Horror


Big sister’s gonna get ya

Recently I went on a five day holiday to China, and while I was in Fuzhou I took part in an escape game with my partner Miss Jade and her Chinese friends (hereafter referred to as Team Princess). The escape game was played at Mr. X Fuzhou, one of the shops of a national chain called Mr. X. Mr X runs a variety of different escape rooms at any time, with some changing on a seasonal basis and some permanent fixtures. We played Yayoi, which is a horror/investigation type with a Japanese theme. Others available included an alien-themed Area 51 game, an Alice in Wonderland introductory adventure, and a couple of other mystery investigations. Team Princess chose Yayoi because they wanted a challenge and because it is one of the new genre games that features NPCs (i.e. human actors).

The other games

I’ve never done an escape room before and my image of them is as a kind of boring puzzle in a single room, so I really wasn’t expecting the Mr. X experience. Miss Jade and Team Princess do these games every time she returns to China (she lives in Japan at the moment), and I was kind of surprised when I heard this because given my image of the games I really didn’t think they would be so compelling. How wrong I was! Here I will explain briefly what happened in the game, and then give a review. If you’re planning on doing this Yayoi game, I recommend you skip the section describing the adventure itself and go to the review.

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

This game has a whole backstory and took us 90 minutes to complete, which involved a frantic series of investigations and pursuits, so I will explain briefly here what happened and how it worked, based on my memory and the explanations I received from Team Princess afterwards. We were a team of investigators who had been asked by the police to investigate a mysterious death in a hotel that is rumoured to have supernatural connections. We took an elevator to the hotel, and entered the first room we found, room 401. I have prepared an approximate map of the hotel as we experienced it, but when we arrived we only knew about the four rooms (401 – 404), not the strange supernatural section behind the closet. In room 401 there was a body on the bed, which we shall refer to as Dead Dude (DD), which body I had to touch (it was gross). He had apparently died of dehydration. At the back of the room was a closet (visible in the map) and near the door a small desk with a weird computer screen on it. The computer worked, and had its own email client with emails from various organizations and individuals in the inbox. In the drawer of the desk we found a cassette, which activated a video on the computer. This video showed DD’s boss (we shall refer to him as The Boss), sitting at a desk, face out of view, explaining to him that he needed to find a doll, of which he showed an example. There were rumoured to be 6 dolls in the hostel, each with a Japanese girl’s name, and all under the control of some spirit thing called Hasegawa san. He was to find a doll.

We guessed DD died trying to find the doll, so we sensibly set about finding the doll. We went to room 403 and found a way to open it, and in room 403 we found a second cassette. This cassette had new instructions on how to get the doll, involving the word kagome, so we went to room 404 to investigate. The door at 404 had a keypad with six buttons, each of which when pressed emitted the sound of a child reading a single Japanese syllable. We entered ka-go-me and then opened the door. This led us into a room with five of the dolls on the far wall and a strange arrangement of ropes with bells on them, in a circle in the room. One of the dolls was missing! A song then started playing, the kagome song from Japanese childhood (this is a kind of Hey Mr Wolf game). At the end of each repetition of the song the ghost voices singing it would say a Japanese girl’s name (corresponding with the doll’s names, which were on a diagram on the wall of room 401), and we had to ring the corresponding bell. This process took us two tries but when it was done Hasegawa appeared in an empty space in the middle of the far wall of the room, between the dolls. Hasegawa appeared in the form of a Japanese spirit from a picture, wearing a mask and yukata, and he carried the key to room 402 (Hasegawa was our first NPC!) He also told us that now we had sung the song correctly we would be able to see the ghost that killed DD. Yay! Apparently this ghost only comes out to kill when it is raining, but it wasn’t raining so yay.

In room 402 we found a series of crawlways that we had to search through. We found a third tape, which when we played it had a video from The Boss giving DD new instructions. It congratulated him on finding the doll but told him to hide it and explore the hostel some more, because it was rumoured to have some secret place where you could find an elixir of youth. Wow! So we guessed DD had hidden the doll in room 402 and went back to find it. Eventually we found it and took it back to room 404, where we placed it back in the place DD had stolen it from.

Which was when everything went dark and the rain started. We all panicked and ran screaming back to room 401 where we all jumped in the closet[1], the last one into the room being a member of Team Princess, Mr. J, who had lingered in the hallway to see the ghost that killed DD. This ghost was apparently some monstrous thing in a torn yukata that crawled down the hallway rapidly on all fours, and it freaked him out a lot. So we all dived into the closet, and then the closet began to shudder and twitch and move and after a few moments it came to rest again but there was this horrible, hideous laughter outside, that can be best likened to the creaking hacking laugh of the ghost in The Grudge. It was horrible.

After the laughter faded we opened the closet door and found ourselves in a strange redlit room like a study, with icons and buddhist type stuff on a desk at one end and the walls lined with candles. Apparently we were no longer in the normal world, because now the ghost that killed DD could speak to us. It revealed that it was the older sister of a girl called Yayoi who had died here, and whose soul was restless. Since we had escaped the ghost, she would give us the chance to escape if we could pass certain tests and restore the soul of her younger sister to rest.

Well, now we certainly knew how DD died! But we had more pressing concerns, like getting out alive. So we followed the tests. The first was relatively easy, we had to blow out the candles in the room as they flared up, in the right order. Then we went back into the closet and it again moved and shuddered, and when the door opened again we found ourselves facing a long, narrow cave-like room with taiko-style drums at regular points on the wall, and at the end. Between the drums were ropes stretching across the hall, hung with bells that we must not touch. We manoeuvred ourselves to the drums and beat them in the right order, which took some figuring out. This opened a secret door that in turn led to a small cave-like room with a chest in one corner and a locked door on the far wall. The walls were covered in ivy, in which a few skeletons and old bones were entangled. There was a strange clear orb over the locked door, and a locked chest on the floor. We could see through the locked door to a weird kind of temple with a figure of a cat god on the far wall and a big lantern in the middle. Obviously we needed to get through to there, but how? Also in the room were two hand mirrors. Weird. In one of the skeletons we found a note printed on leather, which gave clues to open the combination lock on the box. This we did after some faffing, and inside we found a key. Two of the team took this back to the drum room, and used it to open a compartment under the drum at the end of the hall. This triggered a laser that shone down the hallway, and we used the two hand mirrors to direct it into the clear orb over the locked door.

With that simple task out of the way the door opened and we entered the temple of the cat god. In front of the idol of the god were two empty pedestals for small icons, and the room was lined with miniature sake barrels, each adorned with a Chinese character. We had to choose the characters that would match the wishes of the cat god. Eventually we settled on the barrels with kanji for 9 and tails, because there is a legend that the cat god wants 9 tails. This was the right choice, and it activated something in the lantern, a kind of glowing orb. This, once pushed into position inside the lantern, restored Yayoi’s soul to rest, and we were free! The door opened and we stumbled out to freedom!

About the escape room

I have never done an escape room before so I can’t compare, but this was a genuinely excellent experience, as close as I think I have ever (or could ever) come to LARPing. It was atmospheric, carefully constructed to maintain a complete sense of immersion, challenging and scary. The lighting, decorations, music and sound effects were all designed to build up suspense and terror, and it took minimal effort to really feel like we were there. The addition of NPCs – including one crawling along the floor like a Japanese ghost – really brought the whole thing to life, so that we spent 90 minutes in a state of constant tension. It also sprawled over a wide area so it felt equal parts horror, investigation and exploration – very close to a dungeon crawl, in fact.

If you were to lay out the after action report above and add one or two combats, the escape game I played is essentially equivalent to a single full day session of an RPG. We could have done the whole thing in some Asian-themed Call of Cthulhu and it would have been just as great. This escape room experience really was as close to a real life role-playing session as I can imagine being able to do. It was a thoroughly excellent experience and I commend it to anyone who has a chance to try it.

There is of course a small problem with trying it though – you need to be able to speak and read Chinese very very well to get away with it. I can’t speak any Chinese (I have only learnt Japanese since coming to Japan), and although I can read some Chinese characters and understood the Japanese components of the game, I was essentially a chump for much of the game. I could help with searching and some basic tasks (like the bells and the drums and the candles) and I found some important clues (like the orb above the door and the glowing contents of the lantern in the final room) that were important, but I couldn’t answer any of the riddles, read the emails, or understand the necessary components of the story. So only try this if you have really excellent Chinese or you’re in a team who are patient and willing to go out of their way to coddle your chumpishness. If you can do that though, you will get to have a really good role-playing experience.

I also think that the game I played could form an excellent part of a campaign, with the second stage being to find the Boss who sent DD on his mission, and the third to kill or free Hasegawa san. Each game changes every six months or so apparently (it takes a long time to design and set up new settings) so this would mean a group of regular players like Team Princess would have 18 months of a story before they completed it. I hope Mr. X takes this on in future! They could probably also do a nice sideline in modules for actual RPGs, and if this escape room experience is any guide to how seriously Chinese otaku take their otaku world, it’s likely that China has a really amazing TRPG scene. If you know about that, I’d like to hear more!

About Mr. X

The Mr. X chain isn’t just an escape room company. They also provide rooms to rent for playing games of your own, and have tables in the main area where you can play card games supplied by the company. They provide drinks and food, and board games and card games that you can play while you’re there. The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, and the staff are also very serious otaku – one of our staff was a young Uyghur woman who had moved to Fuzhou from Xinjiang so she could get a job in this company, because she loves the games. They are also able to explain the rules of the board and card games that they have available, and are friendly and warm and patient with our many demands.

The card game options …

Mr. X is an excellent otaku world, with a wide range of challenging escape room games and a nice environment for lazy days of board games and RPGs. It gave me a hint of a world of role-playing and nerdy games in China that I had never heard of before, and suggested to me that there may be a huge, vibrant and very advanced fantasy role-playing scene in China. I hope that more of this will become accessible in the west in future, and if any of my reader(s) visit China in the future and are in a position to do it, I strongly recommend you try it. For me it was a very impressive and new experience, and I hope you can all have a chance to share it in future.


fn1: Apparently we were given instructions before starting the game that we should a) run to the closet when we heard rain and b) not try to fight or interact with NPCs.

 

Our heroes have dug deep into an ancient cave and recovered some artifacts, but the Teranganu Valley still holds secrets, in particular the mysterious towers that stood beyond the plateau where they found the Sentinel. Local rumour suggested that the tower was haunted with some hideous beasts from the Dark Between the Stars, but the party had two mystics, and a set of Spirit Lenses that enabled them to see the incorporeal and evil spirits they most feared. One of their number, Al Hamra, had the power to render darkmorphs solid, making them vulnerable to physical attack[1]. With such powers they believed they could hope to dig further into the secrets of the valley before their rival Dr. Wana used her unorthodox methods to uncover them; and so they decided to explore the towers.

The roster for today’s mission:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

They flew by grav bike to the towers and first circled them looking for signs of danger, but found none. There were three towers rising from a shared base, perhaps 40m high and 60m across, so not very large and barely tall enough to rise above the thick jungle. The towers were built of pale stone, covered in moss and creepers, mostly intact but with occasional breeches where parts of the walls had crumbled under the pressure of time. The tower rose just above the jungle crown, but near its base the trees appeared strangely stunted and twisted, as if some poison or foul influence corrupted the forest in the immediate vicinity of the towers. The PCs set their grav bikes down in the shadows of the towers and searched the base for an entrance.

There was none. There was no way into the towers at their base, nor was there any visible way in higher up. The towers appeared to have been designed with no entrance of any kind. They returned to the grav bikes and scouted higher up, until right at the top they found two small arches that would allow them admission to the tower. They parked their grav bikes on the roof and entered the main tower.

darkbound

They descended stairs to an empty room, lit by streaks of sunlight falling through breaks in the wall, finding nothing of any note. A set of stairs in one corner led them down into a larger room, in the centre of which they could see a body. They moved into the room to investigate the body, but before they could something pale and vicious came running out of the shadows and attacked Adam. It was a strange, shriveled wretch of a man but it moved incredibly fast and struck him with lightning speed, stabbing at him with vicious claws that were not human in any way. It grabbed him by the arm and tried to bite him with a sunken mouth lined with broken teeth, surrounding him with the stench of death and decay. The entire group felt a strange heavy feeling of dread fall over them, very much like the feeling they had experienced when they activated the cube of terror – but now there was no sunlight, and this strange non-human man trying to kill them. They attacked it, but before they could kill it it suddenly disappeared.

The room fell silent, and after a moment to collect their thoughts they returned to exploring the body. Adam, too callous to be shaken, retired to the stairs and took an overwatch position over the room as his colleagues approached the body. So it was that he was ready when three of the strange human creatures appeared from nowhere and attacked the group. They had almost complete surprise, but he was able to shoot one in the head, knocking it away from Al Hamra and sparing him from the first strike. The other two appeared behind Saqr and Dr. Delecta, tearing huge wounds in their limbs and striking them down to the ground. They lay on the ground dying as the rest of the group battled the three beasts, driving them away and then killing them after a few seconds of brutal battle. As the last one died Al Hamra used his mystic powers to dive into the strange beast’s mind, and after moments of horrific encounter with the Dark Between the Stars he was able to learn that these creatures were Darkbound: once humans, bound for two long to a djinn or some other Darkmorph, they had lost their souls and become a kind of ghoul devoted to destroying the living. He also learned that there were only three in the whole building – they had cleared the tower.

Adam rushed to Dr. Delecta and bound her wounds, and then helped Saqr to recover. The two of them lay in the slick of their own blood, stunned by the savagery of the attack. While they recovered the rest of the group searched the body, finding an ancient and beautiful thermal pistol, light armour, and a book called “Arvan’s Exomorphs”. It was a man, probably an explorer of some kind, and judging by the age of his weapons and armour he had died at least 200 years ago. He carried nothing that could tell them about the nature of the tower.

They found nothing else in the room, so proceeded down to the base of the tower, confident now that it had been cleared. The base was empty, and from inside they confirmed that there really were no entrances – it was not just that they had been blocked up from within, but there really were none. The only entrance was on the very top – why had this tower even been built?

In a small annex to the main tower they found a domed room in which the dead explorer had set up his camp. They found a tent, a computer with a library database, various weapons and tools, and some ruined food. It seemed obvious that he had camped here and explored the rest of the building from this base – but how had he entered the tower? And how had he known about it?

On the far side of the main tower they found another small secondary tower, that rose thin and empty to the same height as the main tower. They climbed it wearily, not expecting to find anything, but at the top level they found a narrow set of stairs leading into a large domed room. Adam and Al Hamra entered first, the others waiting downstairs to see if it was safe. In the room they found a horrendous structure of chains and cogs made of bone, with dessicated human bodies hanging in strange arrangements amongst the chains. There were perhaps 20 bodies, some pinned to the walls and others hanging in horrific corpse carousels in the middle of the room. Using the spirit lenses Al Hamra was able to see that there were flows of strange dark energy running through the chains of the structure, pooling in the bodies as if they were capacitors and flooding onward towards the centre. Something somehow had broken the structure, however, and the flow of energy built up near the centre and then dissipated, leaking out of the building instead of accumulating in the centre where it could form a source of evil power for some dark machine. They had discovered a Cadaver Clock, a strange source of dark energy that could fuel mystic powers. This Cadaver was long since broken, interfered with by some mortal power. Had the dead explorer broken it? And what had it powered? Perhaps its dark power had sustained the Darkbound creatures that had attacked them, starving and shriveled ancient servants of some greater power? Or perhaps whatever power had enslaved those beasts had fed on the energy from this machine, and had long since faded away after the Cadaver Clock broke?

They did not stay to investigate. Horrified by the strange silent machinery of death, they withdrew slowly down the stairs. Swallowing his disgust, Al Hamra told the rest of the party that the room was empty, and they slowly made their way back down the tower and up the main tower towards the grav bikes. No one else realized that there was a horror in the top chamber of the building, and no one noticed his pale, shaking terror. They retreated to the bikes, and if Al Hamra was a little too eager to put the planet behind them – perhaps a little too full of disgust at the shadows in the jungle – no one paid it any mind. They returned to the shuttle, none the richer for their incursion into the towers, and left Teranganu Valley behind them.

As the shuttle streaked away from the surface into orbit, Al Hamra pressed his face against the glass panes of the passenger bay, and wondered: had he left behind some great and secret route to power? Had he swung those bodies just so, could he have absorbed all that dark energy? What great secrets, what dark powers had he left behind?

What dark god could a Mystic become?


fn1: We have started to come up with new and interesting mystic powers to supplement those in the book.

One war took, led to his death.
One a bird lifted over the high sea.
One the hoary wolf broke with death.
One, bloody-cheeked, a warrior hid in a hole in the ground.
Likewise God destroyed this earthly dwelling
Until the strongholds of the giants stood empty,
Without the sounds of joy of the city-dwellers.

Our heroes have made camp on the beach of the Teranganu Lake, and fought off an insidious attack by Djanna from the marshes. The following morning they left Al Hamra, Dr. Delecta and Oliver Greenstar to recover from their wounds and protect the camp, and prepared for their first full day of exploring the Teranganu area.

The cast for this session:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)

Their initial plan had been to help the Sogoi people to repel the dig site near the river that was upsetting the ancient spirits of the valley, and to this end they had given the Sogoi leaders two vulcan pistols and suggested they would return the next day with a plan. But as the day dawned bright and suffocatingly hot they decided against this course. Although they very much wanted to disrupt their nemesis Dr. Wana’s work, they did not know how powerful she was or what the consequences of a direct attack on her work might be – if she learned it was they who did it, would she unleash violent reprisals on them in Coriolis or across systems? Their main goal in coming to the surface of Kua had been to investigate the dig site where the Statuette of Zhar Bagha had been found, and they knew where that site was, so they decided that they would avoid involving themselves in local disagreements, and avoid entanglements with their nemesis. They would go straight to the abandoned dig that their contact Lavin Tamm had led them to after they rescued him on Coriolis, and look for further artifacts.

The hollow rock

They had camped on the beach on the east side of the lake. Dr. Wana’s dig site was north of them, on the far side of the river, obscured by a thick bank of jungle, and the rock lay in more dense woodland on the opposite shore of the lake. From their camp they could see its moss-covered top looming above the trees, and just beyond it the tips of two crumbling stone towers that were rumoured to be infested with spirits from the Dark Between the Stars. From their camp to the rock was just a short trip on their grav bikes, and they set off early in the day to try and make the base of the rock before the sun was too high and the entire area became impossibly hot. They packed some archaeological equipment, weapons and armour, and flew across the lake on their grav bikes, landing at the southwestern tip of the rock within a few minutes. Here they found three cave mouths, perfectly cut and obviously not natural, which had been obscured by large trees that had now been burnt away. A short distance from the cave mouths was a large camp, obviously abandoned. They had found their site.

Investigation of the camp confirmed their suspicions. They found Lavin Tamm’s locker, and the lockers of another eight people who showed no signs of having returned to the camp after their ill-fated expedition. Foodstuffs were packed and eating utensils cleaned and stacked, a computer terminal in standby mode and beds made. They had clearly left their camp for a day’s work and simply never returned. There were no tabulae in the camp and no notes, so no way to find out what progress the archaeologists had made on the dig, or if they had any forewarning of whatever had overcome them. Siladan attempted to access their communications terminal to identify whether or not they had sent an emergency signal offsite, but unfortunately all he was able to do was trigger an emergency security warning that triggered an extra-orbital response squad. Checking the manual he identified that they had four hours until that orbital response arrived. He apologized profusely to his team but it was too late: now they had four hours to find out what had happened here and recover any artifacts left behind by the dead team.

They entered the rock. Here they found a network of perfectly smooth, perfectly formed tunnels that curved and wandered through the rock with no apparent purpose, intersecting and overlapping each other in spirals and whorls until finally one tunnel entered a large cavern, perhaps 50 m long and 20 m wide, that formed the single terminus of the entire strange system. Since there was no light in here and they had no night vision systems, the PCs did not bother sneaking in. They turned on their torches, and entered the cavern.

Found footage

They found the first body just near the entrance, collapsed against the cave wall with an accelerator pistol and a tabula lying on the ground nearby. The body was dessicated and pale, wearing the same uniform that they had seen Lavim Tamm trying to hide in his hotel room on Coriolis. The uniform was crusted with dried blood around its chest, from which a third arm had erupted, tearing the cloth of the overalls and rending flesh and bone apart in its eruption. They recoiled in horror at the sight of this strange monstrosity, everyone stepping back in disgust. After a moment to try and understand what they were seeing, Adam approached and carefully inspected the arm. It was not fully human, grey-skinned and vaguely scaly, with a contorted spine of some kind sticking out of its elbow and only three clawed fingers on the end of the limb. Although it had torn the victim’s chest apart when it emerged from the body, it was also clearly connected to and part of the body.

They looked at each other with growing unease. Something very bad had happened here, and it was something they could not understand. They turned their gaze – and their weapons – to face into the cavern, and continued their exploration.

The cavern had the same smooth, perfectly-made style as the hallways, but for six columns set in two parallel rows near each side of the cave. There were no other physical features. As they advanced they saw more bodies scattered around the room, and a collapsed tent of the kind used to cover archaeological digs set at the far end of the cavern. Although the far end of the chamber was dim in the light of their exo-suits it was clear that nothing else moved or lived in here. They inched forward.

The second body was lying against the first pillar they came to. It had dropped a vulcan carbine on the floor next to its right leg – or what was once its right leg. The overalls of this leg were torn and shredded, and the leg changed near the hip into a tight bundle of tentacles, now dead and dessicated. The dead worker had obviously been shooting his own leg, because they could see bullet wounds in the tentacles and his left, human leg. The tentacles had rough suckers lined with hooks, and it looked as if he had been strangled by at least one of them at some point, because his neck was marked with contusions and tears of the same shape. It was unclear if he had died from the self-inflicted gunshot wounds or the strangling. Again, it looked as if the tentacles had extruded from his leg as if naturally part of it, but had at the same time done massive damage to him. Adam checked the carbine, finding the magazine empty, Siladan labeled the man’s tabula, and they moved further into the room towards the tent.

The rest of the dig team had died around the tent. Two more appeared to have died of strange transformations: one, lying a little distance from the tent, had had her neck elongated like a rubber band so that her head flopped on the floor, and all the fingers on her hands stretched like they were made of rubber; the other had a hugely distended belly and neck, and appeared to have died of choking. One of the dead had been shot several times in the chest, and the remaining three had been slaughtered by some horrific beast. One near the tent appeared to have been stabbed from behind by a huge impaling weapon of some kind, leaving a huge hole in his chest and causing him to drop an accelerator pistol, a mysterious cube-shaped object, and a tabula. The other two lay a little distance from the tent towards the cavern entrance, where they had been torn into pieces by some huge force. Even a cursory check assured them that there were no survivors – the only person who had escaped the carnage was Lavim Tamm, and now they understood exactly why he had been so traumatized when they found him on Coriolis.

They searched the collapsed tent. It had covered the dig site, which was a Firstcome-era frieze on one part of the rear wall of the cavern. The dig team had obviously been picking this frieze away, destroying it as they did so, and although only partially complete they had found an alcove that looked like it might have held some object. On the floor near the alcove was an artifact case, a kind of suitcase that fills with a special gel-like material that protects fragile objects from damage regardless of their shape. Just outside the tent a camera drone lay on the ground, a small red light indicating it was in power save mode. They had filmed their dig.

They decided that discretion was the better part of valour. They collected the camera drone, all the tabulae, the artifact case and the strange cube, and headed out as quickly as they could. Once outside they rushed back to their camp, plugged in the drone, and watched the last few minutes of the archaeology team’s life.

The team had been digging as normal when suddenly the two men inside the tent had started arguing, and one of them had rushed out of the tent, yelling back at his colleague in the tent and then vomiting just outside the tent. His colleague came out and also began vomiting, while the men outside the tent began to look around uneasily and warn each other that they felt strange. One of them asked if something was coming, and they began to act terrified and confused. After perhaps a minute of this growing uneasiness one of the men drew a pistol, pointing it at another team member and yelling “You can’t stop me! I will not fail!” before he shot him three times. The other members of the team began to panic, one yelling “Sarcofagoi!” before they all began to run away from the camera. As they began to move a dark, unidentifiable shape emerged from nowhere and stabbed a massive spike through the chest of the shooter, making him jerk up into the air and throw his gun and tabula to the ground, along with a cube that fell out of his coat. Moments later a nearby woman, backing away in horror, suddenly shivered and twitched and then died as her neck stretched impossibly long and her fingers twisted and stretched. People screamed more and ran, the dark shape dropping its victim and chasing two of them. In the distance they could hear gunshots, and the dark shape disappeared from view as it pursued its victims. Moments later the team fell silent, and the scene became still, the only sound the slow gurgling chokes of someone just out of view of the camera, dying as his own neck swelled up and cut off his breathing. The dark shape did not return.

They replayed the video, but this time focusing on the man who had fired the gun. It appeared that before the horror began he was fiddling with something in his coat, probably the cube, and about 10 minutes before that he was sending and receiving messages on his tabula. He had obviously done something, summoned something or unleashed some monster from within the cube. They needed to know. With a heavy heart, they set about examining his blood-stained belongings.

Things of stone and wood

Siladan investigated the cube. It was not large, perhaps 5cm on each side, and was made of wood inlaid with strange symbols and sigils that were obviously of Portal Builder origin. Some parts of some of the faces could be depressed like switches, and it did not take Siladan long to decipher the order in which the switches needed to be touched in order to activate the device, though he could not say what it did. It was clear that the dead man had also known how to activate it, and this was what he had been doing moments before the attack began. Had he summoned the monster? And had he done so on someone’s behalf. They activated his tabula, and looked at his last messages…

Conversation: 3rd of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

ZK: Has work begun?

IM: Yes, the dig is under way

ZK: How’s the timing?

IM: The frieze should be uncovered within a day. It is fragile in the dry air and crumbles easily

ZK: So you should have confirmation of the find by tomorrow night?

IM: Yes, the Icons willing. Work will be fast with this team.

ZK: You understand the pressures here?

IM: Yes, I will contact you as soon as I have confirmation.

 

Conversation: 4th of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

IM: Sir, the frieze has been removed and the chamber uncovered as you expected.

ZK: Good! Is there a find?

IM: Yes sir, the dig leader is very excited!

ZK: Describe it!

IM: That I cannot, I am not allowed near the tent.

ZK: Typical! No matter. You know what to do?

IM: Activate the box. Wait for them to panic and leave.

ZK: Yes, that is right. Do it now!

IM: Sir, I am concerned. The guard at least is tough. I fear he will not leave just from the effect you promise.

ZK: No matter! I am paying you well. You know what to do if he does not leave?

IM: Yes sir, but there are many of them. I may not prevail.

ZK: Do not fear. If you fire on even one in the climate of the box they will fear Sarcofagoi. They will flee. Then you take the find and leave once the way is clear.

IM: You are sure this will work? I fear for my safety.

ZK: I am paying you to risk your safety. Do not cross me know or your uncertain economic future will be the least of your concerns.

IM: Understood.

ZK: Have you the talisman?

IM: By my heart! I place my trust in the Icons. I will message you when the job is done!

ZK: Good. May the Icons be with you!

 

So, it appeared that about a month ago – two weeks or so before they found Lavim Tamm – this man Islim had been at this dig, and had activated the box on the orders of someone called “ZK”. The box was supposed to create fear in everyone present, and if they did not leave then Islim was to attack one of them, giving the impression he had been possessed by a Sarcofagoi, and then loot the dig site before leaving himself. Unfortunately, when he activated the box he had also conjured, or drawn the attention of, something else, something horrible and very violent. The only person who had escaped the ensuing carnage was Lavim Tamm. It was also possible that Lavim had been stealing the statuette at the same time that the box was activated, and that this had triggered some kind of beast.

Siladan, reviewing the footage and doing some research, concluded that the beast that had been triggered was likely a Sentinel. Sentinels are strange pillar-like creatures from the Portal Builder era, which are triggered by unknown conditions and have the power to twist and warp human flesh, as well as being vicious and merciless combatants. Siladan’s guess was that one of the columns in that chamber had been a Sentinel, and the box had triggered it to activate, with catastrophic consequences for the whole team.

Saqr used his weak mystic powers to probe the box, and confirmed that it did exactly what Islim had been promised – it created fear and dread in everyone within a small radius. Saqr even tested it on himself, terrifying himself without summoning any beasts from the Dark Between the Stars. A useful device to be deployed in difficult situations!

They kept the box and the contents of the artifact case: a pair of Spirit Glasses and two Causality Stones. They had also looted some Sugar Globes from the chamber on their way out. Stowing these treasures away in their shuttle they sat on the beach to watch the camp, wondering what the emergency beacon would summon.

Nothing came. The desiccated corpses had been forgotten, or abandoned, betrayed and lost in the hollow hill.


Picture note: The top picture is by Matt Gaser (I think), whose work can be bought here. The other pictures are from Coriolis itself.

They’ve taken the throne
They’re under my skin
Patience won’t be the end of me
They’re thick as thieves

Beware little girl,
The world’s full of bad men
Beware little boy,
The world’s full of bad men

Bad Men, the Eden House

Trump’s latest disgusting faux-pas, in which he told a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real, is surely the final and definitive proof that he is a genuinely horrible human being. Not horrible in the sense that his policies are disgusting – we all knew that – but in the sense that he is just a really awful person. Telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real is something that General Bison would do – it’s comic book super villain stuff, real people don’t do it. But Trump did. This is the latest in a long and enlightening series of episodes which show that he is just a disgusting person. He is a philanderer who takes pride in it and openly admits that he is using power to get what he wants; he cheats on his wife and breaks laws he thinks don’t matter to cover it up; he hates dogs; he claims to love his country but can’t draw the flag or remember the words to the national anthem; he hates Christmas or funerals because they aren’t about him; he made his name on the illusion that he is a tough boss who fires people who fail him but cannot bring himself to actually fire anyone; he feels a natural affinity for autocrats and murderous dictators; he will change all his opinions on a dime if someone tells him they like him; he judges women entirely by their appearance and men purely by how much they posture; he has been bankrupt four times and thinks that is clever; he lies about how rich he is; he doesn’t care at all about the truth of anything except the one truth that he is important; he is 71 years old but cannot shake hands like an adult; he doesn’t understand time zones or know the names of many foreign countries; he dodged Vietnam on the basis of “bone spurs” that were diagnosed by one of his father’s tenants; he is racist, sexist, and vulgar; he eats his steak well done with ketchup. This man hates dogs. He is an awful human being. If you were to look for a way to teach a young man to be a good man, you could show him Trump’s life works and tell him “don’t be like this” and you would be guaranteed to be setting that young man on a good path. It’s so telling about Trump that the only time he has told the truth in the past year is when he is telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real.

Trump isn’t the only such horrible man in our lives at this time though – we are ruled by them. Brett Kavanaugh is a horrible man, a stinking alcoholic who obviously did what he was accused of doing, and covered it up with bluster and lies and aggrieved tears; Newt Gingrich and all the other men who pressed the impeachment on Bill Clinton have been pushed out of their positions because of sexual misconduct, and are awful men (one of them was Kavanaugh, who devised a slurry of intrusive sexual questions for Clinton but cried when much milder questions were directed at him); Ted Cruz endorsed Trump after Trump insulted his wife and father; Paul Ryan lied about his marathon times, and has made a career as a “serious political thinker” while serving up only flim-flam joke policies to the American public; Mike Pence refuses to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. But they aren’t just an American phenomenon: Boris Johnson once tried to have a journalist beaten up for publishing bad things about him, is a serial philanderer and a joke; Michael Gove is an idiot and a liar; Tony Abbot ran a vicious misogynist campaign of abuse against Julia Gillard and would have brought the entire edifice down around him if he thought it would help, and he told a politician once that he would give them anything “except his arse” if they would make him prime minister. Then there is the cavalcade of dodgy christian fundamentalist politicians in America who adopt a “broad stance” in men’s toilets, or traffic in women, or offer up the worst apologia for rape and sexual assault;  the Australian Nationals politicians who have been revealed to be grubby philanderers as they ponce about the country talking about “family values” and voted against gay marriage because it would “damage the sanctity” of an arrangement they were cheerfully traducing; and let’s not forget the conga line of sexual abusers and rapists in the media, the Les Moonves’s and Harvey Weinsteins and Roger Ailes’s who determine what we read and what we see. And can you look at Mark Zuckerberg and not think that beneath that jeans- and t-shirt exterior beats the heart of a determinedly evil man?

We live in a time when we are ruled by awful men.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when our politicians either didn’t parade their failed virtue in front of us, demanding that we ban abortion or sex outside of marriage or child rape while they did it – they either didn’t do it, or left those policies vaguely undefined. There was a time when politicians had basic human decency, and would behave well around others even if their policies were unpleasant. John Howard’s policies were atrocious, he wasted 10 years of Australia’s best economic growth on buying votes from middle class Australians, and he instituted the modern policy of abuse of asylum seekers, but he would never tell a child that santa isn’t real and he never sexually assaulted anyone. Paul Keating was an arrogant prick but he genuinely cared about the rights of the poor, of working people, and of Aboriginal people. His policies might not always have helped the people he cared about but he tried – and he at least had a sense of humour. John Major may have squandered the chance to achieve a Tory follow-up to Thatcher’s economic policies, and he may have presided over growing inequality and ill health, but he was a bland and tired man who never raped anyone. It’s a low bar but let’s repeat it: John Major never raped anyone. His successor face-fucked a dead pig.

Where did these awful men come from? Slate attempts to offer something of an explanation for them, defining them as the Old Boys, but their explanation is too focused on America (of course). It doesn’t explain the horrors of Boris Johnson in Britain, Scott Morrison in Australia (or Barnaby fucking Joyce!), those eastern European wannabe despots who are despicable and awful nobodies; it doesn’t have much to say about Erdogan, though perhaps he isn’t actually awful (how old school to only be politically evil, and not also personally despicable!). How is that so many of the men who rule or want to rule the English speaking world are so awful? Not just that their policies are traditionally right wing but that they themselves eschew the basic principles of being a decent man? Is there something wrong with the protestant English-speaking world, that throws up these horrific men? Is there something unique to the democratic systems of the English-speaking world? I wonder if perhaps the winner-take-all nature of our political systems encourages these men, and that perhaps explains why democracies that require coalition-building don’t have them. So they don’t appear in France, Germany, New Zealand, or Japan, because in those systems you have to be able to be liked by people who disagree with you – perhaps then it’s telling that in the one time Australian politicians had to negotiate a coalition the awful man lost and the supposedly bland woman won.

I also wonder if it is something about the right wing of politics? After all, it’s usually the right that attracts the racists and sexists and secret hitlerophiles, so maybe that’s where the awful people go? But that doesn’t explain Kevin Rudd, who kept his awfulness under a bushel until he had power and then burnt so bright before Gillard extinguished his awful light. It doesn’t explain Blair, the hideous vampire. It doesn’t explain Mark Latham, who broke a taxi driver’s arm and spent his early dotage ranting in right-wing journals about all the labour party members who (thankfully for labor and the country) dumped him before he could apply his unique taxi-side negotiating skills to the country. The jury of course is out on Xi Jinping, about whom rumours of womanizing in his youth circulate but who finds it very easy to maintain a squeaky clean image, either because he is or because he controls the media with an iron fist.

So how did we get to be ruled by all these awful men?

I wonder if there is something buried in democracy, some awful bug, which makes it vulnerable to these shoddy personalities, these narcissistic vultures. Or at least if the kind of first past the post, winner-takes-all democracy of the English-speaking world is ultimately as vulnerable to takeover by narcissistic, personality-disordered thugs as any dictatorial system. Maybe it takes 20 years longer, but maybe it’s just as inevitable? Or maybe it’s not true that you should leave people’s personal properties out of your calculation of their political worth. Maybe the personal really is political, and if a politician is personally awful then they will be politically terrible. In my youth there was a strong principle that you don’t bring people’s personal life into politics. But perhaps Trump is the antithesis of that principle: we should absolutely judge politicians by their personal behavior, because they will never be better than they are personally when they are in power. Or maybe something has changed over the past 20 years in our culture, so that people are no longer capable of being better politically than they are personally. If so then you need to make sure that the people you vote for have sterling personal qualities, because if in the past the responsibility of leadership caused people to rise above themselves, it appears that these awful men take the opportunity of leadership to debase themselves. If power corrupts, what hope do we have if all of our leaders are already deeply, awfully corrupt?

I don’t know what the reason is but I do know this: we need to get rid of these awful men. Our civilization cannot survive if we allow these awful men to have any influence, anywhere in our society. We need to drive them out, retire them, get them away from anywhere where there is a lever of power. We don’t know what the systematic problems are that enable these awful men to seize the levers of power, so let’s settle on a simpler program: don’t work with them, don’t help them, don’t vote for them, don’t aid them or abet them. Get them out of power, everywhere.

Let’s build a world where we are not ruled by awful men.

Today I read transcripts of Donald Trump’s post-midterms press conference, and I stumbled upon this fascinating quote:

And Barbara Comstock was another I think that she could’ve won that race, but she did not want to have an embrace. For that, I do not blame her. But she lost substantially lost. Peter Roskam did not want the embrace. Erik Paulsen did not want the embrace. And in New Jersey, I think that he could have done well, but did not work out too good. Bob, you can come, I feel badly, that is something that could’ve been one. John Faso. Those are some of the people that decided for their own reason not to embrace, whether it is me or what we stand for, but what we stand for meant a lot to a lot of people.

And I was struck by this language: I’ve seen it before. The embrace is the process by which people are turned into vampires. This is a direct reference to the process of becoming a vampire in the Vampire: The Masquerade role playing game. This is deeply depressing for two reasons: first of all, because it means that there is a vampire in charge of the nuclear codes; and worse still, because it means the pretentious artistes at White Wolf were right all along[1]. Those bastards!

Once you realize that Trump is a vampire from that RPG, it answers a lot of questions. Obviously the orange “fake tan” is actually some kind of special chemical make up that enables him to emerge in sunlight (presumably he learnt the tech from Tony Blair); I guess Trump’s secret solution to the abortion issue is to make everyone undead, so it no longer matters; and now we know why so many Republicans are paedophiles – it’s a vampire thing, paedophilia. It’s disturbing to know that a large proportion of the US congress are vampires, but judging by Trump’s speech a lot of members also refused to accept eternal life and give away their actual souls in exchange for power; but it’s also very disappointing to know that even though they didn’t actually get eternal life, they still gave up their metaphorical souls for temporal power, which makes one wonder why they didn’t just go the whole hog and accept the embrace? These people are going to hell for what they did, why not trade their full soul for eternal life? This kind of half-arsed equivocation is just pathetic, Representative Comstock!

Anyway, we all know these people are arseholes with bad policy ideas, and that they’re also pathetic cowards, so it’s kind of believable that they would baulk at the full embrace but still enact the policies. The real question is: what kind of Vampire is Trump? What clan is he? There are many clans to choose from, but I have narrowed it down to four possibilities.

  • Malkavian: These guys are insane, described as lunatics and jesters, but also visionaries. Some are fanatics, and some have an instinctive ability to pick apart and reassemble minds. Listening to James Comey’s description of his meetings with Trump, you can imagine Trump is doing that. A Malkavian? Possibly…
  • Nosferatu: These guys are deformed, warped by the Embrace, which would explain a lot. They’re hideous, evil beasts driven by their passions, twisted by the Embrace. Unfortunately the definitive text also says they’re more human than other vampires, and Trump shows no human traits, so … maybe not.
  • Ventrue: I think this is most likely, the clan devoted to power and persuasion. The latest text describes two of their archetypes as “cold-blooded corporate director” and “conservative politician”. The Ventrue use their powers to control both the supernatural and mortal world. They blend in with the leading political, media and corporate figures of their age, which would enable a monster like Trump to fit in and find a way to excel …
  • Caitiff: Another possibility, my personal favourite, is that Trump is a caitiff, someone who was embraced and abandoned and doesn’t know their own lineage. Having discovered himself alone and powerful and prey to the clans, he has decided to go loud, and defend himself by being so public and so powerful that no one can touch him. Everything he does is a desperate thrashing out at the supernatural forces closing in on him. For bonus salivatory fun, he was turned by a Ventrue, who has been staked for making such a disastrous mistake – and who was a democrat. In fact all the major dems are vampires, and Trump is their by-blow. If you doubt me, look at page 103 of the new book – if that’s not Hilary Clinton I’m a goblin.

I don’t know how the White Wolf crew figured this out – perhaps they’re vampires too and this is some cosmic joke – but instead of writing a pretentious and unworkable RPG they should have spent their creative years warning us about the dark powers in our midst. This is particularly ironic given I joined a Vampire game a while back and created a character who lived in the ruins of one of Trump’s failed casino projects.

How can the world have gone so wrong!?

 


fn1: I guess there is also the possibility that Trump is an avid Vampire role-player, and he was just deploying a metaphor. This would be simultaneously great and incredibly creepy. It would be great because it would so wonderfully troll the lefties at White Wolf to know that Cheeto Jesus is a Vampire player; but it would also be deeply disturbing. I have been roleplaying for 30 years and I play some pretty disturbing games but I could not imagine anything as grotesque as Trump, John Kelly, Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee-Sanders in the basement of the White House rolling d10 dice pools in some deeply pretentious storytelling game. No! I would rather that Trump were a vampire, and armageddon were incoming!

So watch the old world melt away
A loss regrets could never mend
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
We’ll tell our children’s children why
We grew so tall and reached so high
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
To seasons end
It was the morning of the winter solstice in neolithic England. The PCs stood next to the Chieftain of the People, near the Stonehenge Heel Stone. Ahead of them lay the stones, the gap in the tallest glowing with the faintest hint of dawn’s first light. The high priest stood in front of the Chieftain, facing the stones and composing himself ahead of the festival. Nearby one of his acolytes squatted in the snow, holding a clay bowl heavy with a slop of fresh pig’s blood and earth. Behind them the People stretched out along the avenue, clustered together against the dawn wind but still thronging the avenue in their numbers, the crowd stretching down the hill into the pre-dawn gloom. Here on the slope of Stonehenge the wind had a biting chill, whipping the thin, crisp coating of new snow into a fine mist that somehow managed to creep through even the tightest-clutched clothing. Knuckles turned blue in the chill wind, noses dripped and froze, but everyone bore the chill stoically, for this was the most important ceremony of the year, winter solstice, when the world turned for another year. Everyone wore their finest clothes, the browns and greys of their best quality furs forming a grim smear across the otherwise pristine white of the surrounding hillside. Many were painted in wode and wearing their best seashells and feathers.
To fit the occasion, the characters had come in their military finery, as befitted guests of the chieftain being honoured for their heroic deeds, though perhaps one of them had brought all his most potent charms for baser, more paranoid reasons. They were three:
  • The Dark Ram, a grim old man from an obscure cult that specialized in darkness, stone, fear and cold; once great in his youth, he was now an old man hunched inside tattered robes, leaning on a black staff topped with the horned skull of a great goat
  • Wolfson, a berserker from the cult of blood, standing firm and proud in his hide armour, fine stone axe held proudly in his strong right arm, the antithesis of the Old Ram, youth and beauty and pure violence against the old man’s frailty and grim blood worship
  • Fast Current, a naive acolyte of the cult of the forests, shivering in the chill wind, not yet used to the privations of religious life, eager to be a part of the most important rite of the year

The Chieftain stood, as always, nervous and uncertain, his weak jaw receding into flabby chins, smelling of pig fat and sour mead. They all knew of the rumours and discontent – indeed, Dark Ram had suggested they decline the invitation to avoid being seen to be allies of this fading man, who was once a hero but now a maligned administrator, but no one could look at Fast Current’s eager religious fervour and not allow him to this one special moment in dawn’s fierce glow. Now Fast Current did not notice as the Chieftain stood, impatiently waiting for the whole thing to be over, probably already scheming about what to do with the various factions aligned against him as he stood in the bitter chill of the coldest day of his 57th year, standing silently witness to his 31st winter solstice as chieftain. Tired. Looking for something, anything, to firm up his weakening grip on the People he had spent his life serving.

The time came. The Chieftain raised his arms. The High Priest stepped past the characters and raised his robed arms towards the people, tried to catch that moment when they all breathed out in unison, that was always snatched away by the Henge’s brutal winds. He turned back, began the recitations of the Necessary Invocations, walked his away around the Small Circle and the Lines. The crowd watched in anticipation as his acolyte scampered forward, he took the bowl of blood and soil and theatrically poured it into the ditch of the Henge (Being careful not to let the wind spill any onto his robes). As he did this his priests, standing at carefully spaced locations along the avenue, began the Chant of the New Life, and an astromancer walked slowly down the line of the people, singing old songs about the stars and the rhythm of the seasons. At regular junctures the priests turned to cast fresh pig fat onto the fires burning in the ditches each side of the avenue, ensuring that the People were bathed in the cleansing light of the fires.

Calling forth the New Sun always takes time. The High Priest continued his chanting and his movements in the Circle, as the priests led the chant for the People, and from the hillside a slow sussuration of poetry reached them over the hiss of the wind. In truth the High Priest mumbled, and it was hard for the PCs to follow his words from their lofty position on the hillside away from the clear spoken priests, but they struggled along as best they could. The Chieftain, well-versed by now in all these processes, muttered the words of the prayers to himself and cast his gaze impatiently to the horizon, waiting for the sun to break over the hillside so that he could send the People home and return to his scheming. Everyone’s attitude was divided between the clarion call of the new year’s rituals, and the bitter cold of the hillside. In such strange interstices is the fate of the new year held.

The Priest began to raise his voice, casting some powders onto the wind from his sleeves. He stepped back past the PCs to face the crowd, raising his voice as the Priest’s voices raised to a crescendo, then turned back to the Heel Stone, arms raised wide, the sleeves of his robe slipping back to reveal the tattoos and leathers embracing his skinny old arms, and raising his voice to a loud, powerful call, yelled “Rise, oh sun!” The crowd drew in their breath as one, a brief sharp sound that carried over the whispering of the wind. Everyone faced the stones.

The sun did not rise.

Still, sometimes the Priest’s call could be a little early, and in any case this ritual was powerful. They waited.

The sun did not rise.

They waited some more. Their call had to proceed into the earth, after all, deep into the realms beneath the ground past the silent halls where the dead slept, to the place where the sun slumbered, and raise it up to the sky. Perhaps sometimes it takes time to drag the sun forth (is the sun a man or a woman? Has it a gender? Opinions were divided, but if it did have a gender it might be a stubborn old man, or a wilfull young woman. They could wait).

The sun did not rise.

The land remained bathed in the shadow of pre-dawn. The wind continued to blow, chill and harsh, not softened at all by the knowledge that the new year’s light shone on them. Over the hills and far away was a faint glow, but the sun did not rise. It was cold.

People began to mutter. The sun had not risen. Everyone knew the stories. Recently their crops had been failing, and bad things happening. Some said that the Chieftain’s decision to move the bluestones was the reason – had he cursed the sun itself? Somewhere in the crowd, someone said something. Laughter ripped up the line. That old story! But the laughter stilled quickly, because this was serious. If the sun did not rise … people began to mutter more darkly.

The Chieftain was not stupid, he had not presided over 31 winter solstices because he could not read the mood of his People. “Priest,” he grunted, perhaps more disrespectfully than was appropriate for such a ceremony. “Have you messed up the timing? Are your astromancers drunk again?”

The High Priest apologized to the Chieftain, and stepped back to face the crowd. “It is a cold year, and the sun sleeps deep!” He called in his clearest priest’s voice, the voice that had won him power those years ago when his rivals tried to argue with the people on matters of theology, but he called out to them in pure tones of eager rhetoric. “We must call it together, as one!”

The priests obeyed, raising their voices in the Call, and the High Priest led the people on another round of chanting. Now he had one eye over the shoulder at the horizon, waiting for the moment to raise the call. The chant stretched out, and finally he turned, arms raised, and yelled “Rise, oh sun!”

The sun did not rise.

The Dark Ram spat. He could feel trouble brewing in the bones of the earth. The High Priest looked at the Chieftain, uncertain and pleading. Twenty one years ago the last High Priest had gone against the Chieftain on a matter where religion intersected with popular opinion, and a week later he had been found dead in a gully, apparently crushed under an Aurochs. Everyone knew that the Chieftain had not always been weak. He had not always been desperate either. Wolfson looked around at the crowd, readying himself to fight, and also to decide on which side to fight. Fates seemed, briefly, to hang in the balance.

Below them on the avenue the muttering rose again. Someone called out something at the back of the crowd, people snickered – it was the sound of agreement, not amusement. The light was still dim, but in the ruddy glow of the fires the priests’ uncertainty was obvious. The Dark Ram stepped closer to Wolfson and muttered, “Ready yourself.” He cast a warning glance back to Fast Current, who stood confused in the cold wind, not understanding the flows of religious and popular discontent.

The Chieftain hrmphed gently to himself, the sound of a bitter man making a hard decision. He stepped through the characters to face the crowd, stopping briefly when he was level with their ruddy, wind-blasted faces to whisper to them, “You will follow my lead or your end will be bitter,” and then presented himself to the crowd, arms raised, a sudden picture of confidence.

“Oh People!”, he called out to them, his voice suddenly taking on all the clarion tones of his youth. Suddenly their chieftain was not a weak and fading old man, but had called back the power that had led him to this position at such a young age, and helped him maintain it through many challenges. “We face a mighty test! The sun has not risen! Our priests have done their all, but it has not risen!” At this he cast a grim look back at the High Priest, that spoke of angry meetings yet to be held in quiet groves. “I feared that this would arise, because dark forces work against us.” He paused, to watch the crowd muttering to themselves. Dark forces? What dark forces? Did the Chief know something? “But do not fear, my People, because your fate rests safe with me! I assembled these heroes here against this possibility!” His arm swept around to take in the PCs, and the crowd roared their approval. “Whoever has stolen the sun from us, whatever chains hold her fast in the underworld, they will find her, and bring her back!” Thus it was that with a casual sentence the Chieftain answered the religious debate of the age – the sun was a woman! And also sent the characters to their doom. Hearing his confident young voice come back to him, the crowd roared their approval. “They will set out immediately to find the sun, and to bring vengeance upon whoever dared to interfere with her. Have faith in the heroes of our People, my friends! But now, return to your homes and the warmth. Trust in me, your Chief!”

The crowd roared their approval. The chieftain turned to frown at the characters, and after a nudge from the Dark Ram both Wolfson and Fast Current raised their arms to wave at the crowd. At the urging of the priests it began to disperse, and the Chieftain stepped in close to them. “My hut shortly,” he ordered them tersely. Turning to the High Priest, he snarled, “You two, for what it’s worth!” and marched off.

The Wild Women

They trudged back to the Chief’s hut, which was really not much bigger than anyone else’s, and furnished with the same simple bedding of birch branches and hay, though a little colder on account of its size. The Chieftain sat on his pallet, frowning at the High Priest and sucking down an early mead. He grunted his approval when the characters entered.

“Trouble,” he snapped at them. “We need to fix it, or we’re dead.” He frowned over at the High Priest. “No one knows what’s happening. You have to fix it.”

They stood helpless, unable to refuse or suggest any ideas. Finally the Dark Ram coughed and stepped forward. “Do you have any suggestions about what we should do?”

The Chieftain spat. “You’re the ancient wizard. Fix it!” He looked over at his High Priest. “What about you?! Any ideas?”

The High Priest shuffled his feet. “Well actually … they could try the Wild Women.”

Wolfson and Fast Current shuddered, in time with the Chief. The Dark Ram shrugged. “That is a desperate play. Are you really out of answers?” The Dark Ram was good at hiding his fear.

“There is nothing in the stories of our people to explain this. It is otherworldly. The Wild Women stand between the worlds. Perhaps they will know.” The High Priest looked strangely smug about his answer. Of course, rumour was that the Dark Ram had stolen his lover, back when they were both young and the Dark Ram was still a rutting goat. What better fate for him now, than to face the Wild Women?

The Dark Ram shrugged. “So be it. We will visit the Wild Women. We will save the People.” He turned his dark, blood-tired gaze back on the High Priest. “Our reward will be suitable to the task, I am sure.”

“Yes yes, I’m sure everything will be very fine for you if you just solve this problem,” the Chieftain interjected, hustling them towards the door to his hut. As he pulled the hangings aside and they marched out, he added, “Do not bother returning until you find the sun. You know your fate.”

They separated to their huts to gather traveling equipment, and regrouped a short while later in the snow at the edge of the village, shivering in the cold, and at the task to come. They had all heard rumours about the Wild Women, who live in a swamp near Avebury:

  • They are served by giants
  • They live in another realm and only come to this world to make mischief
  • To lay with one is to gain eternal life, but they only lay with women
  • They are beautiful
  • They are terrible crones

With these conflicting stories in their minds, they prepared to set off for the swamps of Avebury. Before they did, however, Fast Current bid them wait, while he performed a ritual in the forest. They returned to their huts as Fast Current called on the spirits of the trees, drawing forth their knowledge about the land. After some hours of constant chanting a vision came to him, of red-headed children fleeing into the swamp to escape strange snakes made of shadow. Dark things stirred in the land to their north!

They set off into the grey pre-dawn afternoon, marching north first through a patchwork of forest and small communities, dotted with fields and little wattle-and-daub huts, until the land slowly gave way to the full, thick forest that ruled the land beyond the communities. A narrow path cut through the forest, beaten down by generations of the People walking the path from Stonehenge to Avebury, and said to be safe but for the odd bear. The huge trees of the ancient forest loomed over the path, casting it into near darkness in the dawn light. They picked their way carefully along the path, vigilant against the strange horrors Fast Current had seen in the dreamings of the tree-spirits, but emerged safely after a few hours onto a sweeping vista of swamp and open hills, the heaths and swamps to the west of Avebury. The distant hills hung like low clouds on the horizon, barely visible in the dawn glow. Below them the swamp stretched to the east and north, a grim smear across the landscape. Mostly it was tall reeds and strange, stunted trees, shrouded in a dark and unwelcoming mist, but at some points ancient trees rose above the murk, vine-festooned branches reaching out to the sky as if they were trying to claw their way out of a stagnant pond.

They walked down the hill towards the swamp. Near its edge they found a small hamlet, just a collection of a dozen or so mud huts, and bargained with a farmer to take one of the town’s least popular members as a possible sacrifice to the Wild Women. The townsfolk let her go easily enough, a flame-haired beauty who they said was no good at farming and always fussed over mud and guts, better suited to sacrifice or religious observance than the hard life of the fens, and they took her with them into the swamp.

They guessed that the best way to find the Wild Women was to walk to the centre of the swamp, and they were not mistaken. After a few hours, as they rested on a tree stump by a foul-smelling stretch of ice-coated water, they suddenly found themselves being watched by a girl-child. This wild scrap of innocence squatted on the twisted bough of a tree some distance from them, ragged furs hanging loose on a bony frame, tearing chunks of meat off of the fresh, twitching corpse of a rabbit with disturbingly sharp teeth. She stared at them with huge, unblinking violet eyes. After a moment, sure she had their attention, she tore the rabbit in half, letting its steaming guts fall to the ground at the foot of the tree, and bounded off into the shadows. Grunting and sighing, they heaved themselves to their feet and marched after her.

She led them a merry chase for an hour, making sure they were thoroughly lost and covered in vile swamp-mud by the time they arrived at a huge, imposing burial mound. This mound was far bigger than those around Avebury or Stonehenge, and by its look far older, perhaps built back when Stonehenge was new. A huge, dead tree grew from the grassy top of the mound, and thick stands of spiny bushes surrounded it. They pushed through and into a dark entry chamber, where suddenly the girl disappeared. Ahead of them in the main chamber of the mound they could see a faint glow; in the side chambers they saw fresh bodies, old bones, and heard the disturbing smacking sounds of something sucking the marrow from bones. They hastened forward, into a huge and shadowed cave, that was obviously much larger than the mound could possibly have allowed. It stank of mud and death, but it was so large that they could not see what horrors might be hanging from its far walls. A shaft of sunlight fell from a huge crack in the ceiling, incongruous given the fractured seasons outside, and lit a strange cascade of thin, semi-transparent discs that hung from the ceiling on inconceivably thin, shiny strands of leather, as if someone in here could spin quartz into thread. On one side of the chamber, near a small fire, lay the broken body of a young man, its guts spilled into a puddle of water, a crow watching them forbiddingly from atop the corpse’s blood-smeared back. Opposite them, on the far side of the chamber, wreathed in shadow, sat an adult woman in a thin robe, lounging on a large stone dais. Something huge moved in the shadows behind them, something they could not quite make out, though occasionally they caught a glimpse of a massive fingernail or an ear or a gleaming yellow eye far above them in the shadows.

The woman held her arms wide in a gesture of welcome. “You seek us, you found us. Explain your needs.” She dragged out the word ‘needs’ in a manner both thrilling and threatening. Fast Current and Wolfson hesitated, but the Dark Ram was in his element. He stepped forward, staff held high, dragging the sacrifice-girl forward by one hand, and pushed her to her knees on the rough floor of the cave.

“We bring a sacrifice. We wish to trade for information.”

The woman shrugged dismissively and ignored the girl, who was doing an admirable job of restraining her terror. For someone fussy about mud and guts, she had surely already seen a lifetime’s worth in morning. She sat still and ready to die as the Dark Ram explained their dire situation, and tried to negotiate the terms by which they could get the information they needed.

It did not take long to settle terms. As soon as the sun rose again, the entire group would come to this mound and serve the Wild Women for a year. In return the woman told them what they needed to know: that there was something wrong at Silbury Hill, and they must go there to find the solution to the world’s problems.

They agreed to the price, and left for Silbury Hill.

The hill

Silbury Hill

To the east the swamp slowly rose and merged into forest, but before they could reach dry land they were ambushed. Emerging from a stand of reeds into a wide, shallow frozen pool they were suddenly attacked by three thick, black snakes that came sliding out of the reeds around the pond. Each was wider than a human leg and longer than a person, and as they slid through the reeds the plants nearest to them seemed to wilt away from them. These snakes emerged from the shadows in a rush, opening wide, toothed mouths and glaring balefully from eyes that were red like fire. Even as they attacked, the characters could tell something else was coming from the reeds, and as battle was joined that thing leapt out into the pool with a mighty huff! It smashed onto the ice and reared up to attack them, a giant dog-like creature with scales like a dragon, and the same fiery red eyes. It’s first act was to spit a massive gob of acid onto Wolfson, and then the battle was joined.

They prevailed, but Wolfson was injured and they were all exhausted and feeling physically sick. Even as they stood in the ruins of the battle, the frozen water of the pool seeping through their shoes, the corpses of the snakes began to melt and steam, fading rapidly away and leaving only a terrible stench. The dog-demon thing lay dead in the pool, decaying more slowly and horribly than its companions. They gathered themselves together and hurried out of the swamp. These were the things the trees had dreamt, and they guessed there must be more. Where had they come from?

Another long walk took them to Silbury Hill, which they approached in the traditional way, from the east. Here an earthwork causeway connected the hill to the land, bridging the ditch that held the hill apart from the land around. As they approached they could see a dim light atop the hill, as if a fire had been lit. They crossed the causeway and climbed the hill, emerging breathless to its windswept summit to find a scene of murder and ruin.

The light did come from a fire, which was still smouldering near the centre of the hilltop. A corpse lay in the fire, partly smothering it and partly feeding it, and two more lay brutalized on the ground near the fire. All three were young, two children and one barely an adult. They were emaciated and showed signs of having been abused for a long while, their bodies decorated with old and new bruises. They wore pathetic clothes, just rags against the cold, and the sores on their feet and faces suggested they had been in the cold weather for some time before they died. The one in the fire had been killed by having his throat cut, but the cut was a fine, clean slice, better than any stone knife could do, and the other two also showed signs of having been repeatedly cut and stabbed with something much sharper than humans could design. Some demon must have come here and killed them.

This, then, was the cause of all their problems. Silbury Hill formed a barrier between the underworld and the real, a kind of sinkhole that could only keep the underworld at bay if it was regularly maintained and prepared, and kept pure. No one should visit it, and anyone who did must observe the proper rituals. Nothing earthly could be done up here – no waste, no sex, no foul words, no birth and certainly no death. Death on Silbury Hill was only allowed in the form of sacrifice, the death of a pure child prepared properly for the ritual of sanctifying the barrier. The kind of profane death they had seen here must only cause pollution.

By killing these children, someone or something had broken the seal between the underworld and the real, stopped the sun in its tracks and unleashed the beasts of hell into the earth. The Dark Ram knew all this, and told them in a steady, cold voice. The damage could be undone, by giving these children a proper burial at Stonehenge where their souls could be recalled and rested, and then performing the proper rituals here to sanctify the place again. But there would be no point if whoever did this simply came back to do it again. They needed to find out why this had been done, and find the perpetrator, and destroy them. A ritual was required.

The Dark Ram prepared one of the bodies, setting it in the proper fashion and painting its cheeks with the correct tinctures. The girl provided the blood, just a smear of fresh blood from a cut on her arm, and then they fell back to wait as the Dark Ram called the body’s soul back from where it had fled, to draw on its memories.

He saw flashing images of horror and violence. A large boat pulling up on the shore and big men in dark armour smashing into a tiny collection of mud huts. A group of them dragged screaming away while the rest died in the river shallows, or in the shade of great oaks where they ran to hide. Fires burned. Then there was a boat, a storm, exhausting flash of water and crash of waves, then peace on the shore and the sound of woodworking. Then flight, a small group of them running into snow and darkness. Hiding on the hill, but found, attacked by the grim dark men, the taste of blood, then fire and death.

The children were escaped slaves, pursued here and murdered on the hill as punishment for their flight. Some were still abroad, running from their captors. But who would kill children on the hill, knowing the risk? They must find these slaves, and destroy them.

Giants among men

The slavers

They decided first to go to Avebury, which was nearby, and warn the people of Avebury of the danger in the woods around, as well as finding a group of warriors to remove the bodies and take them back to Stonehenge for a holy burial, but they did not reach the town. After just ten minutes on the path to the town they were ambushed by a squad of huge and terrifying warriors. There were four of them, and they gleamed. All four were much larger than the PCs, perhaps a whole head taller and much bulkier. They carried large bows that were much better made than those the group carried, and each had a knife of a strange glowing substance that was much harder and sharper than their own weapons. The leader had plates of the glowing stone-like stuff on his leather armour, and carried a larger knife that was as long as a man’s arm, and terrifyingly sharp. They hurled themselves into battle, yelling strange words in a language the characters did not understand, and the group prepared to sell themselves dearly against these great, beautiful, terrible men.

But the men had no magic. The Dark Ram called forth shadow magic to steal their health, and Fast Current entangled them in vines, and Wolfson went into a berserk rage, and the glowing men did nothing in return. No magic of any kind. Although they injured Wolfson and Fast Current, they could not win. One tried to run away but they managed to catch him and kill him, and then they followed his path over some hills to find a larger camp, with another 6 of the same men squatting around fires, cleaning their strange weapons. Everything these men carried was so much more beautiful and perfect than anything the heroes had ever seen – but they had no magic, so they did not see Fast Current watching them. The PCs sneaked away and continued to Avebury, where they raised a larger force. Within two hours the six big, shining men were dead, ambushed and surrounded and slaughtered by the people of Avebury. In the battle they all saw how the strange men’s amber-coloured swords cut perfectly through flesh, and realized that these must be the men who had killed the children on the hillside.

In the camp they found a single slave child tied up, beaten and cowed and dumped inside a tent – one of the children recaptured. Wolfson, they discovered, spoke the child’s language – he was Welsh, one of the hillfolk who live to the north of the wild seas beyond Avebury. He told them his story. The strange men had come to their village in a huge boat, raided and taken children captive, then returned to the sea. One of the men spoke a little Welsh, and told them that they would be sacrifices in a far land, where these men had come from, and where magic had slowly faded from the world. Desperate to bring the magic back, these people had begun making human sacrifices to the dark gods to try and appease them and stop the draining of their powers, but nothing worked, so they began to sacrifice more. When the sacrifices became too much burden on their own people they began traveling to nearby kingdoms to take slaves for sacrifice, and the easiest place, they said, was this island, because on this island everyone was primitive and stupid and could not defend themselves.

So they had been taken, and they would have gone to this far land to be killed in offering to the dark gods, except that a storm drove their ship ashore and damaged it, and while the men were repairing it half of the slaves escaped. When they came in sight of Silbury Hill their group split, with some heading into the forest to the west, some deciding to hide on the hill, and others scattering east. The slavers had caught the ones on the hill, then headed east and found this prisoner, and they were sending out scouting parties looking for more when the characters raided their camp. The attempt to recapture the slaves was thus broken, but perhaps 10 or 12 more of these men were camped to the north, by the sea.

Epilogue: Futures past

Wolfson put on the armour and carried the sword of the slaver leader when they attacked the slavers at the coast. In battle though, he realized that the armour made him sluggish, held back his frenzy, deadened his sense of the wild. He shrugged it off at last, threw away the sword, and in a killing frenzy beat his enemies to death with a stone he picked up from the beach. It was a bitter fight, the 30 or so fighters of the People up against the 12 slavers, but they won. Wolfson confided in the Dark Ram, and they threw all the cursed goods onto the boat, set it alight and pushed it into the reach. These men had powerful weapons and armour, some new technology that shaped stone to be harder than stone, and made them powerful and great, but somehow it had sucked out their magic. It wasn’t the gods of the underworld they needed to appease, but their own lust for progress.

The People stood on the shore watching the ship slip out to the reach, the fire slowly consuming it. They would stay as they were, and their magic would defend them against whatever strange new age encroached from over the water. They turned to face the newly rising sun, strong in their faith and their confidence in their astrologers, and set their faces to Stonehenge. Let the new era come – they were more than a match for it!

 


Note: this adventure was inspired by the desire to tell the story of the Welsh cremation remains recently uncovered in Stonehenge, as recounted here.

The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

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