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Category Archives: Spooky Stuff

More Adventures that Write Themselves

Greetings Programs!

(blows dust from the belfry)

This past weekend my amazing wife and I celebrated our anniversary in our usual way; we picked a state park and slipped away for a weekend of hiking and relaxation. We’ve been doing this for a number of years now and this is the first time we’ve gone back to a park we’ve previously visited. The camp is Carter Caves State Park in eastern Kentucky and it offers several lovely trails, plenty of flora and fauna, and a number of cave tours.

There are also plenty of stories to be found, and where you find stories you find adventure seeds.

This early in the season they only have two of their cave tours open. One of these is the Cascade Cave, which is also one of the longest tours and features large chambers and impressive geological features. Cascade Cave is several miles from the park’s lodge and was originally privately owned, with people touring the system since the late 1800’s. This is an active, living cave system with formations still growing and water in abundance.

In the early 20th century the owners of Cascade Cave sought to take full advantage of the system as a tourist destination. First they excavated the entrance, which previously required people to crawl to reach the larger chamber beyond. This larger domed chamber they dubbed “the ballroom”, and making good on the name they would hold dances in it. During prohibition the ballroom took on another role, becoming a subterranean speakeasy.

During this era there was fierce competition to put on the longest and most impressive cave tour. The owners of Cascade realized that the system extended far beyond the Ballroom, so they carried out further excavations. Their efforts succeeded in opening up a much longer system of tunnels that include many beautiful features, including a section where the river flows in and continues to carve out the rock to this day. Occasionally the competition would take a dark turn, with cave owners hiring toughs to break into their rivals’ caves and commit vandalism, carving graffiti into the walls and shattering millennia-old formations, and there is some evidence of this happening in Cascade.

The owners also built a lodge on the surface, directly above the caverns. They sunk a hole down to the cave to use as a ventilation system. By opening up the connection they could draw up the cool air from the cavern, providing natural air conditioning to the lodge. They also sunk a pipe down through the same hole, which they used to pump sewage from the lodge through the cave and straight into the river.

Eww.

They made one further attempt to expand the Cascade Cave tour, having realized that there were even more tunnels reaching deeper into the earth. However this time they used dynamite and the results were not what they’d hoped. Instead of opening the tunnels they caused a massive collapse, burying the deeper caverns for all time. It was a terrible mistake.

Or was it?

“they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin’s Bane.”

-Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

To the gamer’s mind this all makes perfect sense; opportunistic people delving into closed caverns, holding drunken revels in subterranean chambers, building a hall above the underworld realms and making use of it in such a crass fashion. All they need to do is name the lodge “Heorot” and we have the setting for a modern-day Beowulf.

Were the vandals really sent into the caverns by a bitter rival? Were they cultists out to shatter ancient seals that kept something imprisoned? Or were they incautious adventurers who came to stop the terrors from being unleashed; adventurers who tried and failed, then disappeared leaving no trace except for a disturbingly suggestive set of flow stone formations that an old guide swears weren’t there before. Was the misadventure with the dynamite really an attempt to open the deeper caverns? Or to seal in some subterranean horror, woken from the depths by people venturing too far beyond the sun-lit world.

That’s for your players to find out.

CavernGate

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Fantasy, Gaming, Horror, Spooky Stuff

 

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Bugs Are Cool

Behold, the Cyphonia clavata, otherwise known as the ant-mimicking treehopper.

Which, incidentally, is awfully fun to say.

Photo by Nicolas Gompel, linked from Livescience.com

Photo by Nicolas Gompel, linked from Livescience.com

 

What you are seeing is an insect that has evolved to look like an ant walking backwards. The treehopper’s eyes can be seen on the left of the picture, so to a predator it looks like the advancing treehopper is a retreating ant.

Being a gamer and prone to grisly ideas, when I first saw the image I thought the treehopper would kill an ant and wear its corpse as a shell, much like the disguised Mi-Go in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, but the reality is even more cool. The treehopper has evolved so that the same mechanisms that grow its wings create this amazing piece of camouflage, allowing it to grow the helmet-like ant mask as part of its natural body.

Science fiction and fantasy games are full of insect-based life forms, such as the Thri-kreen of Dungeons & Dragons or the Vrusk of Star Frontiers. Imagine the discomfort your players will have when they encounter a friendly race of insect people who grow shells that make them look vaguely human. Beings who believe that wearing this grotesque parody of our species is a tribute to us, a sign of friendship.

Then as soon as the characters become comfortable with this bizarre practice, have them encounter one of these creatures whose carapace vaguely resembles someone they know. Someone they haven’t seen for a while.

 

 

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One Million Mummies

More news from Egypt!

“The remains of a child, laid to rest more than 1,500 years ago when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, was found in an ancient cemetery that contains more than 1 million mummies, according to a team of archaeologists from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.”

-Live Science, Dec. 16th, 2014

So first we have the Cosmic Amulet of Tutankhamen, then the colossal statue of Amenhotep III, and now the burial ground for one million mummies.

Those of us who play Lamentations of the Flame Princess know how this story will end.

I should add that the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities is disputing some of the researchers’ claims.

“There is indeed a site that contains many corpses and bodies wrapped in a thick textile,” Khalifa said. “But these number in the tens of thousands, maximum.”

-The Raw Story, Dec. 16th, 2014

Only in the tens of thousands. That’s… only mildly comforting.

Lich

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2014 in Cool Stuff, History, Spooky Stuff

 

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Of Sunken Cities and Weird History

While Listening to this week’s edition of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast I learned a fascinating bit of history.

In Suffolk County, England, there used to be a thriving port town. Once it was a seat of power, serving as the capital city to the Kingdom of the East Angles, but the city’s doom was sealed on New Years Eve in 1286 when the mouth of the river was buried in silt during a three day long storm. The North Sea then began a slow but relentless assault on the city, swallowing up more land each year.

That city’s name is Dunwich.

“In the Roman period the shoreline was at least 2,000 metres further out. The town’s slow death began in 1286 when a three-day storm which started on New Year’s Eve wrecked much of the settlement and blocked the river mouth. Further storms silted up what had been an international port, destroying the town’s prosperity, and the erosion of the coastline was remorseless. As recently as 1736 All Saints was a handsome church with a tall tower: by 1912 only the ruined tower remained teetering on the edge of the cliff, and now nothing remains on dry land.”

-Article in The Guardian, May 10th, 2013

At this point the minds of H.P. Lovecraft fans are racing with possibilities. Given his Anglophile nature I would be surprised if the connection to The Dunwich Horror was a coincidence, though as yet I have not found any evidence of him referencing the real Dunwich.

On a personal note, as someone whose country wasn’t founded until 1776 I find it fascinating to see the term “recently” used in regards to the year 1736. In the United States we have a far more limited perception of time.

The town has other interesting history that makes it perfect for gaming. There’s a legend that you can still hear the bells of All Saints’ Church, abandoned in the 1700’s and which finally tumbled into the sea in 1922. According to Wikipedia, “A single gravestone still remains (as of 2011) around 15 feet from the cliff edge…”

This gives me the image of graves pouring out from the cliff face, spilling their contents into the North Sea. It’s a vision that strikes me as very William Hope Hodgeson-esq.

There was also a stronghold of the Knights Templar in Dunwich:

“thought to have been founded around 1189 and was a circular building similar to the famous Temple Church in London. When the sheriff ofSuffolk and Norfolk took an inventory in 1308 he found the sum of £111 contained in three pouches – a vast sum. In 1322, on the orders of Edward II, all the Templars’ land passed to the Knights Hospitallers. Following the dissolution of the Hospitallers in 1562 the Temple was demolished. The foundations washed away during the reign of Charles I.”

-Wikipedia entry on Dunwich

Why was the temple demolished? Were the Templars hiding something in its vaults? Something the Hospitallers later fell prey to? And is it still there, sealed within catacombs long buried beneath the silt?

This just screams out to be a pulp adventure or Delta Green operation.

In 2013 The Guardian ran a story about efforts to map the submerged city using acoustic imaging, giving archaeologists an unprecedented look at the remains.

“Although the ruins are only between three and 10 metres (9.8ft to 32.8ft) below the water, visibility is atrocious. Prof David Sear, of the geography and environment department of Southampton University, who led the project, described the Didson acoustic imaging used as “like shining a torch on to the seabed, only using sound instead of light”.

-Article in The Guardian, May 10th, 2013

That’s certain to upset any local Deep Ones who have taken up residence.

Below is a map from the Atlas Obscura entry for Dunwich. I love the map insert about the lost Saxon churches. Maybe the storm of 1286 was caused by ritual warfare between the lost churches, where beings far older than the Christian faith were worshiped in hidden sanctuaries. Lovecraft’s story The Festival comes to mind.

Perhaps this is what drew the Templars to Dunwich, the storm being summoned by the Order to annihilate the heretics. Or to remove them as competition for the affections of blasphemous gods.

However you look at it, the sunken city of Dunwich is overflowing with possibilities.

DunwichMap

 

Image from the Atlas Obscura

 

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That’s… Disturbingly Specific…

The Infinite Machine Tumblr page posted an image of this creepy memorial:

Memorial

 

The memorial commemorates the victims from the town of Zabalj, Serbia who were slain in 1942 during a raid by the Hungarian Axis forces. Being unfamiliar with this action I went off to Wikipedia to find out more information. The entry for Zabalj mentions the raid and includes the following information:

“During the Hungarian Axis occupation, in 1942 raid, 666 inhabitants of the town were murdered”

-Wikipedia entry for Zabalj

That’s an… oddly specific number of casualties.

Have I mentioned that I’m reading a lot of Delta Green material right now? Or that I’ve always loved the Jewish folktale of The Golem?

Sometimes the adventure seeds write themselves.

Best to keep the B.P.R.D. on speed dial. Just in case.

 

 
 

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Wait, I’ve seen this movie…

Just as I settled in to read a book about black magic, a thunderstorm rolled in. Complete with bright flashes of lightning and booming thunder.

I believe this is my cue to turn to my wife and say, “Hey honey, listen to what it says here.”

On the bright side, that means someone like Christopher Lee should be visiting soon.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2014 in Spooky Stuff

 

Houska Castle – History and Legends

Looming In the mountains north of Prague you’ll find Houska Castle, an 800 year old structure with an evil reputation.

Legends say the castle was constructed to close off a bottomless chasm, a gateway to hell that is now covered by the castle’s chapel.  Built over the remains of an older timber fortress, there are several oddities about its construction that have added to this legend.  The castle is far from any strategic locations and the outside works are lacking many of the traditional fortifications expected in a 13th century castle.  The fortifications that were in place seem to have been better designed to keep enemies within the castle than to keep them out.

Stories tell of half-man, half-beasts who crawled from the pit and strange flying creatures who burst out of the darkness.  Convicted criminals were offered a pardon by the king if they would agree to be lowered into the hell gate and report back what they saw.  The first to descend was said to have screamed in terror and when he was pulled up his hair was white.  The experience drove him mad and none know what he saw in the depths.

The castle’s dark reputation followed it down through the ages.  During the 30 Years War it was said that a renegade Swedish commander and his force of brigands took the castle as a headquarters.  Emperor Ferdinand III reportedly called it, “the cursed castle”.  Tales also tell of kings or monks who have hidden treasure within its walls.  Evil still plagued the castle into the modern era and during the Second World War the castle was taken by the invading German army.  There are rumors of strange interdimensional experiments by the SS being conducted in its dungeons.

Houska Castle is a site straight out of a Hammer Studios horror film and I’ve only touched on a few of the stories surrounding it.  The actual facts surrounding the castle are more mundane than the legends, though no less interesting.

The castle seems to have been built as an administrative center and retreat rather than a fortress, which would help explain its location.  One site states that construction was carried out by serfs who were poorly treated, leading to several civil revolts.  The defenses were designed to fight mobs within the castle’s courtyard, with the garrison above and protected by battlements.  The defenses were not designed to keep hell beasts from escaping the castle, they acted as a kill pocket for attackers lured into a trap.  This same source indicates that Houska Castle was within sight of another fortress which could be signaled to send aid, trapping attackers between two defending forces.

Emperor Ferdinand’s declaration of the castle as “cursed” seems to be true, but the cause was his inability to maintain the castle in good condition and not from any haunting.  The German army did operate from the castle during the occupation of Czechoslovakia, but as a military base and not the site of paranormal investigations by the SS.

The stories say that the hell gate was beneath the chapel, sometimes referring to it as a well, but no pictures of the castle’s chapel show any signs of its most famous legend.  The chapel seems to have few surviving features beyond murals on its walls and a simple alter.

The castle was extensively renovated in the 16th century, mixing Renaissance style with its imposing Gothic structure.  There are some excellent pictures of the castle available online, especially from the castle’s website.  The site is in Czech, but Chrome users will find Google’s translation to be serviceable.

Whether you draw from its extensive legends or its colorful history, Houska Castle is excellent fuel for designing adventures.  It’s not hard to imagine Count Orlock glaring down at you from the courtyard battlements, or British commandos infiltrating the walls in search of a hidden Nazi bunker.

I’ll have further thoughts on Houska Castle in upcoming posts.

For further reading:

Houska Castle on Wikipedia.

Houska Castle’s official site.

Secrets of Castle Houska.

Straddling the Gates of Hell.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2013 in Cool Stuff, Horror, Spooky Stuff

 

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