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Sunday 17 May 2020

The Horror of Humanity

An Inner Darkness: Fighting for Justice Against Eldritch Horrors and Our Own Inhumanity is a Call of Cthulhu book with a difference. Published by Golden Goblin Press following a successful Kickstarter campaignAn Inner Darkness is an anthology of six scenarios for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition which explores where the all too human horrors of the Jazz Age and Desperate Decade intersect with the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos. In six scenarios it deals with issues not normally explored or addressed in Call of Cthulhu—child labour and exploitation, the poor treatment suffered by veterans of the Great War in the subsequent decade, sexual assault, mob violence, and nativism and religious persecution and racial discrimination. None of these are easy subjects to deal with and for this reason An Inner Darkness comes with a Reader Advisory warning the reader that it contains Mature Content. What this also means is that An Inner Darkness is not necessarily a book for every Call of Cthulhu devotee or group—and that is fine. Just like the superlative Harlem Unbound from 2017, An Inner Darkness deserves to have a place on our gaming shelves, for if it is not to your tastes, then it is to someone else’s.

From the start it should be made clear that being an anthology of scenarios for a roleplaying game, the Reader Advisory on An Inner Darkness is all the more pertinent and all the more potent. This is entirely because of the nature of roleplaying itself. Neither the Keeper nor her players will be sat comfortably watching, reading, or listening to the content subject to the Reader Advisory. Instead, as players they will be roleplaying characters interacting with horrible situations and persons with points of view and opinion which though regarded as reprehensible today, would have been seen as the norm in the period in which the six scenarios in An Inner Darkness are set. Further, the Keeper has the unpleasant task of describing these situations and roleplaying the men and women who hold to such outlooks and opinions. Here is perhaps the one major issue with An Inner Darkness, that there is little in the way of advice for the Keeper in portraying these NPCs.

To get the very fullest of these scenarios the Keeper may want to have access to several other supplements. These include H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, Secrets of New York, H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham, and Secrets of Los Angeles. Note that none of these supplements are necessary to run the scenarios in An Inner Darkness, but they may be useful.

An Inner Darkness opens with ‘Dreams of Silk’ by Christopher Smith Adair. This takes place in Brights Mill, Pennsylvania in 1922 and explores the darker side of child labour during the period, including unsafe conditions, dangerous materials, and a lack of concern for worker safety. Children of poor and working-class families were often expected to work as it brought much needed income for their families and there were fewer regulations and protections governing their working conditions. The investigators are asked by a representative of the Women’s Trade Union League to help investigate Hempstead Chemicals, a local manufacturer of cosmetics. Several of the child employees have fallen sick or even died after terrible accidents. Ultimately, the factory becomes the focus of the investigators’ attention, a nicely creepy environment, listless during the day, weird at night. The scenario also dovetails into The Dreamlands, though only in minor way. Here the Mythos is used to exacerbate the situation, though Humans are ultimately responsible for the situation. Pleasingly, the scenario also directly addresses the problems which occur should the investigators decide to burn the factory down, as well as possible consequences.

Brian M. Sammons’ ‘When This Lousy War is Over’ is about the conditions and experience of veterans, in particular, severely injured veterans—mentally and physically, returning from the Great War. Without easily available medical and psychiatric treatment or veterans’ services, the veterans have to rely on each other. Despite this, some are unable to cope back in ordinary society, and this lies at the heart of the scenario. Set in Arkham, Massachusetts, it begins with the investigators learning that a friend of theirs, a veteran of the Great War, has been found murdered. It quickly becomes apparent that the victim had no enemies and beyond his membership of the local outpost of the Veterans of Foreign Wars association, was an ordinary member of society. So who killed him? This feels very much like a traditional investigative scenario, but it examines the tensions between the members of Veterans of Foreign Wars and local society, how they are tolerated, but only up to a point. Of all the scenarios in the anthology, this is perhaps the most muscular in tone and likely to end in a stand-up fight.

The third scenario, Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘A Fresh Coat of White Paint’ is the first one where the Reader Advisory for An Inner Darkness is really applicable and the first one to really make the Keeper and her players uncomfortable. It is set outside Los Angeles in 1931 and is the first of two scenarios in the anthology to deal with nativism—the promotion and protection of the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants. During the nineteen twenties and thirties the target of nativism in California were Mexican immigrants, which was only exacerbated by the onset of the Great Depression. ‘A Fresh Coat of White Paint’ takes place in an actual location, the Elysian Park tramp stockade where ethnic Mexicans—whether immigrants or actual American citizens—are forcibly held until they agree to be extradited. The conditions are appalling as more and more Mexicans are rounded up and incarcerated, the guards openly racist, and the charity providing aid and food to the stockade barely so. As journalists, social activists, police officers, and so on, the investigators get called into the stockade when a young girl goes missing from within its confines. Now of course the Mythos is involved in her disappearance, but the real horror of the scenario is in dealing with the ghastly attitudes of the guards which has the implicit support of Los Angeles society. Investigating the disappearance will challenging enough, but stomaching the attitudes of the guards and the conditions the Mexicans are kept in is likely to be more challenging, worse because they may have to stomach it in order to get into the stockade. What is interesting about how the author of the scenario—an immigration lawyer—draws parallels between ‘A Fresh Coat of White Paint’ and the contemporary situation with immigration and migrants.

‘A Family Way’ switches to New York and confronts an issue at the heart of the Mythos, which has been alluded to over and over in Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian fiction—specifically the sexual assault on men and women by Deep Ones. When a young lady of the investigators’ acquaintance attempts to seduce one of them, it is quickly revealed that she is pregnant. Not only that, but pregnant through rape. The horror of this situation is compounded by the then attitudes towards women with unwanted pregnancies, rape, and the solutions to the problem. This includes abortion. Which will lead to some interesting—probably demanding—roleplaying as the players navigate their investigators through the situation and the Keeper portrays the victim. It almost seems superfluous that the scenario compounds the situation with the return of the Deep Ones responsible and whilst this leads to a memorable confrontation in New York harbour, hopefully in the long term the Keeper and players alike will remember ‘A Family Way’ for the nature of its origins and the roleplaying required.

Helen Gould’s ‘Fire Without Light’ confronts rampant racism and mob violence in the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 in Oklahoma. It is a year later and tensions between the black and white communities in the town are still high—and set to get even higher as the scenario progresses. Whether as survivors of the riots, journalists or activists come to the town a year later, preachers come to provide succour, the investigators will find themselves faced with three challenges. The first is defusing the rising tensions to prevent any further outbreaks of violence, whilst the second is trying to find out what is causing tensions to escalate once again. The third though, is probably the most difficult, and again is having to deal with both the racism of the period and the then society’s acceptance of it.  The consequences of the investigators’ actions are nicely explored and there are potential links in the scenario’s set-up to Harlem Unbound.

The last scenario in the anthology takes the investigators to Maine and another period of intolerance and racism. ‘They Are From Away’ by Charles Gerard is set in the Pine Tree State in 1923 at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was highly active in the state’s politics. The targets of the Klan’s racism in this scenario are not African Americans, but rather French-Canadian immigrants who work the state’s lumber camps. The migrant workers are also vilified for their Roman Catholicism, which is decried as being unamerican. The investigators—professionals within the city’s Catholic community, church officials, activists rallying against the Klan’s activities, dissatisfied members of local law enforcement, and so on—are called to Bangor where a local church and the French-Canadian immigrants have both been subject to a rash of strange sanguinary occurrences. The investigation takes place against a backdrop of growing Klan activity, French-Canadian obstinance, and rumours of a curse, but help will come from a surprising source. For the most part, this is a straightforward enough investigative scenario, though one which literally has a bloody ending.

Rounding out An Inner Darkness is a trio of Investigator Organisations, a feature of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition which helps explain and support the Investigators’ motivations for looking into the Mythos again and again. They start off strongly with ‘The Caldwell Book Mobile Service’ by Oscar Rios, a mobile library service which not only provides communities without a library access to books to borrow, but also fights the Mythos! The other two are both by Jeff Moeller and are not as strong. ‘A Bunch of Troublemakers’ describes a suffragette who infiltrates activist groups and spurs them into investigating the Mythos, whilst ‘Friends from Boston’ broadly details a protest group which funds efforts to expose governmental abuse, highlight injustice, and support reform. In comparison to ‘The Caldwell Book Mobile Service’ neither feel immediately compelling.

Physically, An Inner Darkness is a step up in quality from previous books from Golden Goblin Press. Colour is used throughout, and whilst the book is liberally illustrated, the use of colour mars some of the artwork, making it look cartoonish and detracting from its intended impact. Photographs are used occasionally too, and these are sharp and well presented. The writing though, does feel rushed in places, and perhaps could have done with a closer edit.

An Inner Darkness presents a sextet of well researched, heavily historical scenarios which confront the reader, the player, the Keeper, and the investigator with the injustices, the awful attitudes, and accepted practices of the period. This makes them difficult to run—as does the specific time periods for many of the scenarios—and to play. As they should. Playing these scenarios should make player and Keeper alike uncomfortable, for they highlight how horror can be found in mankind’s darkest nature—and that is even before the Mythos exploits that nature. An Inner Darkness: Fighting for Justice Against Eldritch Horrors and Our Own Inhumanity deserves its ‘Mature Content’ advisory not just because of the subject matter, but also because despite its distasteful nature, it is handled in a mature fashion.

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