Welcome to this year’s self-imposed task!
Feel free to occupy yourselves as you see fit!
As mentioned before, this year I’ve decided to read Orlando Furioso, the 16th century over-the-top chivalric romance by Ludovico Ariosto.
Dante lived from the 13th to 14th century. Chaucer in the 14th century. Ariosto lived from the 15th to 16th century. He was a contemporary with Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli. So that’s a thing to remember: While princes learned to murder and terrorize, and Catholics and Protestants murdered each other, they all relaxed and entertained themselves with chivalric ideals and heroic deeds. The poem was his gift to his patrons, the ruling D’Este family of the city Ferrara. But you can read all about that on Wikipedia.
So what is Orlando Furioso?
It’s a mess. It’s a book about knights fighting each other with dozens of named characters who ride dozens of named horses and carry dozens of named swords.
Your typical fantasy novel then.
It’s also the sequel to a book I haven’t read called Orlando Innamorato by another guy, so it starts right in the middle of the action with people running around already hating each other.
Of ladies, cavaliers, of love and war,
Of courtesies and of brave deeds I sing…
In times of high endeavour when the Moor
Had crossed the sea from Africa to bring
Great harm to France, when Agramante swore
In wrath, being now the youthful Moorish king,
To avenge Troiano, who was lately slain,
Upon the Roman emperor Charlemagne.
That’s the big picture, but behind it is Orlando, the greatest knight in Christendom, being in love with Angelica, the pagan princess. She hates him and fled to Cathay where she married the king, Ruggiero. This made Orlando mad (hence the Furioso) and he has abandoned Charlemagne’s cause to pillage the land. Another knight, Rinaldo, then fell in love with Angelica. And to keep everyone in his army, Charlemagne had Angelica captured and imprisoned, figuring to award her as a prize after the battle. Except the Saracens (fugg, am I going to have to write this word all year?) win the day and Angelica seizes her chance and escapes.
She, who was promised as a victor’s bride,
Into the saddle leapt and straight away,
Choosing her moment well, set out to ride.
While everyone is a dick, she must rely on cunning to get away from all the knights that would capture her. And have no doubt most of these knights are eager to assault her.
These guys go on and on about purity and the beauty of virgins, but are quick to get to the assaulting when they see any woman. Angelica realizes she needs a protector and finds a Saracen knight she recognizes, Sarcripante (and yes he’s in love with her too), and decides to manipulate him.
How, by her charm, her servant she can make him,
And then, ungrateful, afterwards forsake him.
Unfortunately, Sacripante figures he needs to strike now and take the opportunity to commit the “sweet assault,” but before he can do the deed he hears the drumbeat of horse’s hooves and knows another knight is nearby. More eager to make war than “love” he rides off to find the knight. This knight is dressed in snow white armor and seems to be a formidably built man. Soon the two take to jousting and Ariosto brings the action.
The mountain trembles, as the knights engage,
From its green base to the bare peak it rears.
And well it is the haubreks stand the test,
Else would each lance be driven through each breast.
Both horses fall, but the white knight’s rises again. Sacripante, pinned beneath his dead horse, watches as the white knight rides away. He climbs free, unwounded, save for his pride. Angelica saw the whole thing and he’s ashamed. An envoy rides by and Sacripante asks who was that white knight, to which the envoy says it was Bradamante, as beautiful as she is brave.
To be unseated by a woman!?!
Sacripante’s shame intensifies. Angelica and he ride away, his ardor much cooled. After a bit they find a war horse roaming free. Angelica recognizes it as Baiardo, Rinaldo’s horse, and hops into the saddle. Then she spies Rinaldo. And he espies her, and of course he’s in love with her and she hates him, but there she is on his horse with some knight.
And that’s where it ends.
Next time, Sacripante and Rinaldo start with the “come at me bro”.
* For the sake of proper record keeping all the quotes come from the Penguins Classic edition translated by Barbara Reynolds. And the illustrations come from the Spanish edition over on Project Gutenberg.
It’s been a bit. I’ve been lazy. I’ve also been working on another issue of Mysthead. I might also have started to post some game stuff to itch.io. Mostly bespoke classes for Old School Essentials and an adventure.
One thing I want to add to my game table are condition cards that impact roleplay as opposed to mechanics. One inspiration was the card game The Grizzled, but I’m sure it’s been used elsewhere. So I took that idea and mushed it with the notion of what if languages could be infected with astral lichens and, lo, scrypt was born!
Scrypt is a living language despite being millennia old.
A remnant of the wars between the proto-gods, scrypt thrives like a linguistic lichen within the fertile soil of other languages. When one reads scrypt the words remain inside the mind. This can allow an untrained person to cast spells. However, it may also allow suggestions, enchantments, and worse to take root in the minds of the unwary. More importantly, scrypt attracts aetheric parasites when not maintained properly. Using scrypt is not to be done lightly.
Beware of scrypt-skull!
After every use of a scrypt-carrying scroll, the user must make a WILL save. If they fail, consult the table below. Effects last D4 hours.
(Give a reward, XP, fortune point, whatever, to players who make a valiant effort.)
- Jobberknowl: All nouns must be reversed when spoken, ie “knife” becomes “efink”.
- Dretched: Replace the first syllable of polysyllabic word with the prefix “dretch-”
- Coranto: Speaker must knock twice at the start and end of every sentence.
- Imbrangle: The speaker must start every sentence with “Imbrangletanglemangle…”
- Zelant: The speaker must include at least one blasphemous phrase in every sentence.
- Nullfidious: The speaker can only answer questions in the negative, although they believe they are answering accurately.
- Grudgins: All nouns are replaced with names of prepared foods like “pickled herrings” or “sliced ham”.
- Javeljaum: Classic spoonerisms, swap the prominent sounds of close words.
- Igniferent: The speaker must discuss the flammability of every noun they mention when speaking.
- Stelltwire: Speaker must replace spoken nouns with words that rhyme with the intended words.
- Colsleck: Speaker inverts the syllables of words when speaking.
- Chrysopo: Speaker appends the syllable -opo to every syllable they speak.
- Cinqpace: All numbers are increased by one, ie “Anyone for tennis?” becomes “Anytwo five elevenis?”
- Xeriff: The speaker gains a fluent knowledge to a centuries outdated legal code and references it constantly.
- Saltimbanco: The speaker turns every conversation into a sales pitch for Saltimbanco, an invigorating health elixir.
- Katexoken: The speaker will only speak if addressed as royalty.
- Dogbolt: Speaker must add -og- before each vowel in a syllable.
- Nist: The speaker can not remember the exact name for any item or person.
- Haqueton: Speaker drops the first letter of every word.
- Yblent: Speaker must shift vowels one place to the right (“a” becomes “e”) while speaking.
And that’s that. My goal is to get the rest of the zine done before December, which I am on track to do. That’ll be over on my Patreon when it goes live. There’s a poll there now to determine next year’s old weird book to read.
Here we are with the last story.
It’s been a fun trip. And the last story is a classic of the weird tales type. Not quite soul juicing, but its next door neighbor: soul-swapping.
“Professor Knop’s Experiment” by Pavel Perov (1924)
George Gibbs is a criminal awaiting execution for murder in Sing-Sing. He’s approached by one Professor Knop who asks if Gibbs would like to take part in an experiment. What kind of experiment? The soul-swapping kind! And so Professor Knop gives a very long involved bit of technobabble on polarized soul particles and swapping them between bodies, and how he’s only done it to animals and wants to test it on humans now. Gibbs figures he has nothing to lose and agrees to take part in the experiment. His one cause of concern is the fact that the Professor intends to swap his soul with that of a crazed rat. “Don’t worry,” Knop says. “I’ve done it to the rat a dozen times before.”
And so, the stage is set for our inevitable conclusion.
Gibbs’s soul gets swapped into the rat. The rat’s gets swapped into his body. Knop is delighted, and all for a moment looks like it’s going well. Except for the simple mistake that Knop forgot to tie Gibbs’s body down. The rat wakes inside the man and proceeds to beat the professor to death. The cops bust in then, see the raging Gibbs, and proceed to shoot him to death. Of course, the rat with Gibbs inside it tries to stop the cops and gets shot to death too. And there you go.
Some of you might remember the first soul-juicing story I wrote about here, Greye La Spina’s “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco.” This story is very much like that, if maybe with a veiled critique of the Revolution. You think you can make unintelligent beasts into men with the flip of a switch? Perov’s story would’ve sat well alongside a lot of those early Weird Tales stories. And who knows maybe some work by him did. The brief author biography in Red Spectres says he left Russia in 1910 and lived much of his life in the USA. I’d certainly enjoy reading more by him.
And so we’ve reached the end of Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century. It’s definitely a fun collection and worth tracking down. As for what’s next I don’t know. There will still be patreon updates, along with the occasional post on this site. Those will likely be RPG related. As for next year? Well, that’s next year.
As always, stay well.
Only two more stories left, and I appear to have decided to draw them out for as long as possible.
One thing that’s been interesting reading this book is seeing how these stories shifted style and tone over the decades. The earlier ones owed more to 19th century lit like Pushkin, Hoffman, and Gogol, but by now in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century the style’s as indebted to modernity and advertising as the usual fare in Weird Tales.
Still, something of that old world horror remains even if the resemblance is superficial.
“The Woman With No Nose” by Georgy Peskov/Yelena Deisha (1927)
Our narrator is a scared man. There is typhus in the city and he needs to get away. So he’s at the train station trying to leave on one of the few remaining trains. Meanwhile there’s this horrible woman with no nose he keeps seeing wherever he goes. And then the story splits and we get the two threads of the narrator’s life presented almost simultaneously.
There’s the over-story of the man taking his seat on the train while he keeps seeing the woman with no nose: his thoughts and actions and fears. Then there’s the other story that’s taking place back at the hospital. There the man is being evacuated as the typhus outbreak emerges and of course he has the disease. So the delirium of the over-story is the manifestation of his fevered state, and as the train takes off the other passengers realize he is sick, but the man doesn’t care because the woman with no nose is with him now:
“And the woman with no nose hides in the dark corner under the seats and, from there, keeps watch over all of us.”
This one’s good. I know I harp on which of these stories would have sat alongside anything in Weird Tales, but I think there’s some value in framing them that way. A lot of these stories aren’t part of any genre tradition in the Anglosphere and that’s a shame. This story would sit comfortably alongside Poe and Everil Worrell. Plus, I’m a sucker for that fevered narrator whispering hot and heavy in your ear while the plot drives like a freight train to its inevitable conclusion.
Next week, the other kind of Weird Tale… that’s right. It’s time to bust out the soul juicer!
Only this time… Soviet style!
Welcome back! This week’s story is “The Messenger” by Georgy Peskov, the pen name for emigre journalist Yelena Deisha. A cursory google search doesn’t reveal much about her, which is a shame because her stories are quite good in so much as they sit comfortably alongside The Women of Weird Tales and any of the better than mid-tier stories from Alberto Manguel’s Black Water.
“The Messenger” by Georgy Peskov (1925)
A much reduced husband and wife worry over their son’s fate. He’s away fighting in the Russian Civil War. The son is their parent’s last surviving child, and everyday the parents wish for some word from the him. Grasping at straws, the mother has taken to spiritualism (via automatic writing) and spends much of her time talking with the spirits. She figures that if the son’s dead she would receive some communication from him. The father goes along with this, reluctantly. And the village priest harangues, calling spiritualism blasphemy.
The mother persists, and one winter night while a storm rages outside, she and the father sit down to make a another attempt to learn information about their son. Their efforts have mixed results and the only decipherable words are “The Messenger. A blessing.”
Quite soon after that there’s a knock at the door. The father is suspicious. There’s a storm outside and anyone out at this time can’t be up to any good. But the mother at last opens the door and finds a stranger there. This is a soldier claiming to know her son. He tells her their son lives, having managed to leave the country. He also tells an odd story about two sick friends and the nurse who cared for them. She and the son had a relationship but when it came time to flee the nurse refused to abandon the hospital while a sick patient was there. The soldier gives the nurse’s address, and refuses all hints of help from the couple before going back out into the storm.
The next day the couple writes the nurse and days later she writes back. She does admit to knowing her son. But the soldier they say visited them can’t be alive, because he died when the hospital was taken. The implication for the reader being that the visiting soldier was the ghost come to the couple in order to ease their mind and as a way to pay off his debt to the nurse who stayed behind to care for him despite the likelihood of very awful things happening to her when the Bolsheviks took over the hospital
And here the husband and wife’s opinions of events diverge. The husband is inclined to believe the whole story nonsense and the soldier was a spy. He complains to the priest about his wife’s spiritualist practices, and the priest once again harangues the wife to give it all up as blasphemous. The wife however believes the soldier was a spirit and their son is still alive, yet when she tries to write the nurse again she gets no reply. The End.
This story didn’t so much remind me of the Bulgakov seance story from earlier in the book, as it did WW Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” Except Peskov’s story lacks the (somewhat corny if singular) ironic slant. It’s more unsettling. What gets me is that Peskov is writing her supernatural stories not straight from her imagination, but taking scenes from events that impacted her life and that of her associates. It puts a very different spin on things.
Next time, a date with Miss Muerte!
I’ve put together another issue of “Mysthead” my RPG fanzine. You can get it and the first issue by supporting me on patreon. CLICK THIS TO GO THERE. In this issue you’ll find lore about Mysthead’s elf and goblin populations, a playable gossiping spider race-class (“The Rumormonger Spider”) for Old School Essentials, and tables to generate whispering skulls, hot spider gossip, and elf-goblin political structures. So as not to make this post a complete advertisement, I’ve included the elf-goblin political structure generator below.
Take care for now!
Elves and goblins often have peculiar ways of governing themselves. While all manner of geases may determine what actions may or may not be taken when within either ones domain, there is usually some higher authority consulted in times of great peril or confusion. Often these have a clear criteria they follow: the most cunning, the eldest, those who achieve some renown. Other times the criteria is more obscure.
Below you will find an assortment of odd sovereigns to rule over your goblins and elves. Roll, choose, and/or mix and match:
- A class of astronomers who seek advice from the stars. Their wisdom is renowned.
- An ancient tree at the center of the Arkenwyld and served by an order of life-bound guardians.
- A sacred book that rewrites itself every day.
- A great elder abstracted with age and lingering on the brink of stupor.
- A young sovereign wrestling with their first bout of nostalgia.
- Your mom. My mom. Every body’s mom. The literal All-Mother
- An ancient ethernaut stranded in this world by the vortex shoals.
- A squabbling court of siblings intriguing against each other and eager to find allies.
- A council of ancients, so old they resemble cicadas. Time has no meaning to them.
- A singing harp, whoever can master its song rules for a decade.
- A council of white-coated priests who read the movements of rats in a maze.
- A set of bone dice kept locked in a vault. They bear no numbers or glyphs and can only be read by a trained seer.
- A human child, obnoxious and utterly spoiled. The child’s about eleven.
- Three gnomes in a trench coat. It started as a gag but now they’re in too deep.
- A spider of epic proportions that feeds on secrets and makes its lair in a darkness beyond reason.
- The movements of some infernal or divine beast like a hen or a pig. It is attended by priests and kept within a heavily guarded enclosure.
- The winner of an extreme athletic event done without assistance and far from sober. Not all who attempt it return.
- An odd stone that weeps a slurry that induces visions. It’s not from this world, nor even this reality. The hangovers are abysmal, but it works.
- An elf sovereign exiled from another land. They are keen to get their revenge and regain their kingdom.
- An intelligent monster like an ogre magi, dragon, or sphinx kept as a prisoner. They are treated with reverence but know they live in a gilded cage and long for their freedom.
Beware of Objects!
That’s the message of today’s story, or at least the one the narrator would have us believe. But this narrator is not to be trusted and something else is going on here. Grin’s an author who was popular enough to get put on a postage stamp. His wikipedia page would suggest he’s in the same mode as Robert Louis Stevenson, which he is, but he suggests JG Ballard, especially Ballard’s stories set amid the decaying pleasure resorts of Vermilion Sands. The bits of Grinlandia depicted here have the same jaded air, but the decay hasn’t claimed the resorts yet.
“The Grey Motorcar” by Alexander Grin (1925)
Our narrator is a young wealthy man at odds with the modern world. One can imagine him as the sort of privileged guy who comments online about the decline of western civilization, creeping multiculturalism, and the fact that other people aren’t as real as he is. He hates cars and movies and noise and speed and he’s basically a judgmental prick of the young, smug, and rich sort. He’s attracted to a woman named Corrida El-Basso who he also simultaneously despises, because she’s too modern and frivolous.
One night, our guy and a buddy go to the casino to gamble and watch another player who is having an epic winning streak. Our narrator plays this gambler and wins a huge sum of money. The gambler then has a stroke and dies, but not before giving the narrator his car. The narrator hates the car and doesn’t want it. That’s too bad. It’s his now. But he keeps running away before the car can be delivered.
(A side note: this story was made into a movie in Russia during the 1980s called Mister Designer. Here’s a clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly7xdZZMcFQ The music’s great in a Goth nightclub sort of way.)
After his win, Corrida’s more interested in the hero and she agrees to take a ride with him to his “laboratory”. Except he doesn’t take her to his lab but to a cliff where he explains that she’s not real, but a mannequin, and that the two of them should jump, die, and be reborn. Corrida, being a resourceful woman, must have expected such a thing because she draws a gun. When the narrator gets grabby, she shoots him. The bullet grazes his head and Corrida goes back to the house to get help. The narrator doesn’t wait but staggers away. When he sees the gambler’s car coming down the road he tries to hide but fails. The car stops and a group of men come out and take the narrator to the hospital. He urges a doctor to let him leave, but the doctor sees that the narrator is not well. The story ends with the narrator writing an account of events and pleading with the reader to watch out for that evil mannequin, Corrida El-Basso.
Imagine coming upon Edgar Allan Poe or HP Lovecraft cold. That’s what reading this felt like. Grin seems like a writer with his own particular set of obsessions, and unless you’re keyed into them it’s a lot of wtfry. The story is overly long and meandering, set in a fictional country, and the whole thing hinges on how long it takes you to realize the narrator’s not well. That the whole thing could be summed up as an incident of Capgras syndrome lessens the impact but makes it more comprehensible.
But… despite all that I liked it and I’m curious to read more Grin. How can you resist a writer at the intersection between RL Stevenson and JG Ballard?
Next time, automatic writing!
(The artwork is called The Disquieting Muses by Giorgio de Chirico)
“The only domestic animal known to return to feral life as swiftly as the cat is the goat.”
There in the barn, biding its time, watching the villagers go about their daily business, the goat waits. Something strange has happened to the goat, and it is no longer right. Yesterday, it was as normal as any other goat in the field. Now an uncanny intelligence burns behind its horizontal pupils.
What happened to the goat? Roll below to find out:
- A skyrock landed in the back fields. The chromaspectral beings within changed the goat before they died.
- A bored fae taught the goat to read and write for a laugh.
- Long ago a mindlord’s ethership crashed near here. Its engines have slowly released mutagens into the soil. Fortunately, the goat ate most of it.
- It’s not always demons, but often it is. This is one of those times.
- The goat stayed out overnight, and the full moon’s light made it weird.
- A passing saint blessed the goat. Now the goat seeks to free other goats from demonic domination.
- The goat was found unconscious beside the alchemist’s garbage heap. No one knows what it ate, not even the alchemist, but the goat hasn’t been right since.
- A terrifying night with nature cultists scared wits into the goat.
- Those little red mushrooms that sprout in the cow pasture after the rain.
- The goat saw a goat on a passing aristocrat’s coat of arms. The goat thinks it’s royalty now.
- Drunk scholars kept the goat as a pet. The goat had the best manners of them all.
- Unknown to all, the goat’s descended from the Thunder God’s pets. A single thunderclap was all it took.
- The goat is the chosen one. It was supposed to be the orphan swineherd, but destiny’s arm slipped. Now only the goat can save the world.
- One too many head-buts with a rival goat.
- A passing fiddler played in the fields and the music was enough to make the goat dance.
- The goat is the last great project of Vinssloss Nerkutt, the legendary animal trainer.
- One of the goat’s parent’s was a dragon in disguise. The goat may occasionally breathe fire.
- A voice on the wind gave the goat a true name before disappearing.
- A recently deceased soul has been reborn inside the goat. The goat must finish a task the soul failed to do.
- It is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all. Heartbreak made the goat strange.
If you would like to see the full playable goat class for your tabletop games, it’s available for free on my patreon: THE UNCANNY GOAT.