Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Stygian Library: A few thoughts

Turns out this is my hundredth post. As a milestone of sorts, this will be a little longer than usual and as a treat it is actually immediately relevant and useful. Hoorah.

If I started the last review with a meditation on place, I cannot quite do the same here. I have been in many libraries, but never felt the same strangeness as a garden. Nor have I been in quite so many old libraries as formal gardens. But still, the manner of the structure is the same as The Gardens of Ynn. The strangeness of this place is brought forward. A place dedicated to preserving books, scrolls, collections of documents. Human-sized, perhaps – but not human friendly.
The literary antecedents of great libraries vary. The library of the Unseen University in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the most obvious ancestor of the Stygian library; Pratchett even gets a dedication on the flyleaf. Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel is the perhaps the tale that is most centred on a library – an especially inhuman one, at that. Borges may have inspired the late Umberto Eco in the Monastery’s library from The Name of the Rose (consider the librarian, one Jorge, of Burgos); the library of the Citadel of Nessus from The Book of the New Sun also seems to reference the elderly, blind Borges in the Argentine National Archives. The description of this library, found in The Shadow of the Torturer is perhaps the best fantastical treatment of book as object I have read:
"We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part convinced that no trace of them survives unfossilised. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations– books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them.
 "We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning the pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and curious dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate leaves of white jade, ivory and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have here that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here – though I can no longer tell you where – no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other. All these I came to know, and I made safeguarding them my life's devotion.
For reasons that should be clear towards the end of the review, I feel I should also mention the realm of horror. Think of the House of Usher, from the story by Edgar Allen Poe. Hardly short of books; choked, almost with the things. The narrator of The Raven paws over ‘many ’a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’. The antiquarian and the scholar will be familiar to readers of HP Lovecraft or MR James.
From Roger Corman's 1964 film of The Masque of the Red Death.
I have mentioned Poe, and cloaked figures in different robes will enter the tale shortly...
Where does this leave Emmy Allen’s latest work?
It exhibits the same structural features as The Gardens of Ynn. It is clearly positioned in the same light as the previous work.
[From the Introduction: Well, people seemed to like Ynn. So, here’s more in a similar vein. Ynn was outdoors, this is indoors. Different locations and monsters, but the same basic tone and structure.  ]
Yet it doesn’t strike the same note – nor should it; the indoors versus the outdoors – the library set against the garden. The wild breaking free of cultivation as opposed to the structured storage of knowledge. But of course this defies those ever-familiar OSR aesthetics of ruin and the Stygian Library is certainly not ruined. Aside from the network of ducts and feeds, the staff – the librarians of five different coloured robes – are alive and well and kicking (or as like to that state as may be said of those mysterious folk). Scholars may research in relative peace (supposing they can get in). Food and other essentials are provided; though in a far more genteel fashion than the one-man alcoves of the Library of Babel
Yes, you can move through the Stygian library with relative impunity. (There is perhaps a reason Pratchett never used L-Space for much in the way of adventure). The gateways to Hell, brains in a jar, giant beehives and so forth are quite deep into this otherwise cordial realm.  This is a library; expect books. There are simple, fairly intuitive rules about how to find a given book or piece of information. The librarians might even be able to help you. You may even be able to find different source of information; one of the most emblematic parts of the library are the devices to store and contain phantoms –spirits, ghosts – an artificial afterlife, perhaps for scholarly purposes. A series of mechanical computers even exist, rather similar to Hex, an artificial intelligence of Pratchett’s Discworld.
The ultimate purpose of the library has a degree of ambiguity about it*. It is extensive and intricate yet has no obvious goal (beyond perhaps facilitating the studies of others, and it is by no means clear that this is a purely philanthropic endeavour). A dungeon (or any adventure module in a contained place) tends to pose an obvious threat even if the players have no goal. The Gardens of Ynn had definite threat to life and limb in the form of the broken down intricacies of the garden, the crumbling edges of the pocket dimension and the Idea at its centre. This is hardly the case in the Stygian Library. The name, the dealings with Hell, the spooky librarians, the phantoms – none of it bodes well, but little seems directly or overtly malevolent. The librarians would likely thank you for pacifying those portions that are.
All this means that The Stygian Library acts as perhaps the equivalent of a Rorschach test or a Trolley problem for players. How willing are they to look for trouble? What think they to the methods of the librarians? There are clearly horrifying elements to the library. We might even consider that the Stygian Library, divorced from reality, is a sort of critique of knowledge for its own sake.** There is something horrific about the place that serves one purpose, divorced from all others. Think of the isolated, unproductive, decaying mansion; the company town; the oil rig; the research station; the prison planet; the factory spewing out products unbrought by any customer. You might tolerate these places; you would not wish for them. To what end are you doing all that reading? It can’t be healthy; you need to get outdoors more. Meet some people.***
Clearly, it is not just a mechanism for offering a moral conundrum to the player. My advice on the use of it is roughly the same to The Gardens of Ynn. Take care with presentation; remember that you are in a library. It is slightly less picturesque as a book than The Gardens of Ynn, less directly evocative – but in terms of knotty problems, for a conceit, for dilemma – it is clearly the superior of its predecessor. It is indirect and as cloaked in darkness as the Stygian Library should be.
See here for Emmy Allen's blog and here for a place to purchase The Stygian Library

*There is a given answer, but this – quite deliberately - conceals more than it reveals.
** Or knowledge at any cost. Think of Faust, perhaps. 
***All of which brings to mind the image of hulking barbarians, poised and arrogant rogues and ironclad paladins clanking or hacking though the library, disturbing the composure of the swots, nerds and pencilnecks therein dwelling.

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