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When I write scenarios set in real places, I tend to research them quite thoroughly to avoid cries of “the town hall’s really on X street” or “that building burned down 10 years before your scenario is set”, etc. Where possible, I even try to visit the places to get a better feel for them. When I heard that there was really a place called Dunwich (admittedly here in the UK rather than in Lovecraft Country), I couldn’t pass up the chance to go there and have a look around for myself.

Passing Bedford and Cambridge, then heading down the A14, I left the main highway at Stowmarket and began a 30 mile trek across rural Suffolk along a route the signs indicated was a “tourist trail”. Driving through one village after another, the route is definitely a pleasant one and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a piece of picturesque rural England. There’s plenty to do along the route too, including local crafts, birds of prey centers, sightseeing locations, etc. After the best part of an hour, the normal two-lane roads devolved into unmarked lanes where passing was a little tight at times, flanked on both sides by high hedgerows. Not long after, I came to a sign under a line of trees which proclaimed “Welcome to Dunwich”.

Along the main road into the village, I passed a stone wall on my right-hand side that was soon identifiable as the ruins of the Greyfriars Monastery.

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At the end of the road, in the heart of the village itself, a sign directed me to the seaside car park. Here, among the dunes and overlooked by the visitor center and cafe, I parked and instantly regretted not bringing a coat with me. When I’d set off, the weather had been warm (Yes, dear reader, contrary to popular belief, we do actually have warm weather in the UK! It might not happen often, but it had actually been warm all week leading up to this weekend in June), but on the exposed coastline, the wind coming in off the sea make it feel closer to autumn than to summer.

The information display in the car park gives a quick overview of what makes the village a place of interest for sightseeing tourists. Over the centuries, the Suffolk coastline has been eroded at a tremendous rate and much of the great town of Dunwich has consequently fallen into the sea. The map on display there illustrates just how much has been lost over the centuries. The whole upper half of the map below is now gone.

 

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The beach itself is stony and surprisingly loose under-foot. More than once my heels sank into the shingle as I wandered up and down the shore, looking towards Walberswick to the north and the cliffs to the south.

Heading into the village itself, my first port of call was the Dunwich Museum.

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Having been in operation for many years now, the museum chronicles the history of the area from Roman times onward. The lower floor is home to an impressive model recreation of the map above. Alongside a series of panels that detail the different phases of history are items that have been found in the area and out at sea – pieces of masonry, pottery, coins, and a huge bronze canon. Here, one can learn that Dunwich was, centuries ago, one of the largest ports in on the East Anglia coast. It was a prosperous harbor and its profitable fishing industry led to it becoming one of the largest settlements in the area. Whilst measures were historically taken to defend the cliffs from coastal erosion, two tremendous storms in 1287 and 1328 ripped the heart of the community, plunging much of the town into the sea and depositing huge amounts of shingle that ultimately clogged up the bay. With the port no longer viable, the town began to decline. The sea-defenses were no longer maintained and the town slid ever-more into the sea. Even now, it’s only a matter of time before the coast retreats further inland and claims the rest of the village.

Upstairs, a small auditorium plays videos of the local area and further displays illustrate the underwater surveys conducted of the area, as well as a few examples of local legends. One of these, which will no doubt work its way into a scenario set here, is the belief that sometimes sailors have claimed to hear the tolling of the church bells from one of the churches under the waves.

The staff at the museum were extremely helpful, taking the time out to talk to me, answering various questions and providing contact details should I need to dig deeper in my research. As I suspected, they had heard of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and were quite pleased that I had chosen to write about the area myself.

Following the Lovecraft theme, it certainly makes me smile that the local pub and restaurant is called “The Ship”, with its emblem being White. After a very fine lunch indeed, I made my way back up the road to the monastery ruins.

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The main features that remain here are the exterior walls and a small part of one of the interior structures (above). Certain parts of the area have been closed off for maintenance works, but I passed through and made my way towards the woods that lined the cliffs. Here, a couple of footpaths cut through a carpet of nettles that has grown amongst the trees. Whilst the trees themselves aren’t high, they form a canopy that lets a modest amount of light through and shrouds the place in semi-gloom that is nicely atmospheric. The paths led through to the old Saxon thoroughfare that cut through the earlier settlement.

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This led me back onto the main road and back along the monastery wall once more. At the far end of the village, passing the museum again, I came to the only remain church in the area whereas there had previously been several in Dunwich’s heyday. At the rear of the church are the ruins of what was once a leper hospital.

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From here, I passed by the two remaining graveyards (in the one connected to the church there also stands the last remaining part of the tower of last church to have fallen into the sea, moved there to preserve it for posterity), the Dunwich war memorial and found myself at the town’s sign, completing my trip.

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Whilst it might be a bit off the beaten track now, I definitely found it was a day well spent. The history of the area, which I have only touched upon above, is a rich canvas I can use to form the setting for a scenario. Whilst there might not be a Sentinel Hill nearby, and the cries of “Yog-Sothoth!” may not ring out over the rooftops, I think it’s certainly got a lot that it could bring to a Lovecraftian adventure and my hopefully my visit will add to it being portrayed in as realistic and accurate a manner as possible.

As I touched upon when discussing purist adventures, I’ve been thinking about how horror is a pretty strange thing to love. I know plenty of people who find horror unappealing for good reasons, ranging from not enjoying being frightened to finding it all a bit silly and juvenile. While no one likes everything, horror as a genre seems to inspire stronger positive and negative reactions than possibly anything except pornography.

For those of us who love darkness, monsters, blood and nightmares, this usually starts in childhood. A few years ago, I watched a panel discussion at the Alt-Fiction festival in Derby where the assembled horror writers were asked what had kindled their interest in their chosen genre. Most of the panellists were around my age, and it was interesting that three of them cited the experience of watching Nigel Kneale’s chilling TV series Beasts.

I will save discussing Beasts for another post, but what resonated with me was that there was a point in each of their childhoods when they came into contact with something horrific and found that it connected with their imaginations in a new and exciting way. That part of their mind was probably always there, but Beasts awoke it. While Beasts had a similar effect on me when I saw it, something else had stirred the dark part of my imagination before then.

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When I was eight years old, my father bought me a copy of Dennis Gifford’s book, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I had inherited my father’s love of films — he was a film critic for Radio Hong Kong and one of the founders of the Studio One film club in HK — and cinema was the main interest we shared throughout his life. Even at that age, my tastes were tending to the macabre, and the Gifford book cemented that. It quickly became my most treasured possession.

I was a geeky child, and spent much of my time alone in my room, reading. Books fuelled my various obsessions, and I filled my brain with facts about dinosaurs, sharks and the natural world in general. The Gifford book supplemented this with stories of the extremes Lon Chaney went to in becoming The Man of a Thousand Faces, the iconic age of Universal monster movies, and the rather stranger world of what was then modern horror. It was the best introduction a young horror fan could have had: accessible and rich, with plenty of photographs. Despite the subject matter, it is a surprisingly genteel book, and Gifford shied away from the bloodier aspects of the genre.  He considered most horror films made after the 1950s to be tasteless and exploitative, and especially disliked Hammer.

It would be years before I saw many of the films described, but when I finally did, my frequent re-reading of Gifford made them feel like old friends.  In some cases, I even believed that I had seen films because Gifford had made them a part of my memories; it wasn’t until I watched the Karloff/Lugosi collaboration The Black Cat last year that I realised I had never actually seen it before and had just assumed that I had.

The other experience that confirmed me as a horror fan was stumbling across Todd Browning’s Freaks on television when I was about eight or nine.  This was in the early seventies and, as I had learned from Gifford, Freaks had been banned in the UK for many years, which made it especially fascinating  to me. We were living in Geneva then, and Swiss TV had obviously decided that Freaks was suitable for broadcast, so I managed to watch it in secret while my parents were out for the evening.

In case you haven’t encountered it, Freaks is a film from 1932 which tells a tale of emotional manipulation, betrayal and revenge set amongst the performers in a travelling circus. Most of the characters are members of the circus’ freak show, and rather that using special effects, Browning took the decision to use real freak show performers of the time, including dwarfs, amputees and people with a variety of birth defects.

Having seen it again it later years, Freaks now comes across as somewhat exploitative and insensitive. The main scene of horror in the film, with the villain being pursued through mud and rain by the freak show performers, does rely largely on the audience being disturbed by their appearance.  It is still undeniably an important piece of horror cinema, and an effective one.

Watching Freaks in secret, knowing its reputation as a banned film, made me feel both that I was transgressing somehow and that I was entering some other world of people who had seen this same thing. These were powerful feelings for a child, and they helped shape me.

It occurred to me a while ago that I probably don’t watch horror films for the same reasons as many people. It is very rare that one frightens me. More often, they simply resonate with my imagination, transporting me in a way that other films rarely do. Even though I am not scared, there is a build-up and release of tension, or a cathartic stirring of strong emotions. This is makes horror films strange and perversely comforting things, and I’m sure that it’s all Dennis Gifford’s fault.

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Robert E. Howard shot himself.

Today my mother is 80 years of age. 77 years ago, on June 11th 1936 Robert E. Howard put a bullet through his own head on hearing of the death of his mother (or near enough, hearing that she was not going to awake from a coma).

He was 30 years old. Thirty. That seems very young. Of course plenty of people have died young and left their mark. Lovecraft himself only reached 47. I always wonder what they would have gone on to create. But never mind that; Howard and Lovecraft have left a legacy. They created work that has influenced and enriched the lives of several generations, and I’m sure that will continue for many years to come. One day they’ll be forgotten, but we’ll be pushing up daisies before that I’m sure. In a way, they will outlive us. And I’m quite happy with that.

So thanks Robert E. Howard.

This is a brief piece on H.P. Lovecraft and the influence he has had. Roger Luckhurst is  a professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Roger Luckhurst discusses H. P. Lovecraft’s influence on Western cinema, television and literature, and talks about directors who have drawn on his works for inspiration in films such as ‘Alien’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.

It was important to me that the feel of combat be right. I remember playing a simple card game many years ago on a rainy evening on the Burmese border. The game consisted of two players alternately laying cards and keeping track of the total value of the cards laid. The person who took the total over 101 was the loser. Certain cards would decrease the total, or jump it direct to 100. It was a compelling yet simple game which felt more like a combat than any so-called combat I’d ever experienced in a roleplaying game.

I wanted to combat in Call of Cthulhu to have the feel that both sides are struggling against one-another, both rolling dice every time. The way I see it, your character is trying to hurt mine. I must choose either to dodge (to avoid the blow altogether), or to engage with you, trying to land a blow of my own whilst avoiding yours.

That’s how the new combat system works. Every time you are the target of an attack you choose; either you attempt to dodge or you fight back. Dodging is a good option because you’re less likely to be hit, but you won’t hurt your opponent. Fighting back is a good option because you might deliver damage to your opponent, but (chances are) you’re more likely to get hurt in the process.