Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Vril and the Veins of the Earth

I have had the joy to have read Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth.

I have recently finished the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Victorian Science fiction novel The Coming Race - the origin of the Vril.

This bears some further explanation, both as to what the Vril are and the wider significance of this little and  - whilst perfectly serviceable - not outstanding work.

Either nip over to Wikipedia, or read on. I am working from the 2007 Hesperus edition. (The text may also be found over at Project Gutenberg; it is not a long read).

A man - a mining engineer of wealthy extraction - goes deep into the bowels of the earth, in search of something a friend saw. His rope snaps and he falls, and is rescued by an unheard of civilisation. These are the Vril.

At this point I am going to crib from the introduction from my edition, by Matthew Sweet (as heard on BBC Radio).

'From the evidence of their language, the visitor concludes that the Vril-ya are of Aryan descent. Physically, they resemble Native Americans. Their civilisation offers a life of serene indolence for adults and frantic industry for children. Junior Vril-ya serve in the army, staff the shops and fend off the underworld's native population of carnivorous lizards. Vril-ya parents, however, loll about in well-appointed villas eating fruit and listening to the twittering of caged birds. Crime, adultery and literature have all died away in this civilisation. Feminism*, vegetarianism and choral music flourish. Artificial sunlight beams down, fearsome weapons keep the barbarians of the lower regions at bay, machines perform menial tasks. And the power that motivates this society - the mastery of Vril - is a genetic inheritance: thick bunches of nerves in the hands allow the Vril-ya to control its flow, to channel its power in acts of creation or destruction, and to fly through the vast recesses of their world on mechanical wings.'

[*Of course, a Victorian, male-authored feminism. As any set of political beliefs of another age, likely to be frustrating or bewildering; Cf. Christine de Pizan.]

The trouble is, people took the whole business rather seriously. Some people asserted (and, as Sweet says in his Introduction, some folk still assert) that this was a real thing. Bulwar-Lytton denied it: this did not stop folk from trying to create or summon up the powers of the Vril into men. Arthur Lovell was one such man. These notions may not have taken off, but the term Vril persisted, into the fiction (either explicit fictions, or the lunatic fringe) of Nazi esotericism. Vril persisted in one other notable place - the meaty spread Bovril [Bovine+Vril; energy from beef!].

This has very little bearing on the topic at hand, but it is a marvellous image. Whatever
we might say about advertisements in our own time, I wonder if anything of this nature would be produced today.

I should like to point out how bloody silly this all is. But this has not stopped similar things happening: witness the Jedi census phenomenon. Apparently digging into Taoist works (or any of the other real world inspirations) wasn't enough: there had to be laser swords as well.

A little harsh, you might say. A different kettle of fish to the Vril, you might say. True enough. To continue to take Star Wars as an example, imagine a world, some century and a half from the present day. The Jedi path was embraced by the fringes of a totalitarian ideology, even if it barely ever got enough serious adherents together to rent a Village Hall, let alone form a temple. The films themselves have been long neglected by the majority of the viewing public. One mainstream remnant of it is the popularity of 'The Force' anti-bacterial spray (the nozzle of the canister it comes is meant to be faintly reminiscent of a lightsabre).

Yes, this is a baffling picture. Yes, it may even be a funny one.

***

"That's all very well, old chap, but what does any of this have to do with Veins of the Earth?"


First of all, The Coming Race is part of the Underdark canon, if canon is the right term here.

There's an Appendix N for Veins of the Earth here, but while I would acknowledge the importance of all those books to Patrick Stuart, there is a wider body of literature to examine. The Coming Race, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Shadow People, The Silver Chair. Some of it dovetails quite well with Veins (think of Axel in Journey to the Centre of the Earth dying of thirst in a lightless passage). All grist for the mill.

The Vril-ya themselves, however, are perhaps not the best fit for the twisted, specialised societies of Veins. Even if one does not see them as representing a utopia, they have a stability, plenty and sanity quite unlike other inhabitants of the Veins.

Further, the sheer power of the Vril (even if one happens to have brought a few beefy mages down below with you) is rather difficult to contend with. No, one doesn't have to fight everything in the Veins. Yes, one might end up doing so. (The Vril-ya might well shoot first when confronting the average band of murderhobos).

Of course, the history of The Coming Race itself may be a source of inspiration. The business of Vril energy and crackpot schemers or despots lends itself to the dErO. The placidity and indolent perfection of the Vril-ya might recall the AElf-Adal in repose.


Bovril 250g.jpg
"Brown?
Was the spread brown? Was it?
Where have you hidden the spread?"
Putting the Vril-ya as is straight into Veins would be troublesome, as stated. Of course, the twist in the tale would be entirely in OSR tradition. A Utopia can always be fuel for a Dystopia; The Coming Race's (not uncontested) treatment of democracy does not even make this terribly hard. Doubly so when it emerges from such an unfashionable century as the Nineteenth.*

To quote Sweet's introduction again, consider that 'serene indolence for adults and frantic industry for children.' It certainly could be construed as something like a prettier version of the Knotsmen.

The Vril itself will always produce questions, when considered by the RPG-driven mind. From where does this power derive? How many points must one expand to wield it? Who gives it to you? The answers may not be comforting ones. ("It was [Beelzebub, Nyarlathotep, Tiamut, &c.] all along!")

Of course, the Veins have enough room to make something like the Vril-ya proper appear - but only, one suspects, briefly or in small numbers. There could be no going back to them; only the jurney forward: perhaps to reach the surface - or to perish.





*Though I cannot quite conceive how one makes a very concrete dystopia out of Morris's News from Nowhere.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Social Cues and Character Classes

Premise: Social interaction in RPGs can be influenced by what character class you play. This is obvious, after a fashion: folk treat priests differently to soldiers. Therefore, when you play a character class you can emphasise the social traits of that class or not.

A mechanical notion: the maintenance of the social traits can be put into the hands of the player, not the GM or similar. First, this is because the player needs to play the character - is the fighter a stoic, loyal, soldier or a raging, homeless, barbarian? Secondly, the mechanical aspect of remembering to keep the social traits or cues present is useful, in that the player must maintain this status as an act of will.

These very mechanics are flexible, but a character's weekly schedule might include some time set aside to the cultivation of those traits.  Aside from any choices they might make regarding items: if the cleric puts on a pagan amulet, regardless of the benefits (+4 to XYZ)), even if it has no real supernatural downsides - is going to look odd.

As any aspect of a society, these are going to be differences between settings. I am going to employ the European Medievalism of Terrae Vertebrae, paired with the system I know best: The 52 Pages.

Fighter: making it clear to the world at large that you are a fighter is not hard - just carry a sword and armour. However, there are certain specialities needed to gain the 'Fighter Social Trait Bonus'. First, do not wear any armour, clothes or other accoutrements with the symbols of a king or lord or other power structure. It is acceptable to have dwarf hallmarks from the smith on your helm; it is not acceptable if the helm is covered with the war-runes of the Dwarf Kingdom of the Bronze Chasm.

Second, you may wear a symbol - but only a voided symbol: a plain, blank black shield. (A quick look at this post may be relevant for unaffiliated men-at-arms - though that is a very regulated mercenary world). This cannot be concealed.

Rogue: the mind goes instantly to gang colours or pirate flags or thieves' cant. But would one really wish to indicate that one was a Rogue? The class title is what it is and need not have any given interaction with the world of crime. Does a rogue even have a social status?

The answer (or my answer) is to say: like the fighter, but with more looseness, more swagger. It is not necessary, either to refrain from wearing symbols: it is necessary to defend yourself from those coming after you for wearing them.  Likewise, there is an exhibition of successes: wear your loot! This is a distinction: a fighter is methodical; a rogue is intuitive. However, you must refrain from interaction with the more prominent criminal gangs.

Wizard: the staff is traditional. But the thing that really proofs you as a wizard is a license. The wizard must proof their abilities and that they can use them safely. Therefore, the main social cue that comforts folk around a wizard is a license, or diploma. This is generally carried in a dedicated scroll case in an accessible place on the wizards body (a belt pouch, or across the shoulder). The display of a single scroll case, for many, is a good enough indicator in and off itself of being a socially benign wizard.

Prophet: the class is called prophet, not cleric. No-one insists on you wearing liturgical vestments in the dungeon - still less a dog-collar. Therefore, I would opt for another aspect of religious practice: the tonsure. The connection to monastic life sets it aside from the secular clergy and the Church hierarchy. As above, not wearing pagan amulets is entirely necessary. Wearing a symbol of the Faith of the Eight or appropriate Saint's icon is - if for no other reason than Van Helsing vampire repellant ones.

Dwarf: don't trim the beard. Keep all hair braided carefully. Humans can grow facial hair; only dwarves care for and properly maintain a beard (or braid; I've never jumped one way or the other on female dwarves and beards).

Elves: don't conceal the ears. Terrae Vertebrae elves tend to have a link or association with a place and community in that place; those wandering will carry something to carry on the link. This is probably not a pot plant, but more a locket contraption perhaps - at least, for woodland elves. A phial of seawater for the insular elven communities.

Caprines: very much as in the link. Don't conceal the horns or the hooves.

Hereafter, Next 52 specialities.

Bard: the musical instrument must be on display. Colourful attire - at least, hat and scarf or other peripheral attire.

Militant: a mix of fighter and prophet. Don't display symbols - excepting religious ones. Tonsure or equivalent advised but not compulsory.

Mystic: as wizard and prophet - display both of license-scroll case and religous symbol. Avoid pagan amulets; tonsure or equivalent advised but not compulsory.

Mountebank: as rogue, but more colourful and flamboyant (as Bard).

Whether or not a character wishes to be known as an especially Dwarven dwarf, or wishes to conceal themselves, or simply wants to dress in a certain way is up to them. But if you want to trade on your position without any other kind of references or letters of introduction or preceding reputation, this is the way to do it.



Sunday, 8 April 2018

State of Play 2,018

A drop in posts over Easter, but I am still about. Further, somehow this little Blog with a mealy-mouthed name has garnered over 2,018 views. Many thanks! A slightly arbitrary number to commemorate, but not entirely unfitting.

Points about the Blog I am mulling over:

  • An explicitly international audience, though the quantity of views apparently coming from Algeria is somewhat baffling. The bulk of readers seem to be Anglosphere.
  • A lack of comments. If you have a pertinent remark, I should be interested to hear it.
  • The 'default orange' look of the site. I might spruce things up at some point.
  • The most popular posts are: Azoth, Fifty Religious Processions, Majipoor and both Sphinxes.


A few things for the near future:

-I might have said I was done with Terrae Vertebrae for a bit, but I have at least one thing of that setting I should like to put before you. Given Terrae Vertebrae's somewhat generic status, this should be easy enough to tailor to fit other settings. It started in my mind as (North) Western European Medieval, but elements of it could fit in quite nicely with what I know of Tang Dynasty China (for instance).

-That said, I should like to put the Land of Punth, the Qryth and some of the surroundings in a separate category (A new label will be affixed to posts). Besides it having an explicit different flavour to the rest of Terrae Vertebrae, it would be an easy 'unit of setting' for somebody to drop into a game un-tailored. Though I should like to flesh it out a little more first. A few random encounter tables, another hexcrawl perhaps, a partial list of the Codes and a few access points to Punth (Austergate being an example). 

-Progress grinds slowly on the 18th Century setting (referenced initially here, hinted at elsewhere), which probably would be (sub-) titled White Hot Sparks from the Crucible of the Enlightenment. I have some moderately fleshed-out World-Building stuff so I have named cities or gulfs or kingdoms. But the trick with this seems rather to be a feeling of magic that participates in the nature of the Enlightenment and that systematising of knowledge. I might post a reading list of things I've been looking at. 

-In mock-tribute to this post over at Monsters and Manuals, and with an eye kept on this, there will likely be further C.S. Lewis posts. (Though I can't say the same for Terry Goodkind or some others on that list).

-I should like to put Fallout: Home Counties in some sort of finished state, though any serious work on it is unlikely until I can ground myself well in a system that might support it.

-A few more reviews might accumulate.

***

Finally, to ensure this post isn't purely self-regarding and inward-looking, have a d8 list of encounters based on a collection of beer caps I recently saw.

1. A thistle half the height of a man. A red eye stares balefully from its centre. Its leaves rustle, even when there is no wind.
2. Crescent hounds, backs twisted into the curve of the moon scamper across the moor, yapping and snapping at anything crossing their path. How are these dog's backs bent into that cruel shape? No-one knows, or no-one tells.
3. The skull of a drowned mariner, still wreathed in seaweed. Who took it so far from the coast?
4. An elongated badger seeks something in the ground. There must be something in the beast to stretch it's body so - or to bring it out during the day.
5. A harp all of black - soundboard, pegs, strings, column. What kind of music does it make?
6. On a rock, the mark of a red hand. There is nothing out here to point towards; surely nothing to be avoided. Who spent time cutting and staining the stone?
7. Leaves grow through a red, demonic skull. Vines entwine barbed crimson limbs. Is this a possessed dryad or an ensnared devil?
8. Could that be a windmill on the horizon? What else would stand so tall - or wave its arms so?

***

Any thoughts would, as ever, be appreciated.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Occult Detective Pastiche

A little outside my normal material. Instantly generate a pastiche/parody occult detective with 6d10!

First Name Surname Profession First Word Profession Second Word Clothing Hat
George/Georgia Pulpit Occult Detective Trenchcoat Fedora
Nicolas/Nicola Narthex Magical Investigator Leather jacket Stetson
Tobias/Titania Choir-Loft Supernatural Freelancer Pinstriped suit Bowler
Jonah/Johanna Tabernacle Mystery Consultant Evening dress Top hat
David/Deborah Sacristry Paranormal Specialist Morning suit Boater
Arthur/Amelia Belfry Twilight Operative Cassock Biretta
Richard/Rosamund Iconostasis Witch Finder Seersucker suit Bishop Andrewes cap /Canterbury cap
[That is...]
James/Janet Chancel Crypto- Questor Nehru jacket Capotain [IE]
Constantius/Constance Hymnboard Transdimensional Agent Wax jacket Flat cap
Habbakkuk/Harriet Lectern Shadow Barrister Legal robes Horsehair wig

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Civic Elves

The concept of Elves in the City may conjure up a number of images to you. A standard one might come from something like the Shadowrun games; an urban setting inspired by a mix of fantasy and cyberpunk, dropping woodland creatures into the urban sprawl of the twentieth century. Elves with leather jackets and piercings, with keyboards and terminals, with switchblade and uzi.

[Incidentally, if there isn't a late twentieth century Role playing system called With Switchblade and Uzi, there ought to be.]

Your mind might turn to the Dragon Age games: the setting - the world of Theldas, draws from Medieval Europe (unlike Shadowrun). A certain section of the Elven population dwells in human cities, in ghettos known as Alienages. As you might expect, the friction between the two groups is greater than in other examples of fantasy games or books.

These are hardly the only examples of their kind. The Warhammer Fantasy pseudo-Atlantis of Ulthuan is filled with Elven cities. Tolkien himself describes Elven cities: Gondolin being perhaps the most famous. More recently, I understand the Netflix motion picture Bright to have linked elves very directly with twenty-first century Western affluence (the porcelain complexion elves have been often portrayed with being likely relevant).

I should like, however, to draw a line swiftly under these images. Let us discard the elf directly influenced by a twenty-first century conception of urban life; let us also put to one side the pure-Elven cities of high fantasy. A more cosmopolitan city (probably human-run) is brought for your consideration - one with Elven districts, rather than alienages or ghettoes.

However, these are still Elves on the Tolkien model. Long lived, skilful, thoughtful, graceful. What sort of communities might they build?

It might look a little like the Inns of Court, or an Oxbridge college. The comparison is made not in terms of social function, or professions of the inhabitants - though Elves could certainly be professors or barristers; an Elven judge doesn't just make precedent, he IS precedent.... [The notion of Elf-Rumpole must be quashed immediately.]

No, the comparison is made in terms of architecture and institutional process. The architectural angle suggests itself easily enough: relatively self-contained regions, well-madeplaces with wealth enough to keep them maintained (elves, even if not necessarily hugely wealthy, are presumably willing to work hard at keeping their homes up to scratch), cobblestones worn smooth and glossy by innumerably footsteps. The Gothic and Jacobean buildings possessed by some of Inns of Court or colleges are fitting: Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptation of Lord of the Rings uses a sort of Gothic revival style for Elven buildings, focussing on the naturalistic features of Gothic architecture and snipping away any very bright colours. (Although this gentleman makes the comparison to Art Nouveau).

(Incidentally, I am not suggesting that Oxbridge colleges or the Inns of Court have always been neat, clean, 'Elf-worthy' spots. In the days of Dr Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, for instance, I am by no means sure that the Temple was.)

[I have discussed the Arts and Crafts movement, roughly contemperenous with the Gothic revival here - this article may be considered a companion piece of sorts.]

From Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Consider that tracery; other views available here.
The pillars and colonnades in this clip are also a good from the Gothic revival point of view, though the
painted artwork is rather more naturalistic than below - and the arches less pointed.





















Consider for comparison...

Interior, All Saints' Church, Cambridge (Image from Wikipedia)
...or...


Interior, All Saints, Margaret Street, London - once again from Wikipedia.
...or indeed, the Palace of Westminster.

Of course, Elven architecture would be less ecclesiastical (if not, however, irreligious). The images of Rivendell above also have something of the vernacular about them (Cf. Dragestil).  Perhaps Gothic revival Elves or Oxford Movement Elves are something for another day.

One could also have Elves take up a more Classical or Georgian form - in which case perhaps an Elven community might look like New Town, Edinburgh next to the cramped tenements around the Castle and crags. However, enough of architecture for a time.

Let us also think on the nature of the institutions referenced above. Old fashioned in certain regards. Wealthy, if not as wealthy as corporations - and with a less profit-driven motive (regardless of how much money gets made). Prestigious and influential, certainly - bur prestige and influence not based on raw power or numbers or deep coffers. (Wizards often get the University model thrust towards them in fantasy fiction - but I feel Elves could have it attributed to them successfully).

Elves don't strike me as terribly antisocial: capable of being alone and prospering, certainly. But the notion that they would adhere to one another in the metropolis - so that one might have of refuge from the follies and transience of the human life (without the Elves in question actively despising humanity - those that do like as not stay in the forest or the isles).

Moreover, if one were to ask after the foundation of such a place it might be that the courts and gardens of the Elven Quarter were built after they had been exiled, when the Dark Lord occupied the forests of the Verdant Dale...(&c.).  Migrations into cities for Tolkien-esque Elves does not seem a process that would occur naturally.

I bear no grudge to Shadowrun or Bright. But here is a vision not of the Urban fantasy sub-genre, though it is firmly based in the city - hence the title I have used here, Civic Elves. Elves in the city not entirely divorced from their roots in Tolkien - or indeed his inspirations.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Sphinx Specimens

Having made this post suggesting a series of Sphinxes as dragon substitutes, I have been meaning to provide some examples. Consider the specimens below those very examples - the equivalent of Skerples' Grand Lair. The Reptilian corollary to the former post is in effect, after a fashion.

***
The ancient city of Ophidopolis was built atop the rocky bluffs of the Viprous Rise above the River that bisects the desert. The caverns below served any number of purposes for the residents; sewers, mines, middens, tombs. But they were also quite capable of sheltering other things. Warm-blooded things, that hide from the nurturing sun.

Now that Ophidopolis has dwindled, the bulk of trade and the population moving to the city's former harbour at Pythia's Cataract, they have only become more bold. Five of the greatest are monstrous sphinxes, amalgams of beasts with the wits of men....

***
Phalkus

Lair: The Rose-Red Canyon was once the main entrance to the caverns. In the warren of gates, shaft entrances, yards and offices, an Androsphinx has made a home.

Sphinx: Phalkus is the size of a lorry. His fur is constantly serving to catch the sand and dust that settles into the Rose-Red canyon, and has taken on this colour - unless he has been freshly groomed by his Servants, when his colour appears rather similar to tanned, leathery skin. The fur of an androshpinx is less extensive than other sphinxes - his skins is visible beneath the fur, though it is of a hue with it.

Phalkus can breathe out a great cloud to cover himself, so he can move through the canyon during the day without overheating. This makes his presence obvious, but it often disorients or discomforts those around him. Phalkus is willing to take advantage of this.

Desires: a regular flow of tribute and allegiance. Phalkus has no objections to letting folk into the caverns, but notes who has gone though and thus who precisely should be shaken down if they try to leave. He has a number of arrangements with possibly-legitimate businessmen in Pythia's Cataract to exploit the caverns for what can be found. Phalkus would happily deal with the City Fathers for something more permanent and secure, though they have not thought it wise or proper to deal with a sphinx.

Hoard: ledgers, markers, tally sticks. Records of who has passed by; items of their clothing with which to track them. Magic items that assist with the same, as well as enchanted parchment necessary for magically binding covenants.

Followers: a number of dog-kobolds, mostly resembling golden retrievers. They are fine trackers and scouts, often put to this use by the Sphinxborn warriors of Phalkus (and aided by his collection of scent-samples).

Phalkus's Sphinxborn are remarkable human-looking, differing principally in the shape of eyes and placement of ears. Their armour deliberately mimics lion limbs and paws, to get into the proper sphinx-attitude. They are called on more often as guards and bouncers than warriors, but should not be underestimated.

Phalkus's Sycophants tend to serve as scribes and witnesses or archivists, maintaining the ledgers and records. A few are skilled sketch artists, capable of making mug-shots for the archives. Phalkus himself can remember most of those who have passed by, but the kobolds and Sphinxborn need a helping hand. They tend to done rose-red clothing like the canyon. Many are undead or re-animated in some fashion, sustained by Phalkus's covenants and deals. Many are there unwillingly.

Alliances: deals regularly with Khyrsowex, but doesn't trust him. The bull-headed sphinx bruises his pride.

He dislikes the sincerity of Chindasuinth, though has a hidden awe for Gyravagne.

Trade Goods: information, principally. His kobolds make for fine trackers. Phalkus is always good for a loan of one kind or the other.

***
Gyravagne the Grey

Sphinx: A hiercosphinx, about the size of a Church, with the colouration of a peregrine falcon (grey head, back and wings, tawny/dappled belly and flanks). She is an extravagant beast, given to great spontaneous displays of might. The notion of a rehearsed procession or protocol is rather lost on her.

Gyravagne can breath whirlwinds and has almost total control of her environment for the one thing she enjoys best - flight.  Hieracosphinxes tend to be self-absorbed, she is no exception. Do not suggest that she might enjoy flying elsewhere. She has a notion of her limitations in the desert and does not care to consider them overmuch.

Lair: perched on the brink of a chasm, wide enough for Gyravagne to fly in. The chasm is very wide and is said to be bottomless. [It almost certainly leads to the Veins of the Earth.] A series of ramshackle dwellings for her Sphinxspawned circle a wide landing ground. A separate chamber for her moments of rare privacy is actually a naturally occurring opening in the side of the chasm. Some of her Sphinxspawned are digging shafts down to facilitate contact.

Desires: somewhere new to fly in. Some one to fly with. More ways of controlling the weather.

Hoard: flying machines, ancient and modern; an aviary; sphinx-size grooming and physical training devices.

Followers: her dog-kobolds tend to resemble greyhounds or whippets: aerodynamic and slight. Most like to make gliders and flying machines to imitate their mistress. She indulges them, like pets, often summoning the winds for them. However, the loss of one or two into the chasm does not appall her.

The Sphinxborn resemble raptors and birds of prey; for one to be born resembling Gyravagne is considered a great fortune. They are not built for flight and tend to spend their time obsessively patrolling the perimeter of the lair and putting the kobolds in their place. Gyravagne regards them as glum, fussy servants: useful, but rarely entertaining.

Her Sycophants are basically her ground crew: grooms, physiotherapists, meteorologists specialising in the microclimate of the chasm and the effects of her whirlwinds. They tend to have a genuine interest in her. A chosen few have ridden on her back as she flies. This is as exciting and as amazing as you think it is.

Alliances: None that seem lasting. Regards Chindasuinth as sufficiently disinterested in her interests to be a decent ally of convenience.

Gravagne regards Chelloron as insufferably low-minded and Phalkus as a grubby profiteer. However, she finds some measure of ground with the powerful and candid Khyrsowex.

Trade Goods: Gyavagne tends to get by on bluster and bravado. However, she has discovered sufficient seams of precious minerals in her flights, and prompts her followers to excavate them accordingly.

***
Chindasuinth the Confessor

Sphinx: A criosphinx, the size of a barn. His wool-cum-fur is white and fleecy. Obsessed with the correct method of any given process.

A priest of his own church, imitating as perfectly as possible the customs of a major established faith above ground, especially in matters of ritual. (To those venturing into his realm, this is deeply unsettling, like a dragon celebrating mass. It might say grace first, but it is still liable to eat you.) Chindasuinth's customs have naturally diverged somewhat from the orthodox path.

Chindasuinth regards the faith he has adopted as theologically sound and thorough: the right way to go about the matter of existing. He has no (as-such) plan of good works or welfare for his flock, but regards their presence in the rituals and schooling in the faith as the be-all and end-all of his duties (duties which he is incredibly attentive to).

Lair: a series of narrow caverns, honeycombed into one large Church like building. The portals in are watched closely. A number of warren-cloisters have been excavated for his followers.

The plan is very like that of a Church, but the high altar and all the places for the High Priest must be criosphinx-sized, rather distorting the proportions of certain sections.

Desires: converts, alignment with the above-ground hierarchy (whom he would no doubt regard as heresiarchs), the means to expand his church. Theological debate.

Hoard: theological tomes, liturgical vestments and gear, manuals and encyclopaediae from his former searches for meaning and method.

Followers: the kobolds around Chindasuinth are generally collie-like: upright and attentive. The can be found attending to smallholdings of fungus or in workshops when not at worship. Chindsasuinth regards them as lay brethren requiring careful shepherding.

His Sphinxborn bear a resemblance to really muscular fauns. They regard themselves as in training for the Defence of the Faith and are treat this with a very real seriousness: their neatest co-religionists are above ground.

The Sycophants around Chindasuinth fulfil all the specialised roles of divine worship: torchbearers, choir chorus, cantors, thurifers, Church wardens. None are as such mummified, but many cling to life tenuously through the patterns of Chindasuinth-led worship.

Alliances: Chindasuinth has a Don Camillo-Peppone thing ongoing with Chelloron. They are unlikely to work together, except against common enemy.

He regards Khyrsowex as making poor use of his flock; he actively spurns the worldly Phalkus.

Trade Goods: Worked goods: Chindasuinth's previous occupations do him good service in putting his flock to work. Religious art is also in abundance - if the work of kobold paws delights you.

***
Chelloron

Sphinx: a jackal-headed sphinx. She is gregarious, arch and patient. Her pelt is a rusty black. Chelloron is the approximate size of a village marketplace.

Chelloron makes use of all around her. Everything has a use; nothing is to be thrown away. Even her own refuse is considered as in some way an active part of her resources, no matter how worn, pointless or useless any given thing may happen to be. Even noxious substances can be kept and used - possibly as weapons [Germ warfare? She might ask why it is more terrible than other warfare.] She is an active utilitarian - largely divorced from any given code -, an improver - even a do-gooder, with all the negative and positive connotations that brings.

Lair: a former midden. A chasm to the surface, once a pit for all the refuse and spoil of the mine workings and the city above. It is not a foul place, many centuries on. Chelloron tends to perch on a ledge above it.

Desires: Space for her possessions and means of improving them. Whereupon that space will become her possession.

She is pragmatic enough to bargain for (for instance) ingots of steel when it would be to her advantage to have steel, but Chelloron is not discerning.

Hoard: a genuine bounty of objects, put to different uses. You will find very little that serves it's intended function.

Followers: her dog-kobolds are burrowers, nimble chasers, seekers - they resemble Dachshunds and are, relatively speaking,  even worse collectors and hoarders than Chelloron. They must be coaxed into use.

Her Sphinxspawn are not the sturdiest of their kind. They tend to the use of traps, of snipers, of ambuscades. They are patient and might be though more like Rangers than Fighters.

The sycophants around her tend to be fallen lords, failed conquerers and former politicians. They have a desperation, a need to put to use everything around them to bolster their cause. They know quite how fast and far one can fall.

Alliances: Chindasuinth has a Don Camillo-Peppone thing ongoing with Chelloron. They are unlikely to work together, except against common enemy.

She appreciates Khyrsowex's farms, but not his attitude. Phalkus amuses her, in a contemptuous fashion - why make use only of folk? How foolish!

Trade Goods: most any common or semi-rare item, but it is probably broken or defaced.

***
Khyrsowex

Sphinx: a bull-headed sphinx. Overbearing, chummy, thinks he has a winning air. Harsh and ruthless when crossed; generous when obeyed or dealt with in what he deems a respectful fashion.

If you want a real world reference, a Southern Gentleman of cliche. He is about the size of a large Church.

Lair: a tightly run and productive series of underground farms, largely rearing mushrooms. Khyrsowex's own habitual chamber lies at the centre of the many passages connecting them.

Desires: a few really good constitutional scholars, lawyers and teachers. He'd like educated servants and a moderately sophisticated society to run. While at it, an expansion of the amount of folk lucky enough to enjoy his enlightened rule would be nice.

Hoard: crops, contented servants, tools, weapons. Minor luxuries of many kinds.

Followers: Khyrsoex's dog-kobolds have the look of German Shepherds: trim and muscular, obedient. They work the fields and watch the boundaries.

His Sphinxspawn are broad, often horned like minotaurs - and surprisingly quick for such bulky creatures. Stronger than you, swifter than you and dedicated to defending their master.

Those sycophants that surround him tend to be merchants, former or current. They know the value of stability; the uses of a settled land and an obedient populous.

Alliances: not quite self-conceited enough to imagine that Phalkus obeys him, but imagines Phalkus fears him. He hopes to suborn Chindasuinth.

Trade Goods: Food, shelter, protection. As long as you want it. As long as you show that you want it.

However, if necessary, Khyrsowex will dip into the petty cash.

***
Why visit the caverns beneath old Ophidopolis?

Wealth. Magical items of unknown heritage. Desperation. Knowledge. Centuries old cultural artefacts. Obligation. All these might drive you in, but the Five above will drive you out.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Clark Ashton Smith: End of the First Impressions

I have finished Emperor of Dreams now, and intend to finish up or follow up any thoughts in this post.

Image result for Emperor of Dreams
From the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks collection. Cover by JK Potter.

That Weird Fiction of the 1930s United States has HP Lovecraft on the East Coast, Robert E Howard in Texas and Clark Ashton Smith on the West Coast seems very neat, if purely coincidental. [I want to see a Raymond Chandler pastiche where Philip Marlowe meets an old down-on-his-luck CAS in a California backwater.]

CAS still seems to like mummies - and has a very strong notion of them, not just as Egyptian themed vampires but as something more. If all monsters are supposed to tap into some kind of existing fear, it is interesting to consider what the mummy might be. Perhaps some kind of invocation of the past and being trapped in it; perhaps some kind of active, worldly malevolent power (Egypt as the oppressor - of God's Chosen, the Israelites) - one that firmly believes you can take it with you.

Same with Gorgons, incidentally. It would be interesting to encounter a horror story around Gorgons rather than retreading Perseus in some form.

'The Root of Ampoi' - decent stuff, this. Suitable framing device, well though through - it doesn't quite take sides, which is an advantage. Make this into a television episode or something [Black Mirror of Galadriel?] and it would become a wonderful salient in the Culture Wars.

There's some real Grand Guignol over-the -top horror here; apply yourself to 'A Good Embalmer' for this sort of thing. I have learnt that there was an adaptation of 'The Sourcerer's Return' starring Vincent Price. This does not surprise me.

Zothique never quite seems to coalesce into anything more definite for me than The Thousand and One Nights with a superfluity of mummies. The good stories set in Zothique never seem to be about Zothique or to rely on the atmosphere of Zothique. That the living kingdoms are outnumbered by the dead is clear - but it never embraces the Dying Earth so well as Vance or Wolfe. Not that we need blame CAS for this.

Averoigne turns into something a deal less delightful than one might perhaps have thought. The tale 'The Beast of Averoigne' is possibly the best in the collection. 'Mother of Toads' just feels rather crass.

Hyperborea continues to delight - 'The Seven Geases' vies with 'The Door to Turn in terms of scope and playfulness. 'The Theft of Thirty-Nine Girdles' is a good straightforward piece of roguery - something which more could turn their hands to, quite free of supposed heroics or attempts to make us get in touch with characters of a very different time and place. However, despite being a rather pure heist story, this tale also ends with the disappearance of a sorcerer - one who was instructed specifically to avoid the occult this time round and stick to chemistry.

It's this sort of thing that cuts across CAS's tales being described as decadent; no-one ever gets to delight overmuch in their wickedness, or so it seems. Perhaps it is not surprising that 1930s America would not publish such; perhaps this is the equivalent of the villainous gangster getting away with crime until the very end of the final reel when the police rush in - but it raises a wider question about 'decadent' literature. Is it ever totally decadent? Surely not, if some moral intervenes. But it would be difficult to call it literature (in the status laden, judgemental use of the word). A tale where a wizard summons up a succubus and has a jolly good time isn't really doing a great deal with the plot or characters, in some ways. It is pretty much pornography - whatever the actual content (IE, a wizard entreats a demon to destroy his enemies - and they are promptly destroyed with no ill consequences to the wizard). This needn't be bad - but it may well be limiting.

(A tale where a wizard summons up a succubus and she turns out to be a person in her own right isn't quite decadent, totally or partially; not so much a courting of otherworldly powers as getting to know someone from another culture. This is different from deliberately embracing that which one knows to be not of one's kind; something of definite otherness and irreconcilable difference. I have not seen The Shape of Water [TOPICAL] but it strikes me as being the former rather than the latter).

CAS's life is fascinating and oddly sad. An autodidact, raised in an isolated cabin in the Sierras, who dwelt with his parents until their death. An early-published poet, who never lived up to early promise and popularity. He never quite made a living from his stories, especially in later life, taking up part-work where he could find it. So, no, he never made it to France. He survived HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, but seems to have lived a life not unlike theirs. CAS was oddly in touch with the needs of reality for an author of such elaborate fantasies.

***

I am certainly glad to have read CAS's stories, however down on some of them I might have been. Part of this is just taking such a large dose of them; I am doing this with some of Tim Powers's short stories currently. This is a lifetime's work - it should not be odd if things repeat; they were not being written as close to one another as I read them. Take a trip to Hyperborea or Zothique yourselves; the journey is quite something.

***
Pick up the collection yourself, or head over to Eldritch Dark for short stories and some of Clark Ashton Smith's art and sculpture.