Mythos Ghosts

anathemaA few weeks ago, I attended Total Con and received a welcome invitation to join in on a Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign scheduled to begin in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the game’s Sunday night meeting schedule conflicts with my own local gaming group and I had to regretfully decline. However, the invitation got my Call of Cthulhu synapses firing again and I’ve been thinking a great deal about what to run in the future. We’re over a year into our ongoing The One Ring campaign, but I’ve already alerted the players that I’ll be calling a brief hiatus once we hit an appropriate milestone in Middle-earth. After that, it’ll be time to switch gears for a bit and something Cthulhu-related is a viable candidate.

This has thinking about how to interpret supernatural events in a Mythos-themed setting. It’s a topic I’ve attacked before with various success. Sometimes I’m turned off by the fact that in Lovecraft’s work, it’s the Mythos at the bottom of everything. From a literary standpoint, this conceit provides a solid foundation and accomplished what H.P. wanted—a different bogeyman than the traditional ghosts, vampires, and werewolves that filled the genre prior to his efforts. But from a gaming standpoint, it can be a little “same same” if the players know there’s a Mythos beastie behind every bit of backwoods folklore.

At the moment though I’m enjoying the mental exercise of trying to twist various Mythos phenomenon and entities into classical monsters—or at least as the seeds that spawn the folklore that hint at traditional monsters and evil things. You can’t get much more classical than a ghost, so I’ve start there. Off-hand, I can’t remember if Lovecraft ever wrote a story that features the restless spirit of a dead person inhabiting a crumbling building (“The Shunned House” is close, but not quite). If he did, the story is hiding in the far stacks of my mental library and I’m sure someone will remind me of it or it’ll come to me at 3 AM some stormy night [Author’s note: Or before I finish writing this essay!]. Until then, however, let’s say Howard never did and instead think about how he could have used a ghost in his stories and still plays by the Mythos rules.

  1. Sorcerer trapped in the angles of time: Now that I write that, it’s clear that “The Dreams in the Witch House” was Lovecraft’s ghost story and used this as its premise. Keziah Mason manifests from outside physical reality to carry out her evil deeds and acts very much in the ghost story tradition. But whereas Mason seems to have control over her interactions with the earthly realm, we can twist this around and make our ghost be a human sorcerer who imperfectly meddled with the angles of time and space and is now trapped in its folds. Only on certain dates, during specific astronomical events, in the presence of objects charged with magical energy or even the sorcerer’s blood relatives does it the power to manifest and interact with the physical plane. An exorcism of such a trapped wizard might appear to cleanse the house, but the “ghost’s” quiescence is really due to changing conditions closing off its access from its trapped position in the cosmic realms. This remission might last several years or only until the blood relative (likely a PC in true Call of Cthulhu fashion) returns to the house.
  2. Telekinetic Phenomenon: The classic poltergeist manifests as physical effects caused by an invisible force moving objects and people and lacking a visible form. A poltergeist could then easily be a creature, human or otherwise, capable of telekinesis. Anything from powerful psychics, diabolical magicians (such as is the case in the CoC adventure “The Haunting”), Tibetan mystics, lloigor, and the like might be the root of a poltergeist haunting. All the holy water and burning sage in the world won’t stop a haunting when its cause is the deathless wizard in the secret basement crypt or the lloigor lurking around the fetid loch near the old manor.
  3. Time Traveler: That indistinct human form glimpsed in the shadows or out of the corner of one’s eye is in fact a person under the effects of liao, the Plutonian Drug, who has ventured back into time from anywhere from a few decades in the future to centuries from now. Perhaps the strain of liao is an uncommon one that grants the user the ability to interact outside the Fourth Dimension and become visible by those it is observing. That terrible death that was attributed to the “ghost” might actually be the victim of a Hound of Tindalos on the track of the temporal visitor. The liao strain has the unintended side-effect of “marking” anyone who glimpses the ghost, making it possible for the Hounds to detect them too.
  4. Dimensional Shambler: My first exposure to the dimensional shamble (outside of “The Horror in the Museum” which doesn’t call them that by name) was Call of Cthulhu 4th edition, in which it is said that these creatures “are capable of walking between the planes and worlds” and “They can leave a plane at will, signaling the change by beginning to shimmer and fade.” One could therefore theorize that the dimensional shambler also displays some sort of shimmering and fading in when they enter a dimension. If a witness sees an indistinct thing shimmer and seem to solidify in a darkened room, this might be interpreted as a ghostly apparition—especially if the witness flees the area before the dimensional shamble fully manifests in physical form. An ancient manor may be “haunted” by a shambler who is bound into servitude to the family via an heirloom once owned by the family’s founder, a black magic dabbler who anchored the shambler to a locket or ring or other personal object. Ending the haunting would be done by freeing the dimensional shambler—but that probably causes just as many problems as it solves.
  5. Mi-Go Origin: Given the Fungi from Yoggoth’s ability to manipulate physical bodies and their vast command of technology, it’s feasible that the Mi-Go might be able to create phenomenon that could easily be misconstrued as the manifestation of deceased souls. A “harmonic wave manipulator” could allow physical creatures to pass through solid matter. A “presence projector” might create a holographic image capable of speaking with those in the vicinity of its manifestation, creating a translucent form to communicate with bystanders. Even “cloaking webs” that provide Predator-like camouflage could be responsible for ghost sightings at night or in eerie, mountainous forests.
  6. Temporal Echoes: Some scholars of the supernatural postulate that ghosts are actually holographic recordings of past events that get replayed by magnetic fields or other energy patterns. This could be one possible explanation that fits with the science fiction vibe of Lovecraft’s stories. These echoes might be naturally occurring or side effects created by the working of powerful, physics-breaking sorcery. Perhaps magic points generated by sacrificing a living creature sometimes “bleed off” instead of powering the rite they’re intended to feed and scenes from the sacrifice’s life occasionally manifest in the vicinity. This could lead to “ghost dogs” and “spectral cats” just as easily as human-shaped ghosts. Perhaps each echo also produces residual magical effects tied into the rite they died to fuel, causing all manner of mysterious harm to those who encounter them.
  7. Magic: Certain spells could recreate ghostly manifestations, allowing sorcerers to feign a haunting. While a possibility, using magic in this manner sounds like a bad Scooby-Doo episode. So why would an insane wizard use spells in this manner? Perhaps it is unintentional, being instead the perceived manifestations of a magical working? A sorcerer moves out of phase with space and time as he duels a rival or works a powerful enchantment on multiple angles of reality, creating perceived ripples in the physical world. Or maybe the sorcerer is trying to generate immense emotional energy from those observing this phenomenon in order to power a greater and potentially more sanity-blasting working to summon an eldritch thing across dimensional thresholds? Terror can be generated again and again, whereas a sacrifice gives its energy only once. One last possibility is that ghostly phenomenon are side-effects of tampering with the laws of physics and anyone working a magical spell causes phenomenon to occur in the general vicinity. This could also explain Fortean events that are sometimes linked to hauntings.
  8. Natural Tillinghast Resonator: Some substance causes the same effect as Tillinghast’s resonator, stimulating the pineal glands of those exposed to it and allowing them to perceive entities in adjacent dimensions. The substance could be a hitherto undiscovered radioactive element (perhaps one brought down from Yuggoth), an herb, a rare drug, a meteorite, or any other organic or inorganic material capable of changing the body’s physiology, even temporarily. Those exposed to the substance glimpse things swimming in and out of the visible spectrum and manifest strange wounds inflicted by these spectres.
  9. Ancestral Memory: Racial memory was a favorite plot point for Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, so adapting it to our needs in appropriate. Let’s postulate a person capable of unconscious self-hypnosis, perhaps accessing their ancestral memory when they’re in a hypnopompic state. Images of those long dead appear to them, carrying on conversations or engaging in actions they performed long ago. The subject might be susceptible to suggestion while in this state and interaction with a nefarious ancestor’s memory—perhaps those of a long-dead relative with a predilection towards serial murder—begins insinuating itself on the subject’s personality, leading to possession-like effects that are actually self-inflicted. The ghostly phenomenon would only be experienced by the subject, but their actions while “possessed” would be the vector that leads to player characters’ investigation of matters.
  10. Mythos-caused Hallucinations: The ghosts are not real, but that doesn’t mean the witnesses don’t have other problems. Some other Mythos entity is causing them to hallucinate unexplainable events. It could be the Mi-Go-manufactured spores leaking out of the Devil’s Hopyard or latent memories seeping up from the unconsciousness from that time the observer was possessed by a Yithian. The manor’s steady diet of Deep One-tainted seafood from out beyond the reef causes auditory phenomenon and makes the eater see red liquid flowing down the walls or across the floor. While the investigators are chasing spectres, the real cause is about to close in on the unsuspecting ghost-breakers.

There are undoubtedly numerous other possibilities I’m overlooking, some of which will stem from canonical Lovecraft works (such as “The Mound” now that I think of it) or the mass of extended writings filling out both the Mythos and the Call of Cthulhu RPG. I accept that. I wanted to brainstorm a bit without doing any research or fact-checking from the extended Cthulhu corpus of work, and this list is the result. Not a bad start and there’s a few solid adventure seeds and plot twists lurking in there. All in all, it’s a good beginning to the prolonged process of Mythos investigation planning. More to come.

The Latest “Weird Mail Thing” is Out

It began as an off-the-cuff remark that with the demise of Google+ I was going to return to the world of analog communications and correspond solely by snail mail. Go “Full Lovecraft” as I called it at the time. While intended as a jest, I soon called my own bluff and informed anyone in earshot that if they sent me a SASE, I’d send them something in return. The SASEs started coming in and the first installment of my “weird mail thing” was unleashed unto the world (Note: it has an actual name other than “weird mail thing,” but only those who send a SASE are told its true name).

Soon thereafter, I started receiving feedback from those curious enough to desire the first installment. Along with that feedback came another round of SASEs for the following mailing. That second installment went out in the mail this morning. Everyone who’s already sent a SASE for me to “bank” has their now-stuffed enveloped headed their way. Keep an eye on the mailbox.

For those of you who missed out and/or are curious, send a SASE (#10 business size) to the street address listed in the sidebar over there to the right. In return, you’ll receive the latest installment of the “weird mail thing” and become a member of a certain shadowy organization privy to materials otherwise unavailable to the unsuspecting public. If you wish your membership to be shared with others in the group (i.e. have your own address included in future mailings so that others can exchange curious letters with you), please include a note to that effect with your SASE.

I have a limited number of first installments still available. If you desire one of these, please state that in a note along with your SASE. People desiring both installments should send two SASE to the address over there to the right. I will attempt to accommodate requests for the first mailing as long as my supply holds out and on a first-request-first-received basis.

Strange Sinema: The Lost Room

the_lost_roomI’ve been poking around the verges of reality lately, investigating concepts and themes I don’t usually get to explore in the fantasy genre I predominantly work in. I somehow managed to miss ­Unknown Armies for two decades, but after skimming through a 1st edition I acquired from the FLGS a few years back, I’ve fallen for the game—hard. It scratches all the right itches that Mage: the Ascension never touched, and I’m leaning heavily towards running a short UA campaign as a mid-year break from our ongoing The One Ring game.

With that in mind, I revisited a mini-series that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel back when it was still called that. This three-part series was The Lost Room, a show I think myself and maybe six other people in the entire world knows about. As such, I thought I’d showcase it in brief here.

The Lost Room is about a number of mundane objects that acquired mystical powers through a mysterious event that happened in a motel room back in 1961, the aforementioned “Lost Room” of the title. These items, called simply enough “Objects” by those who know of them, have spawned a number of secret cabals, occult underworld brokers and researchers, and addicts who’ve paid horrible costs to acquire and keep an Object. Their powers vary greatly: a wristwatch cooks a hardboiled egg in a minute if it’s placed within the band, while a fake eye can destroy or recreate living flesh.

The story begins when Pittsburgh police detective Joe Miller (not the other detective of the same name on another SyFy series), played by Peter Krause, investigates a pawn shop deal gone bad where several people ended up dead over a motel room key. Miller soon finds himself in possession of that key and discovers if it’s placed in the lock of any door, that door opens to a 1960s motel room somewhere in the American Southwest. The key’s owner can then use the room to travel to any other location in the world.

Things quickly go wrong as Miller learns that the key is not only highly sought after by a number of the occult underworld’s movers and shakers, but also suffers a personal tragedy through an accidental use of the key. He’s soon on the run, trying to correct a horrible mistake and discover the truth behind the Objects’ origins.

I’m a fan of the occult underworld theme, the idea of secret cabals moving behind the scenes of modern America. The Lost Room could easily exist in the same universe as Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show or The Lord of Illusions, or be a case John Constantine gets drawn into. For a modern occult RPG, the entire plot could be lifted with little effort on the part of the game master and used whole cloth as the basis for long-term campaign. I’m actually leaning in that direction at the moment for the Unknown Armies game I’m plotting out. The fact that pretty much nobody knows about this series means your players will consider you a genius for coming up with such a complex and mysterious campaign spine that keeps them busy and engaged hunting down MacGuffins, dodging shadowy cabals, dealing with broken people whose lives have been destroyed by the Objects, and trying to find the cause of the event that created them.

Unfortunately, The Lost Room remains lost in the world of streaming video and isn’t available through the usual subscription services. Nobody has uploaded the entire series onto YouTube either. You’ll have to fork over $10 to purchase the three-DVD set, but that’s a fraction of the cost of a solid RPG sourcebook these days and you’ll find just as much as weird inspiration in those three disks as you’ll find in an urban occult splatbook at four times the price. If you check it out, let me know what you think. I suspect if we share similar tastes, you won’t be disappointed.

The Future Needs More Tinfoil Hats

This is 2019, the year of Blade Runner and Akira. We’re living in the future and it’s only sensible that I find myself looking back at the past and wondering where it all went wrong.

For me, and perhaps for others in the same age bracket as myself, the future began in the 1990s with the shriek of a 56.6k modem and the greeting of “Welcome! You’ve got mail!” The adoption of the Internet into wide-scale use changed the world in a way few other events in the history of mankind have. It gave us untapped opportunities and a lot of us glimpsed the dawning of a bright future.

Twenty years later, I’m wondering where that went.

Oh, I know where it went: we’re humans and we squander everything we’re given. We find a way to turn opportunity for greatness into a means to subjugate the many and enrich the few. Instead of communicating, we instead form gangs and sharpen knives to wield against “the other side.” Our bright future is corroded by our worst inclinations and we end up with baubles instead of riches.

Ruminating on all this leads me to look up the 1990s with rose-colored glasses. I have no illusions that I’m indulging in strong nostalgia here, but a little self-delusion can be helpful from time to time. However, what I’m about to discuss is only slightly tinged with wistfulness, so I’ll continue on with my train of thought.

Of all the things that have gone wrong with our time, the one of the most disappointing to me is that fact that conspiracy theory isn’t fun anymore. (I also fully admit it just took three turns around the barn to get to what I set out to talk about).

pyramidConspiracy theory and humanity’s ability to draw divergent events and phenomena into a unified whole has fascinated me from the first time I learned what an urban legend was. As the years passed, I found myself exposed to all manner of Kennedy assassination theories, Illuminati lore, UFO sensationalism, and far stranger ideas. I’ve always enjoyed a good conspiracy yarn while remaining skeptical about everything I read. It’s no surprise that I have an ongoing fondness for Steve Jackson Games, whose mentality and celebration of the weird so closely mimics my own.

Before the dawn of the Internet, conspiracy theory was something you had to seek out. While everyone had an uncle or an older brother who was convinced that the government was UP TO SOMETHING, it took some doing to delve deeper into the conspiratorial mindset. One had to track down a copy of the Illuminatus! Trilogy or visit secondhand bookstores with a shelf in the back crammed with small press runs of crackpot books or send a check off to a tiny publisher who advertised in obscure interest magazines to get the real riches. You really had to work for it if you wanted to delve into the topic and it took an immense amount of money and not a few dollars to subject yourself to intense daily bombardment of the secret and the strange.

Because of this, I suspect that there was a good percentage of conspiracy theory enthusiasts who were like myself—interested but not influenced. It’s hard to take the subject matter seriously when you had a prolonged decompression period between finishing one crackpot work and tracking down the next one. Perhaps, although this is clearly influenced by nostalgia, we were more adept at evaluating the information presented to us before the firehose of the Internet drowned our culture in data and overwhelmed our ability to separate fact from fiction.

Whatever the reason, I feel that twenty years ago we could entertain a well-constructed—or even a poorly concocted one if it entertained—conspiracy idea without it harming anyone. I could sit in a movie theater and notice when groups of five people came into it (2+3=5 and if you don’t know the significance of that, you’re missing out). I could drink beers with you and talk about Freemasonry and black helicopters and why no one would help this poor widow’s son and it would be a time for laughter and a little smugness in knowing we were aware of something not everyone else knew about. And that, at its heart, is the appeal of the conspiracy theory.

The dawn of the Internet didn’t change all that at first. If anything, it was a golden age for those of us who loved to swim in the shallow waters of conspiracy theory. I fondly recall Steve Jackson Games’ Daily Illuminator’s “Illuminated Site of the Week” which regularly drew my attention to some poorly-designed web site written by a true believer or, better yet, the work of a fellow conspiracy aficionado clearly spreading some bit of secret wisdom with tongue firmly in cheek.

Although the World Wide Web gave us as-yet unimagined access to the weird and conspiratorial, it still took some doing on the part of both the seeker and the disseminator, who had to possess at least rudimentary knowledge of HTML and the building and hosting a web site—which wasn’t widespread yet in the early to mid-1990s. Conspiracy aficionados remained a small majority of the masses and we could still relish in our elite status as either knowing more than the guy next door or at least being in on the joke.

Fast-forward two decades and look what’s happened.

There have been THIRTEEN seasons so far of “Ancient Aliens.” Alex Jones, once a somewhat enjoyable crackpot from the fringe, built a media empire to spread vileness and many people took it to be a real news source. There are honest-to-Bob folks who bought into PizzaGate whole-heartedly and we have the occupant of the highest office labeling anything he doesn’t like as “fake news.” Otherwise sensible ignore evidence of everything from falsified vaccination papers to global warming. My nine year old nephew knows what the Illuminati is.

The once refreshing waters of the conspiracy theory pond have swelled to a troubled sea filled with sharks.

At the real risk of sounding like a hipster holding court at the back of the new vinyl record shop, I liked it better before everyone was into this thing. I feel like the pranksters and the fans have been muscled out by the true believers, the paranoiacs, and those looking for evidence to further strengthen their hate and their fear. It’s hard to polish up your golden apple and demand your Slack when the guy next to you honestly believes in the Deep State and that QAnon is speaking the suppressed truth.

Apologies if you came here expecting elf game stuff, but this has been weighing on me as I consider what’s next for me in the field of fictional worlds and gaming material.

I don’t see any easy way out of this, no way to reset the tone of the room. I’d like to let my freak flag fly a little higher, but I fear who might come along to salute it.

This is a subject I’ll likely return to in the future. My thoughts are still in flux and will continue to evolve, but I needed to work out a starting point from which to build. So in true conspiratorial fashion, I’ll slip back into the shadows, giving you time to consider what you’ve learned.

Leave a coded message for me in the back of Village Voice if you need to contact me. Until then, fight the future.