Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the Jolly-Boat

There is a moment when you've got to get off the big boat and start paddling to shore and fucked if I have any understanding of how that particular process goes. The mystery that is on the shore is unfathomable. I'm not there but am paddling still.

I have been trawling through early Weird fiction of late and can say that Hodgson would be masterful with a little restraint. Haggard is proto-Weird and suffers from the same hokey bullshit characterisations as Burroughs and Merritt (which I guess is a pulp thing, or an old-timey thing). Merritt can't stop going on about light and colour and has the whole virtuosic inventiveness meets mediocre storytelling thing going on, I can see simultaneously why he was so popular and influential and is now relatively forgotten. Burroughs name-drops contemporary scientists like Lovecraft though perhaps not quite so embarrassingly. Blackwood is my favourite so far. Blackwood has the rather commendable quality of having not been impressed by Lovecraft (though Lovecraft was very impressed by old Algernon). The Willows is a ferocious thing of fiendish inscrutableness, it does not give anything away unnecessarily but what it gives is good.

Ho, chitchat, Xenia, generous Flailsnails referees, the lubricants by which social intercourse is made to run smoothly. Here are things which are not the heart of the matter but peripheral fripperies you'll have to traipse through to achieve the thing. More jolly-boats and dwindling shorelines, prevaricating headwinds. Game is not art but social-bonding ritual masquerading as communal aesthetic experience or vice-versa, wandering up and down the play-art-religion spectrum, daring itself to take itself seriously, taking too large bites, paddling. Don't go burrowing.

Gnome stew gives me nothing.

Requisite paragraphs achieved, content ensues;

1. A wind carries with it the sharpish tang and chill of storm and from the seaward horizon rises a hail-green malevolence of roiling thunderhead. The squall breaks flinging ice-shards and biting rain and whips the ocean to a seething and a waterspout roars out of the depths hurling piranha-fish a-gnashing on the ravenous wind.

2. The balmy air is fragrant with a curious perfume of long-lost land that fills the mind with visions as of another life long ago and far away. In the mind's eye a verdant furnace-realm of topless towers and a vastly upward yearning unto green skies where leathery grey things fly that croak and bellow in the burning air. Something abominably too-like lust stirs and with it a terrible loathing.

3. In the ocean's shallow azure brilliance writhe the impossibly vibrant forms of sea-snakes in superb and meticulous traceries of virulence unparalleled, that merely looking upon them too long causes the eyes of the watcher to split and bleed. The very waves that wash over their display hiss with the venom.

4. Among the dappled light and shadow of gently undulating kelp fronds is glimpsed a dappled curvaceousness. Closer inspection reveals a wallowing sirenian in playful mood that wakens unaccountable vistas of forbidden carnality. All else recedes before the tide of urgent longing and the drowning brine all-too eagerly engulfs.

5. Skin swells and seethes and from within come chitinous nodules that burst into barnacled masses that crust over the faces of sufferers with hideous rapidity. They can't stop laughing wild and shrill.

6. Out on the hazy grey distant shore a weird ululation as of something vast and fell and dreadfully eager fills the heart with a primal dread. Waddling ponderously onto the beach afar is a thing like a grey penguin bigger than a windmill, great yellow eyes agleam with a fiendish curiosity. It hurls its sleek enormousness into the surf and approaches with terrible speed, warbling as it breaches.

7. Close to the shore, beyond the reef, a warm lagoon, shallow, filled with stony protuberances like giant petrified toadstools lapped by the tide. Wrongness sings silent in the stillness of the stone. Intruders twitch and yammer and bloom with a fecund stench as internal alchemies recalibrate themselves in obedience to the thing that thrums in this place.

8. There are bodies on the beach, drownlings tangled in the wrack. Turn one over. It is you. Falling into the sky.

9. Maundy Jill or Skittlebridge throws something up into the bottom of the boat. Black and piteous little manling, half-a-fish and mewling in the scum. Red mouth gaping. Other black shapes are in the water, calling it home.

10. A shadow athwart the sun presages the approach of a teratorn like unto a black vulture-heron grown vast through aeons uncountable. It comes a-flapping out of an elder age, trumpeting its mournful cry.

11. Turbulences drag and suck and thrust the jolly-boat against a reef that seems to rise too violently to crack and splinter the feeble craft,tumbling its passengers into the surge. The riptide rages. There is seeming malice in the currents that endeavour to drag to drowning depth or tear against the jagged coral. Hungry little sharks watch the struggle.

12. The cannon fire seems at first incongruous and the initial shot falls short. Away back at the Gomorrah even at four-hundred yards can be heard the laughter of the drunken damned and seen the capering on the poop-deck. They reload quickly as the hulk sets ragged sail.

So, yeah, approaching something vast and ancient and unknowable. Numerical parameters of the aforementioned misfortunes do not exist yet because the thing is but an embryo or a furtive paddling ashore. I am one of those ducklings that doesn't want to be pushed out of the tree. Besides, d100 tables are in vogue now so I'd like to do one of those for the jolly-boat chapter. It is admittedly unlikely.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Uttermost South

I frequently scrawl in notebooks because of situational restrictions ( at times self-imposed) then I lose the notebooks. Later on I find them while cleaning or looking for something else and what is written within immediately and inevitably distracts me from whatever useful task I am performing. The person who wrote that stuff knew precisely what I like and seems to be endeavouring to reconfigure reality and art in just such a manner as is ever my intent, and yet, some quirk of my drug-addled memory has invariably wiped away all recollection of setting down the words or encapsulating the thoughts and so the text smites my eyes afresh, a thing novel and tailored to my own personal proclivities. 

 Much of what finds its way onto the blog has precisely this genesis - excavated from papery strata and subject to some kind of semi-coherent palaeontological reconstruction of the original intent, a fleshing out of the skeleton of ideas from the scrawl-armature in which they lie coiled. 

 Among these texts are mentions of the Uttermost South setting, the which has no cohesive form but is of necessity and intent without concrete conception. The notion of it is rooted in a concept - The Retreat of Wonder - that I've been fecklessly mulling over for some time. Essentially, as nescience recedes with the accumulation of discoveries so too do the mysteries of the poetic and the transcendent recede with it. Fairies at the bottom of the garden give way eventually to fabulous beings in foreign countries and as those countries are rendered mundane by discoveries the fantastic projections of the desire for wonder flee beneath the earth and to nearby planets and distant times and are again and again banished by enlightenment, further and further away. 

 This phenomenon works both ways, though. As scientific enquiry clears the local regions of space-time of pockets of ignorance where disbelief may be easily suspended, so too does it vastly expand distant realms where our fertile inventive instinct can project embodiments of the awe and terror it is in our nature to feel. This has ever been my explanation of Lovecraft and of his popularity and influence (and importance to literature), he recognised the dissolution of the Humanity's paramount position in the cosmos as deep-time and space and the successive Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian revolutions of consciousness rendered obsolete the old paradigms. In their place Lovecraft was able to set up a new nihilistic paradigm where vast new nesciences were able to be populated by new demons. 

 I don't think this process will ever end, the demons dog our every step and they'll always find somewhere to hide. I reckon they're busy colonising outposts of meme-space and distant 'branes and lurking in wait our genes. 

 As for the South, it crept into my mind the first time I watched Peter Jackson's ridiculous King Kong in late 2005 (I call it ridiculous despite the fact it made me weep with joy at the time). Skull Island, where Kong lives, struck me as being precisely the kind of region of mystery I described, where the projections of early 20th-century folks are concentrated, all the mystery and danger and preposterous wonder alive and wild and free, and at precisely the time the last blank bits of the map are being filled-in. I think it is no mystery that it is at the time in history when lost-world and lost-race fiction is at its height the final stages of the Modernist project of mapping and colonising the Earth was taking place. But the last flourishes of projection were deliciously fanciful, undiscovered islands and plateaus and the hollow earth itself fairly festering with every kind of prehistoric marvel. This era of confabulation gave rise to planetary romance fiction once the lost worlds started to stretch credulity.* 


Beyond this particular thread of inspiration is the fact of my being Australian. Living on the wrong side of the world I've always consumed fantasy predicated on familiarity with a temperate northern landscape that is utterly unfamiliar to me. I live in a subtropical environment characterised by riotous verdure and great biodiversity - there are more tree species on most of the sites I work (doing ecological restoration) than in all of Europe. The landscape that is familiar to me is the stuff of colonial-era fantasy and nightmares; all manner of poisonous serpents, giant kingfishers' mocking laughter, platypus-haunted rivers, innumerable things that bite and sting, beasts that hop about instead of run, and bear their young in pouches, black swans and inverted seasons. Onto this reality I have projected the familiar northern European tropes of fantasy and found the juxtaposition somewhat jarring. 

The southern parts of the world interest me now, or rather, the concept of South in the northern mind. South means separated by time and space from the comforts of civilisation and reason. It is an inherently irrational direction and legitimately subject to suspicion. There was a time, not so long ago, when sailing into the Southern Hemisphere of the world was like travelling to another planet, an alien world where precious orthodoxies fall away and the pre-eminence of civilisation is brought into question through exposure to manifestations of the untameable universe.

 "We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free." 

Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

There is a greater metaphor at play here. The wild south awakens a realisation of the wild in humanity. We are inextricably part of that wilderness. We came ravening out of it at the dawn of time and it will always be in us.

 Key texts informing this aspect of Southern-ness are; Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness (of course), Blood Meridian, the films; Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Proposition, The Tracker and Van Diemen's Land.

And the paintings of Albert Tucker and a whole bunch of other stuff that I've probably forgotten

The more pulpy stuff from the lost world era that I am interested in include H. Rider Haggard's She and King Solomon's Mines, Abraham Merrit's lost race stories, Burroughs' Palaeo-fiction, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Lost World and various stop-motion Dino-movies. Also; Mieville's The Scar and, at the farthest extreme, Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness and Call of Cthulhu. 

I'd say that's a J. Allen St. John cover.

 The thing the first lot of texts have that the pulpy stuff lacks is ferocity and gravitas and a willingness to burrow deep into the mystery of humanity in ways Edgar Rice Burroughs could never achieve.** To me what they represent is one of the central themes of the modern era: it matters not that your sacred texts declared you to be beyond reproach, the real universe is made of carnage and you're holding a knife. 


 So that's South. I'm working on this idea at the behest of Jez Gordon, who saw something of a common thread in the settings of Australian OSR people (i.e. Crapsack sensibilities) and suggested that some or all of us work together to produce some writings on the theme for some kind of document or periodical we could put together. I think there are some brilliant people down hereabouts (and I include our south-eastern outpost, New Zealand, in hereabouts) and that such a thing has potential to be very, very good. The contribution I would like to make to such a document is a setting or a series of tools for the emulation and evocation of an environment of savage alien wilderness. The Uttermost South setting would be concerned with the colonisation of the Great Southern Land - Terra Incognita - incorporating elements of Australia and Darkest Africa and Amazonia as well as all those aforementioned projections of alien otherness. 

The Nameless Continent will become a penal colony, squalid hulks bear miserables banished from the light of civilisation to be cast up on the alien shore. At present, I don't know what they'll encounter there. What I do know is that it will be terrible. The Earth we inherited from our Palaeolithic forebears is largely bereft of terrors but there have been more terrible worlds. Nobody human has ever been grabbed by a Titanoboa or an Andrewsarchus but I imagine it wouldn't be pleasant. I'd like to investigate that level of unpleasantness. 

Few of those who have experienced the crocodile's death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror. The crocodile's breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim's resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll. 

Val Plumwood, describing a run-in with a Saltwater Croc

 - I fully intend for this to be a collaborative effort, though I do not expect any contribution, whatever people want to do for this project is more than welcome. Jack Mack already made the suggestion that the currency be rum. This is now canon (and also awesome). _____________________________________________________ 

*It is worth noting that the highlands of Papua New Guinea remained isolated until the 1930s, this represents about a fifth of the world's languages and an enormous quantity of cultural and biological diversity hidden away from the rest of humanity until eighty years ago. 

** An interesting trick of Values Dissonance makes Burroughs' all-American "civilised" protagonists seem preposterously alien to my mind.

The unofficial theme song

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Root of all Evil

I have a thing where I am fascinated and appalled by the ramifications of gold being the source of all power in old school games. It makes me think of Blood Meridian and of Cortez and like all the things with which I am deeply emotionally entangled I prance and caper at the margins of the thing because I cannot stare into the heart of the mystery and cannot bear to try to hold it for fear it might be crushed by my apish forepaws. It reminds me also of this bit of Milton;

There stood a hill not far, whose grisly top
Belch'd fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire
Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic ore,
The work of sulphur. Thither, wing'd with speed,
A num'rous brigad hasten'd; as when bands
Of pioneers with spade and pickaxe arm'd,
Forerun the royal camp, to trench a field,
Or cast a rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heav'n; for ev'n in Heav'n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav'n's pavement, trodd'n gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoy'd
In vision beatific;


So you've been tested in the crucible of direst peril  and won wealth as seems beyond the wildest dreams of mortal man. And now against unfeasible odds you've dragged it forth by the exercise of will and cunning and the expenditure of blood and magicks and by the favour of the gods. Here on the sunlit surface world you expect reward, staggering under the weight of booty and wounded comrades, going back to town. Thinkest thou thy trouble done?

Alan Lee, Petty-Dwarves

Roll 2d6 + 1 per thousand groats retrieved, a further +1 per special item

2-7. Lucky. No hustlers but watch out for bandits.

8. Local peons have various worm-eaten victuals and moldering accoutrements to sell at inflated prices which they'll attempt to press upon you with some degree of enthusiasm and vehemence.

2d4 appear. Demands: Triple normal prices for substandard shite

9. A band of apothecaries, quacksalvers, barber-leeches and the likesuch worthless charlatans descend, they will charge outrageous prices for ineffectual healing and dangerous remedies.

2d6 appear. Demands: 50 groats per healing. CON check each time, if successful gain one hit point, if unsuccessful lose one.

10. A troupe of travelling players and tinkers gather, selling popinjays and jackanapes and extravagant garb and flesh and mysteries and a hundred other things, hutling and gambling and getting you drunk, the prices are high but not absurd and the dozens of laughing children are all pickpockets.

4d10 appear. Demands: double normal prices + 1d6 pickpocket attempts per party member.

11. Desperate mothers with starving children in barrows and lepers and the scrofulous and plaguey come clamourous for alms and mercy in the name of all the saints. They follow and pluck at hems or prostrate themselves weeping in the path.

3d6 appear. Demands: at least 5 groats apiece and they'll leave you alone, any more and the numbers will double each day, a random miasma will accompany them.

12. A mob of drunken louts in clogs and rancid smocks and beshitten trews all armed with swingle-flouts and cudgels and dung-forks come offering protection 'gainst the unfriendly world, eager to ensure the gold does not fall into the wrong hands. Their leader has an open face and hard little eyes.

4d8 appear. Demands 10 groats apiece plus they'll attempt robbery at first sign of weakness. Their leader yearns to see gruesome and humiliating tortures enacted.

13. A wheedling, reedy and peevish reeve of the ward comes bearing documents signed and notarised by bonnet-lairds and burgomasters decreeing the immediate forfeiture of one half of all that has been borne out of yonder hell-gate, citing fees and tarriffs and tolls payable. Seven sneering horsemen accompany him of grim aspect and loaded crossbows.

Demands: half of all treasure, The horsemen are 1st-level fighters.

14. Painted blue and black, dark-eyed and tall comes a heathen warband thirty-strong. There seems to be a degree of acrimony amongst them regarding whether outright murder be the truest way but a sallow and sardonic bard among them comes forth to declare the land and its underworld theirs and their chieftain's by right and bloodline an hundred generations deep. All goods and chattels are to be seized immediately and all saintish priestlings shorn of hair and ears or the land will drink of thy drenching gore. 

Demands: 100% of everything + d8 dmg to clerics, 30 Heathens plus 2nd-level leader

15. Thunderously presaged by echoing hoofbeats comes a troop of heavy cavalry in rusted harness and bearing heads on pikes and such other grisly trophies of long campaign as are accumulated by those men to whom death and killing are a daily chore. They declare themslves outriders of a vast and terrible vanguard on the march to unseat an apostate demon-king from his ghastly throne and do vengeance to the night and all her legions. This crusade is imperative and it is hungry. 

Demands: 100% of all treasures or 80% +  joining the crusade, 20 3rd-level fighters plus 10,000 more soldiers on the march

16. A huffing little herald and his dangerously slouching bodyguard come to declare each of the party newly granted title and demesne in the name of the Emperor (in far-flung, squalid and untameable districts) in recognition of their efforts in beating back the enemies of all. Of course, the Empire requires ongoing pecuniary recompense for the building of roads and aqueducts and the garrisoning and outfitting of troops.
These titles are;

The Baroness Impecuniary
The Underking of the Blodsea
The Landgrave of Kettlesprechen
The Laird Grootmanke
The Marquess of Netherclough
Implacable Intransigent of the Erstwhile Fletches

Demands: 90% of treasure plus the same amount quarterly in perpetuity, the titles are worthless and potentially hazardous.

17. Trumpets sound and bells toll and gleaming in gorgeous panoply of glory everlasting comes an embassy of the Utmost Pontificate of the Ineffable Truth. Pale choristers step lightly through the mud and upon their heels one comes clothed in the raiments of sainthood riding a brindled nag. She accepts graciously the offer to sacrifice wordly cares to the construction of a new cathedral upon this spot. Clad in light and thunder comes an angel in her wake.

9th level cleric +2d100 in entourage + unpredictable angel. Demands: All wealth and perpetual devotion to the Truth.

18+. It seems that one has followed ever since we came out of the hole. A little man, gnarled and hunched.

1 dwarf. Demands: Your money and your life, and roll again.

Additionally it needs to be restated that all treasure carries with it the threat of avaricious dwarfish claim: 1% per hundred groats plus 20% per special item, this is in addition to other claimants.

Yes, I am a bastard and I think this is how it would be. Tolkien was right.