from and will never see. “Taking a run in to Bencoolen, anything we need?” “Thought I’d nip up the coast to Mokko Mokko or Padang, see what’s a-stir.” “Nutmeg harvest is upon us, I can smell it!” Ev’ry woman in “Sumatra” is comely and willing, though not without attendant Inconvenience, Dixon’s almost instantly developing wills and Preferences of their own despite his best efforts to keep them uncomplicated, -  whereas the only women Mason can imagine at all are but different fair copies of the same serene Beauty,- Rebekah, forbidden as Sumatra to him, held in Detention, as he is upon Earth, until his Release, and their Reunion. So they pass, Mason’s women and Dixon’s with more in common than either Astronomer will ever find out about, for even phantasms may enjoy private lives, - shadowy, whispering, veil’d to be unveil’d, ever safe from the Insults of Time.”


Unburdening myself from the need to make things intelligible to the reality of the game is liberating. Conversely, the realisation that the purple prose is of less use than the poetic resonance of the concept is grounding.

Some Quasimortals:

It is possible to become so lost that the home you return to is no longer home. When a magician starts to transcend mortality they realise that the self they were was rooted in that mortality and that the transformation they seek makes a mockery of all the reasons they seek it. The enunciation of the idea changes the idea. Loss is the price of gain.

1. Cornbrash Stratum, erstwhile pupil of Ravelhain the Garganaut, opted, in his quest for immortality, for a kind of irresistible physicality that would daunt time’s vicissitudes with unyielding material toughness. Replacing, over the course of several decades, all that in him was frail with heavier elements he became the embodiment of fortitude, a ferrous thing that wades thighbone-deep through the world and sees through the things he once loved like vapour.

His peculiar obsession is the structure of things, as he replaced all that was within him of whim and passion with structural components devised in such a manner as to stave off decay. He communicates now with humanity only through architectural manipulations of masses of stone. Unable to recognise individual human beings he nonetheless can perceive in architectural style as it shifts from age to age the presence of some kind of agency that is the aggregate of thousands of minds. It is with this aggregate that he now seeks to communicate, at intervals of three or four generations, by enacting reconfigurations of the geometries of their communiques or producing constructions that parody the degradation of abstract mathematical ideals manifest in human structures.

2. Glowbason Kale, the cauldron witch, is attended by her Savoury Characters and by the delectable fragrance of roasted meat. The attendants number seven to ten, range from medium rare to blackening bones and bear her along upon a palanquin brazier trailed by a turnspit dog who gnaws at their ankles and laps at the juices they leave. The witch herself has boiled away for seven hundred years and languishes in her simmering bath of broth. They travel in search of firewood from the Hundred of Onbethankit long abandoned where her toothsome crew have chopped down the spinneys and dug all the peat to keep the fire burning. She requires, for the recipe that ensures her continuity, certain herbs - by moonlight plucked from unhallowed ground - and spices from the far lands.

Her Savouries are variously glazed or garnished or stuffed with writhing young. All are tasty save those who are now, sadly, overcooked.

3. Behold Auld Jack Smelt on his pitchfork, riding backwards through dreams. He can live there, in his phantasmagorical Clud-Haas above Galligantus Peak, somewhat outside a reality he rejects. Upon seeing the exhilarating wildness of his ride through the sky-wrack, one half-expects him to cackle madly, as mad cackling seems so obviously his domain. He does not cackle but weeps, or remains stony-faced and dark of countenance. Sorrows fly with him like hoodie-crows, in his Magonian house they besmirch the golden-whiteness with their purpureal sootiness and incessant dirge. They roost above his empty bed and bespatter all that place with the stinking memory of times before all was lost.

Aspics adorn his gate and writhe upon every floor in poisonous relief. They remind him of the time it happened and of the time before.

4. Manigate Querken: prenticed to Ysgithrog the Metempsychotic in an early saeculum, Querken sought and found a conduit into his own past that he might relive his lost youth over and over. Many times now he has crawled through the Tunnel in the Ivy to capture and murder the precursory self as it skulked under a bridge one day in its fourteenth summer. Querken reinhabits the youth’s life with his sinister foreknowledge and meticulous record of the trammelled paths of his cyclical reality. He bears with him a grimoire of exploitable occurrences and passes through the world each new time with more cunning means of advancing his position and status to enigmatic purposes.
The position of the Tunnel in the Ivy he keeps secret or fortifies with walls of stone and soldiers bought with extraordinary wealth plundered from those thralls of conventional causality and sequence who have the misfortune of falling his prey.

Nobody sees him coming. Nobody knows how many times he has passed backward through the decades or lived forth again along his timeline, his head full of foresight and cunning schemes. He may be the oldest of all.

With him Hobshanks, Querken’s man, formerly a Drungary of the Twelth Assize, now loyal to the death to the master. In which former life Hobshanks was Sir Layloc Theophagus, his current sobriquet arose from his habit of falling to his armoured knees in the presence of the master. He is huge and scarred and his purple cloak is ragged. None may stand before him.

5. The Bearer of Ill-Tidings: In her maidenhood she had fallen victim to catastrophic sorrow and had thrown herself into a chasm. She did not die, her broken body hung pinioned in a thorn tree for six days and nights. On the fifth day a gastrel came and plucked out her eyes. In the darkness of the seventh dawn the Thicketty Man came (whose cowardly habit was ever to avail himself of untoward occurrence) and planted in her a seed of the world’s destruction. It grew in her, this seed, and she grew strong again and stronger still. Now she walks in the world again a witch unbridled, tall as a tree, gaunt and hollow and swollen with century-child burgeoning inside. When she speaks no words come but knives instead, clattering at her feet, etched with glyphs that speak of ruin.

Mostly she dwells beyond the sky in a star of serrated black iron that hangs in the utmost void. Upon the earth she casts a tripartite shadow that tells of forgotten suns, invisible to man. By their light she sees.

6. The Get of Ravelhain: A feral thing, sudden and brutal, furnished with immeasurable potence, squats in the hideous twilight. Its essence is a blazing blackness: furred, simian, and eloquent in all the languages of violence. Upon a long chain an angel of bronze, rearing magnificent in gleaming counterpoint to the black one. The angel is crowned with lightning and sorrow. She is immortal and captive to a thing born of the wicked earth.

He wields her like a flail. She keens her celestial lament for the wickedness of man and he batters mighty citadels to dust and splinters and drags her from world to world in search of empires to trample and cow.

He is his father’s son.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


I don't own a copy of Dwimmermount so I don't know how this would play out in the original but it seems at least vaguely cromulent. This dungeon was generated through use of the find/replace function working from Zak's fairly recent MadLibMount post, I haven't seen any others. 

I don't know what most of the names actually refer to but I enjoy the mental image of the Profligate Messiah of Charnel Grace riding around in a Bonnacon Automaton. For those who don't know what a Bonnacon is, here is the entry on one of my favourite websites of all time.

There was a ribaldry present in real mediaeval culture that was swept under the carpet by so many post-Victorian or WASP-y American fantasy writers that I am not ashamed to be childishly amused by. Here a couple of other cultural touchstones I'd like to reference for tone. First, from the superb The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison, the description of the fight with the manticore (near the top of the tallest mountain in the world, mind you);

"Small time was there to ponder. Swinging from hold to hold across the
dizzy precipice, as an ape swingeth from bough to bough, the beast
drew near. The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, the
colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a
porcupine; its face a man's face, if aught so hideous might be
conceived of human kind, with staring eyeballs, low wrinkled brow,
elephant ears, some wispy mangy likeness of a lion's mane, huge bony
chaps, brown blood-stained gubber-tushes grinning betwixt bristly
lips. Straight for the ledge it made, and as they braced them to
receive it, with a great swing heaved a man's height above them and
leaped down upon their ledge from aloft betwixt Juss and Brandoch Daha
ere they were well aware of its changed course. Brandoch Daha smote at
it a great swashing blow and cut off its scorpion tail; but it clawed
Juss's shoulder, smote down Mivarsh, and charged like a lion upon
Brandoch Daha, who, missing his footing on the narrow edge of rock,
fell backwards a great fall, clear of the cliff, down to the snow an
hundred feet beneath them.
As it craned over, minded to follow and make an end of him, Juss smote
it in the hinder parts and on the ham, shearing away the flesh from
the thigh bone, and his sword came with a clank against the brazen
claws of its foot. So with a horrid bellow it turned on Juss, rearing
like a horse; and it was three heads greater than a tall man in
stature when it reared aloft, and the breadth of its chest like the
chest of a bear. The stench of its breath choked Juss's mouth and his
senses sickened, but he slashed it athwart the belly, a great round-
armed blow, cutting open its belly so that the guts fell out. Again he
hewed at it, but missed, and his sword came against the rock, and was
shivered into pieces. So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him
roaring like a thousand lions, Juss grappled with it, running in
beneath its body and clasping it and thrusting his arms into its
inward parts, to rip out its vitals if so he might. So close he
grappled it that it might not reach him with its murthering teeth, but
its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee downward to the
ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking
in the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and
torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the
creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering
about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrastled with
that fell and filthy man-eater. And ever he thrust his right hand,
armed with the hilt and stump of his broken sword, yet deeper into its
belly until he searched out its heart and did his will upon it,
slicing the heart asunder like a lemon and severing and tearing all
the great vessels about the heart until the blood gushed about him
like a spring. And like a caterpillar the beast curled up and
straightened out in its death spasms, and it rolled and fell from that
ledge, a great fall, and lay by Brandoch Daha, the foulest beside the
fairest of all earthly beings, reddening the pure snow with its blood.
And the spines that grew on the hinder parts of the beast went out and
in like the sting of a new-dead wasp that goes out and in continually.
It fell not clean to the snow, as by the care of heaven was fallen
Brandoch Daha, but smote an edge of rock near the bottom, and that
strook out its brains. There it lay in its blood, gaping to the sky."
Emphasis mine. Were it not for their Jacobean eloquence the protagonists of Ouroboros could be high-level PCs in anyone's campaign, Obsessed with adventurous striving and unconcerned of the consequences of their actions so long as their pride and honour is not questioned.

The other touchstone is a part of a Russian film I just became aware of today called Hard to be a God, based on a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the film is new and looks fantastically abject and I will never be able to see it at the cinema without extensive travel. It is the most Middenmurky piece of culture I've ever seen.

Here is the teaser, it is short, imagine this world when reading the dungeon;

 Marrowdank Level 8: The Copromancers' Sanctum

Wandering Monsters for this Level

1 Tutelary Vagrant of Wicker and Twine
2 d2 Copromancers
3 Mantled Incandescence
4 Rider of the Flensing Wind
5 Phlegethonic Imperatrix
6 Chancreous Rampart
7 d8 Picklebrides
8 Cindergimp 
9 d4 Ambulant Slurries that once were men
10 4+d4 Svartling Contraptioneer cultists
11 Creeping Melancholia
12 Tunnel Rukh

1. Fuck all.

2. Pinchbeck Drudge attacks anyone without Sevenfold Mitre

3. Gastrophetes of Dispatch bears message saying to place Thighbone of St. Asprandulo into a ikon-niche.
-If someone performs the action and makes a save vs device, an Sevenfold Mitre appears
-If they fail a Malodorous Glyphe is placed on the Thighbone of St. Asprandulo and also d4 Pinchbeck Drudges come from Rms 8 and 9 and attack.
_If--after 2 minutes--no-one places their Thighbone of St. Asprandulo into the ikon-niche, d4 Pinchbeck Drudges come from Rms 8 and 9 and attack.

4. If the Privy Sump has been clear for more than a day: 8 guards from Svartling Contraptioneers
If it has not, the rooms contains The Laird of the Fleas, a Nexus of Bale.

5. Rhadamanthus Mandragore, a Copromancer is here and, if The Laird of the Fleas isn't in Rm 4, The Laird of the Fleas is here, too.
Rhadamanthus Mandragore is trying to deactivate the barricade of martyr’s bones that cuts off access to Rm 41 from this room and Rm 27 and will try to cajole the party into helping. Rhadamanthus Mandragore has Jawbone of St. Ghispert the Abominator, Oracular Marmoset of the Seventh Order, The Ghaistwattle and two Chalices of the Nectar of the Gods, a Drouth Ember and a Broken Draakzwaard. If Rhadamanthus Mandragore must flee, it will be to Rm 7 or, if that fails, to Rm 6.

6.  Preserved but violently mutilated Domovoi corpses--failed Picklebrides from
Rm 24. If you ingest the substance coating them you have to save or become Picklebrides.

7. Rider of the Flensing Wind placed here as a guard by Rhadamanthus Mandragore. Will attack any mortal on site and do little to protect Rhadamanthus Mandragore if they appear here.

8. and 9. Each contains 4 Pinchbeck Drudges that attack anyone with Malodorous Glyph.

10. Locked--can be opened with Sevenfold Mitre. Contains bones of the dead.

11. Storage. Contains Tharandus Mantle however it's cursed so if it is used by any but heathens it will have a 50% chance of backfiring and hurting the user.

12. Damaged smutty etching representing actions characteristic of decadent urbanity, any cleric of decadent urbanity praying here for 10 minutes will have their spells refreshed.

13a-13b Cell off of 13a can only be opened with Sevenfold Mitre. Otherwise touching them results in 8d6 Carnality damage--save for half. Inside there is Arbitrator’s Swingeing Gavel belonging to the Adipose Gallowglass in Rm 49.

14 Area at 14a controls cell at 14b. If two Sevenfold Mitres are used here, a Gastrophetes of Dispatch will hurl a message quarrel asking if 14b should be unlocked. Answering 'yes' will release a Tunnel Rukh from suspended animation in 14b which will try to eat whatever it finds. Closing 14b also requires two Sevenfold Mitres--whatever is locked inside will be placed in suspended animation.

15. Two Pinchbeck Drudges attack anyone without Sevenfold Mitre.

16. Door to this room is visible and usable by creatures of decadent urbanity, invisible and impassable to those of primordial vileness, and visible but impassable to those of rustic apathy. Contains fallen hero with 3270 gp and Jar of Dismal Foetor, Skeinshear, Pyx containing Reliquary Ordure

17. Shrine to Suzerain Inculcatus and Gammer Guthrung, their statue lungs are here. 30% chance of containing d8 Picklebrides.

18. A smouldering hassock--using it prevents the user from Picking its teeth for 3o mins.

19. Contains 600gp, Sevenfold Mitre and Ensign’s Barbute. If Privy Sump has been available for more than a day there are three members of Svartling Contraptioneers, one of whom is a wizard.

20. Four Pinchbeck Drudges attack anyone with Malodorous Glyph. Any Pinchbeck Drudges summoned by alarms triggered on the southern half of the level will be drawn from this room and/or from Rm 28.

21. Mostly empty. Clear liquid marked "Shouldst perils befall ye" in Svartling runes. Contains Tincture of Wolfsbane.

22. An intangible carnality exudes from nowhere in particular save or be disoriented. 4 Picklebrides.

23. Door to RM 24 is locked from the inside. Sign reads, in Svartling rune "Doth troublous circumstance arise? Fling open ye ikon-niche". Out in the hall, there are 4 nooks, instructing the reader to perform the same action as in Rm 3.

1: If the user is a cleric of Suzerain Inculcatus or Gammer Guthrung, the northwest Ikon-niche reveals a Bloodstained Crozier. Otherwise, the Gastrophetes of Dispatch hurls alarum quarrels that howl “Foemen! Blackguards!” to summon 1d4 Pinchbeck Drudges Room 28 to slay them.

2: If the user is urbane, the southwest Ikon-niche reveals a Hypnalian Dart. Otherwise as 1

3: If the user is a cleric of Suzerain Inculcatus or Gammer Guthrung, the northeast Ikon-niche reveals a Hepatizon Ostensorium otherwise as 1

4: If the user is urbane, the southeast Ikon-niche reveals a Veinseeker Lancet. Otherwise as 1.

Make wandering monster check each time a ikon-niche is activated. It's loud. 

24. Any failed attempt to unlock or force open the doors alerts the room’s occupants. Prison containing The Seventh Emanation of Micturatus Gowk --who is fucked up from being imprisoned. There are six Svartling Contraptioneers hooked up to the prison being transformed into Picklebrides in d6 rounds unless cure disease or neutralize poison is used.
Copromancer inside holds the keys to the doors and oversees this process, protected by 4 Picklebrides. The Copromancer has the Levinbrand and Aegis of Aelfbeorht Churnlark.

Copromancer will flee to Rm 26 if things go poorly and will immediately flee if The Seventh Emanation of Micturatus Gowk prison is shattered. It will shatter if successfully struck v. AC 0/20 with a deliberate attack from an enchanted weapon that deals at least 5 points of damage, or if the tube sustains 25 or more points of damage from being in the area of effect of spells.

If the holding tube is shattered, The Seventh Emanation of Micturatus Gowk will begin to return to its former state, gaining 10 hit points per round until it reaches 100 and has full powers and intelligence, fucking everyone up.

25. 13625 gp worth of treasure.

26. 6 Picklebrides. Complicated barrier to next level down having to do with what happens in Rm 40 level 6B.

27. Area controls Pinchbeck Drudges. Anyone with Sevenfold Mitre and Coquatrix of Chrysoprase can change the Pinchbeck Drudges with a successful Int check at -4.   Each successful check allows a user to command them to attack a specific type of target or stop targeting a specific type of target as the user wishes—but not both. 
A Copromancer is here along with 2 Pinchbeck Drudges. If the Privy Sump has been available for more than a day there will be 4 Svartling Contraptioneer guards, if it has not, the rooms contains the Phlegethonic Imperatrix from Rm 34.

28. Four Pinchbeck Drudges attack anyone with Malodorous Glyph. Any Pinchbeck Drudges summoned by alarms triggered on the southern half of the level will be drawn from this room and/or from Rm 20.

29. The hatch to this room is locked and barred from the outside. If a character presses themself or is pressed into one of the ikon-ikon-niches, they must immediately make a saving throw or become urbane. The Decadent urbanity shift is a zealous one, meaning that anyone who uses a pillar will no longer associate or cooperate with anyone primordially vile. The effect can be reversed through the use of remove curse or similar spells.

30. The hatch to this room is locked. Inside one of desk drawers is a Sevenfold Mitre. Books worth 5000gp.

31. Pieces to make Klibanion and two Ballestrinos.

32. Angry Cinnamulgus of Belphegor. Scent of burnt wood coming from Rm 33.

33. Brazier burning incense which causes Unsettling Rictus if a Waerloga tries to regain spells within. 4 more blocks of incense.

34.  Phlegethonic Imperatrix 

35. Remains of dead creature wearing Cinderbreeks

36. Scorch marks leading toward Rm 37.

37. Cindergimp bound to remain within 100 feet of Iron Glue-trough unless that object is destroyed.

38. Fuck all.

39. Mural of individuals suffering unsettling rictus anyone observing the windowlike structure on the far wall must save or suffer that punishment.

40. Wreckage-fixable using tools from next level down.. Coquatrix of Chysoprase.

41. Barrier to entry has 3 states:
A-Impassable. It starts this way.
B-Anyone may enter, but only urbane characters may leave. Achievable using mechanisms in Level 6b, Rm 40.
C-Passable to all. The bad guys on this level are trying to do this.

41a. Roll:
1-6 Profligate Messiah in Bonnacon Automaton
7-24 Copromancer with Vulpinia Targulche
25-42 Copromancer with Silas Groomsharke
43-60 Copromancer with Bramble Thorndyke Campion Varangy
61-00 Empty

42.  Copromancer with Vulpinia Targulche 25% here if not encountered in 41a, 33% Rm 45, 32% Rm 49, would die before allowing harm to come to LocalDeity.

43. Copromancer with Silas Groomsharke 25% here if not encountered in 41a, 75% Rm 45. Despairs of ever escaping open to possibility of mutiny against Profligate Messiah of Charnel Grace.

44. Copromancer with Bramble Thorndyke Campion Varangy 25% here if not encountered in 41a, 75% Rm 45.  Would sacrifice Profligate Messiah if it meant they could escape this prison.

45. Profligate Messiah of Charnel Grace, if not encountered in 41a, 30% of being here, otherwise Rm 51. If here, Profligate Messiah will not be alone.  Whenever outside this cell, Profligate Messiah rides in a Bonnacon Automaton. Within his quarters, however, it is just a head.

46. Door to here is locked, Profligate Messiah has key. Bones of martyr. If an urbane worshipper of the Suzerain Inculcatus carries a bone fragment it grants a Nauseous Imperviousness vs opponents of primordial vileness.

47. Fuck all.

48. Circle on floor--any being not native to this plane who passes over its edge will become imprisoned and powerless until the circle is broken by someone not bound by it.

49. Locked; the key is kept by Vulpinia Targulche. A heroic Adipose Gallowglass is kept here and periodically tortured inside the Brazen Karkadann. If freed, the Gallowglass will ask for a weapon and help the party.

50. Stasis- Brazen Karkadann.

51. Locked the key is kept at all times by Profligate Messiah. Circle on floor--any being not native to the stablished earth who passes over its edge will become imprisoned and powerless until the circle is broken by someone not bound by it. Inside the circle is Revenant Scion trapped and opposed to Profligate Messiah who'll help anyone who isn't primordially vile.