Cartomancy of the Surreal

“A big part of what makes this ambitious game work is the deck of cards that drive play,” says Jason Morningstar in Itras By without Itras By, a set of guidelines on how to use the cards from Itras By as a general resource in any roleplaying game. “The chance cards are completely portable to any other game and any other system… Best of all, the deck can be carefully tuned to deliver just the right amount of surprise and strangeness.”

We used twelve of the chance cards to inject surreal elements into our game of Dreamhounds of Paris for Trail of Cthulhu and occasionally drew a resolution card to decide the outcome of actions in the Dreamlands. Whereas we found it was possible to draw too many cards in any given session – chaos requires order for its impact – we almost never drew a card that felt inappropriate to the story we were telling and on several occasions drew a card that transformed the game in ways we might never have expected.

“Cards assist randomisation, dissolve order, remove interference, enhance focus,” says Ralph Lovegrove in Nørwegian Surreal, the second issue of fanzine Machineries of Joy, before going on to stress what I believe may be the most important factor to their use in a roleplaying game: “To invite players into the ritual cards must be ambiguous as well as inspirational.”

People love license to use their imaginations but are sometimes nervous about doing so in an atmosphere which insists on a priori knowledge of what a roleplaying game could or should be – an attitude which, I’m afraid, some dedicated hobbyists are all too willing to visit on those who are new to roleplay. Itras By’s strongest attribute is the way in which it communicates a shared imagined space while granting complete creative freedom to those playing; the cards combine surreal effects – moments of sudden disjunction designed to create unconscious emotional connections between those playing by means of improvisational prompts – with an underlying logic of sense: gameplay is directed by the creative substructure of surrealism rather than by an explicit superstructure of instructions and in my opinion is all the stronger for it.

The expanded deck of cards published to go with the Menagerie supplement to Itras By includes cards used as elements of the setting – those that accompany Aleksandra Sontowska’s game for exploring the Black Bay district of Itras By (Neighborhood, pp193-197) are wonderfully evocative – or as dedicated elements of a scenario, as in The Scientific Order of Itra-Troll, or even as an edit facility, as in the Nø-Card that supports the essay Saying No by Ole Peder Giæver. It’s also very easy to make your own cards to suit your own purposes. Cards are effective and adaptive.

 

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Rosemary’s Baby

Where stories on a planetary scale might reveal the magnitude of human folly, Cities obscure the private degradation of human motives; both venues, however, allow for the interrogation of the relationship between Identity and civilization. Rosemary’s Baby is in many respects as New Wave as anything that appeared in sf magazine New Worlds or any of the Original Anthologies of the 1960s: rarely can have the mutual indebtedness of the nouvelle vague in Cinema and the new wave in Genre SF been so clearly demonstrated. That the film also reveals the continuing importance of Horror in SF to the emergence of Fantastika as a cornerstone of popular culture is instructive: there is little so cathartic to the human imagination as watching one’s unspoken fears about the malevolence of human society rendered as entertainment.

Rosemary’s Baby achieves this by the way it merges its slow, almost predatory, portrayal of human Psychology under supernatural pressure with its mastery of surrealistic filmmaking techniques: here the razor from Un chien Andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí is exchanged for the kitchen knife in the hand of postpartum mother Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow), the keyhole voyeurism of Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) by Jean Cocteau repurposed as the neighbourly manipulations of Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon) and the clandestine marital set-up of Les Diaboliques (1955) by Henri-Georges Clouzot recycled as the selfish ambition of Rosemary’s flaky and avaricious husband Guy (Cassavetes). Les Diaboliques, released as Diabolique in the United States and sometimes translated as The Devils or The Fiends, also influenced the Freudian terror of Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho (1959) on which Alfred Hitchcock‘s seminal thriller is based, cited Les Diaboliques as his favourite horror film. It is the way director and screenwriter Roman Polanski fuses the oneiric force of Rosemary’s inner life to the interior of the New York apartment block to which she and her husband have moved that causes the viewer to identify so closely with her predicament:

Rosemary’s Baby entry

The Desiring Machine

I’ve had occasion to consider my politics.

Where did they start and where do they end? I always had opinions, of course, and anyone who uses the internet knows about the impossibility of debating perspectives over platforms designed to sell commodities, but I mean when did they cohere, take shape, begin to mean something persistent in a variety of contexts?

I think it was the first time I read Mille plateaux by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980; trans 1986 by Brian Massumi as A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia); this turned out to be a sequel to Capitalisme et schizophrénie. L’anti-Œdipe (1972; trans 1977 by Robert Hurley, Helen R Lane and Mark Seem as Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). I often read things back-to-front or in the wrong order or in a half-arsed and incomplete manner, a product, I think, not only of the internet but of having learnt to read fairly late in childhood.

I barely understood what I was reading – it kept mentioning Hegel, and boy oh boy oh boy did Hegel defeat me – but I had an intensely novelistic reaction (I was a little hypomanic at the time) to its intertextual games and plurality of register and felt very strongly that this was a book that was describing me and the world I experienced much more accurately than the ponderous one-thing-after-another histories of western civilization I’d read before then. I went back and read it more carefully when I had calmed down and found that my thoughts accorded with my feelings.

I picked up Anti-Oedipus yesterday and found that Michel Foucault had summarised the contents of the book very clearly in its preface: I’ve had trouble comprehending Foucault’s writings on sexuality and madness but I love the clarity and intimacy of how he writes about Deleuze. Here is a transliteration of what Foucault calls the “essential principles” of the book:

  • Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.
  • Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.
  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
  • Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
  • Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
  • Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchical individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.
  • Do not become enamoured of power.

These are my politics.

The art in the main image is by Marc Ngui.

The VVitch

The VVitch is a curious artefact. The stylization of its title comes from a Jacobean pamphlet on witchcraft, its costumes (designed by Linda Muir) are thoroughly researched from Stuart Peachey’s Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (2014) and its cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) is intended to replicate the formal composition of paintings of the period. That much of the dialogue is lifted from writings and witchcraft trials of the late seventeenth century lends a curiously dislocated tone to the whole affair: one which might connote the unsuitability of the European paradigm to the North American locale if not for the fact that the religious fervour turns out to be correct in every particular. Thus The VVitch‘s connection to the traditions of Fantastika – a body of literature that communicates its themes most resonantly when read literally and which seeks to interrogate the Politics of the Western world by comparison with exotic locales or buried truths – is both disrupted and enlivened by its almost-documentary devotion to historical accuracy: it may well have been at the point that the Western world stopped treating the idea of God as incontrovertible that Western discourse began to distinguish fact from the fantastic. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” as a William Shakespeare character says in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623).

As has been mentioned elsewhere [see We Don’t Go Back: A Personal Taxonomy of Folk Horror and Pagan Film #52: The Witch (2015) by Howard Ingham], the Psychology of the way the family reacts to the strain they are under is entirely credible; it is the attachment of a supernatural explanation to realist verisimilitude that makes The VVitch seem conflicted. Three Algonquin tribespeople are glimpsed at the beginning of The VVitch: America’s native population is neither seen nor heard from again. The VVitch, like Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899; rev 1925) is a text about the unconscious vastation of a belief system that reduced entire continents to Slavery and one half of its own population to the status of chattels:

The VVitch entry

The VVitch gif

Issue 2

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“Imagine the perplexity of a man outside time and space, who has lost his watch, his measuring rod and his tuning fork.”

Alfred Jarry
Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustrall Pataphysician



Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy is dedicated to the Nørwegian Surreal and includes contributions from:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

Here is the PDF:

Nørwegian Surreal

Creative Agenda

Social media has turned into a game of dodge the 200 Word RPG Challenge entry, so I haven’t been online quite as much. Judging begins on April 26th (Wednesday), so I’ll probably release Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy on Monday or Tuesday. It’s on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal and includes work from the following array of wonderful people:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

City of Eyes
“City of Eyes” by John Rose

Character Sheet Version 6 Image

Mad, Bad or Dangerous to Know?

Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy, a fanzine on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal, has doubled in size but I’m now halfway through laying it out. The main image is the character sheet for a hack of Tarot-horror game Psychosis (Charles Ryan, John Fletcher, 1993) called Infernal Desire Machines. I’ve just reread Steve Dempsey’s riotous-but-playful critique of “creative agenda” Tbilisi: it’s inspired by Georgian Dada and is a lot of fun. John Rose has supplied another collage for Steve’s game. It’s beautiful.

Fictoplasm 2/03

Fictoplasm is a podcast about turning fiction into roleplaying games.

Ralph Lovegrove and I chat about Angela Carter’s wonderful novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman in the third episode of its second series:-

http://www.fictoplasm.net/podcast/episode-203-the-infernal-desire-machines-of-doctor-hoffman-by-angela-carter/

There’s also this great episode from the first series in which Ralph chats to Dave Morris and Tim Harford about the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance:-

http://www.fictoplasm.net/podcast/xmas-episode-01-lyonesse-by-jack-vance/



 

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Mother

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Her head, with its handsome and austere mask teetering ponderously on the bull-like pillar of her neck, was as big and as black as Marx’ head in Highgate Cemetery; her face had the stern, democratic beauty of a figure on a pediment in the provincial square of a people’s republic and she wore a false beard of crisp, black curls like the false beard Queen Hatshepsut of the Two Kingdoms had worn. She was fully clothed in obscene nakedness; she was breasted like a sow – she possessed two tiers of nipples, the result (Sophia would tell me, to my squeamish horror) of a strenuous programme of grafting, so that, in theory, she could suckle four babies at one time. And how gigantic her limbs were! Her ponderous feet were heavy enough to serve as illustrations of gravity, her hands, the shape of giant fig leaves, lay at rest on the bolsters of her knees. Her skin, wrinkled like the skin of a black olive, rucked like a Greek peasant’s goatskin bottle, looked as rich as though it might contain within itself the source of a marvellous, dark, revivifying river, as if she herself were the only oasis in this desert and her crack the source of all the life-giving water in the world.

Her statuesque and perfect immobility implied the willed repose of the greatest imaginable physical strength. The sweetness of her regard implied such wisdom that I knew, at first sight, there was no way in which I could show her my virility that would astonish her. Before this overwhelming woman, the instrument that dangled from my belly was useless. It was nothing but a decorative appendage attached there in a spirit of frivolity by the nature whose terrestrial representation she had, of her own free will, become. Since I had no notion how to approach her with it, she rendered it insignificant; I must deal with her on her own terms. Although her arms were the paradigm of mothering, the offered me no refuge; that women are consolation is a man’s dream. Her fringe of breasts allowed me no place where I could lay my head – they were not meant for my comfort, only for nourishment, and was I not a full-grown man?

And in that belly, rich as a thousand harvests, there was no treacherous oblivion for me for, at birth, I’d lost all right of re-entry into the womb. I was exiled from Nirvana forever, and, faced with the concrete essence of woman, I was at my wit’s end how to behave. I could not imagine what giant being might couple with her; she was a piece of pure nature, she was earth, she was fructification.

I had reached journey’s end as a man. I knew, then, that I was among the Mothers; I experienced the pure terror of Faust.

And she had made herself! Yes, made herself! She was her own mythological artefact; she had reconstructed her flesh painfully, with knives and with needles, into a transcendental form as an emblem, as an example, and flung a patchwork quilt stitched from her daughters’ breasts over the cathedral of her interior, the cave within the cave.

I was at a shrine.

She spoke.


Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (1977)