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The Demon Princes Novels

By Jack Vance

Nathan Okerlund

This is a science-fiction series of five books, consisting of The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face, and The Book of Dreams.Science fiction in Ravenloft, you ask?Yes, indeed.The books' hero, Kirth Gersen, is in pursuit of five criminal masterminds known as the Demon Princes who sold his family into slavery, and the books chronicle his pursuit and vengeance on each of them.They're great entertainment in and of themselves, but I mention them especially for the sake of the Demon Princes, each of whom screams "Darklord"--especially the bloodthirsty, bizarre Kokor Hekkus (featured in The Killing Machine) and the eerie Howard Alan Treesong (featured in The Book of Dreams). Heck, there's even have a ready-made darklord's curse built into the story for the last four books! Not exactly traditional Gothic/Ravenloft fare, but a rich source of ideas for fascinating campaign villains.

 

Doctor Faustus

By Christopher Marlowe

Eric Jean

I was inspired by my recent scholarly readings to submit a book review which I am rather surprised to find lacking from the site. (In fact, I am surprised by the general scarcity of book reviews on the site. As i am an English major, and will be reading quite a number of interesting works in the next little while, I am hoping to make a habit of producing some material for the review sections.)

In any event, here is a review of the play, "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus," by Christopher Marlowe. enjoy.

The tale of Doctor Faustus' pact with the devil is, in our day, such a well-known story that even most people who have never read it, or even heard of it, understand the nature of the gambit: Doctor Faustus sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers, demonic servants and a blissful and prosperous 24 years of life, after which the terms of the contract are considered due and his soul is forfeit.

I think anybody who has ever played Ravenloft is intimately familiar with this type of bargain, no?

The protagonist is Doctor Faustus, a 16th century German scholar, acknowledged by many as the foremost expert in almost any branch of natural philosophy and theology. However, his is frustrated with the limited knowledge he has learned and feels that he has largely reached the limit of knowledge which can be grasped by the use of reason. In a moment of weakness, he allows himself to be tempted by his occultist friends and he begins perusing a book of "Necromantic" lore which talks about how to bind demons to one's will. Enticed by the promise of this new power, the doctor conjures up the powerful demon Mephistopheles, a fallen angel who followed Lucifer in revolt against God, to serve him for the duration of "four and twenty years."

The doctor, however, remains confident that he will be able to twist the terms of the contract and escape the hellish fate that supposedly awaits him. As the story progresses, however, it becomes more and more evident that the doctor, drunk on his powers, is distracted from his purpose of working out his salvation to escape Lucifer's clutches. Once a learned, respected and moral man, he becomes enamoured with worldly things and worldly existence, to the detriment of his eternal salvation. He, in fact, does not believe in hell, even when Mephistopheles tells him that he suffers presently in a hellish state. One of the most memorable passages from the play is a brief exchange between Mephistopheles and Faustus where the demon tells him what hell is:

Faustus: Where are you damned?

Mephostophilis: In hell.

Faustus: How comes it then that thou art out of hell?

Mephostophilis: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think'st thou that I that saw the face of God And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells, In being deprived of everlasting bliss? (I.3. 72-79)

As the play progresses, we see Faustus turn to empty pleasures more and more until his final moments, perhaps the last chance he has at redemption, he chooses instead to spend one night with Helen of Troy (from Homer's Iliad), who he believes to be the most beautiful woman that ever lived, a scene is responsible for one of the most famous lines in English literature: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Illium?" ( V.1. 94-95).

At the very end, we are with Faustus as he lives through the last hour of his life, but now it is too late, and when he throws himself at the foot of God and Christ, it is too late, and the devils fall upon him and tear him to shreds, dragging his soul down to hell.

The Ravenloft game value of the play I think speaks for itself. The archetype of the scholar searching too far, willing to compromise his soul in the process is at the basis of the rules governing magic in the demiplane, or instance, and the pattern of his fall is a textbook case of the enticement to corruption. As an added bonus, the Doctor himself makes for a great character as do many of the demons and even many of the lesser characters. Not to mention, we get great scenes of him calling on demons to do his bidding with the language alone making for perfect text for DMs wishing to colour their scenes of dark magic.

All in all, a must read page turner for any fan of Ravenloft. Take the time: you won't be disappointed. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext97/drfsta10.txt

 

Dracula

By Bram Stoker

Nathan Okerlund

The spiritual great-grandfather of the whole Ravenloft line, and perhaps the greatest Gothic novel ever written.If you want to understand Ravenloft and/or the Masque of the Red Death, you must read this book.

 

Frankenstein

By Mary Shelley

Nathan Okerlund

The other leading candidate for greatest Gothic novel ever written. It's interesting that Frankenstein himself (the man of science, not his creation) is portrayed very positively by the narrator; to this reader, at least, he seemed deeply culpable on several levels for the misery his creation wreaked on him and others.Another book which is required reading for the Ravenloft Dungeon Master.

 

Jack of Shadows

By Roger Zelazny

Nathan Okerlund

The Earth no longer spins; half of it is covered in perpetual Night, the other in eternal Day.On the Nightside of the earth, magic holds sway; the world is ruled by lords such as the vampiric Count, the brutal Baron, and the Colonel Who Never Died, each of whom has his minions and his seat of power.There are also demilords such as Shadowjack, who can step from shadow to shadow and hear his name anytime a shadow falls on the one who speaks it....

I won't say more for fear of spoiling the plot, but there's a lot of Ravenloft potential here, especially in the character of Shadowjack, whose quest for vengeance against his arch-enemy the Count results in a great description of what it must be like to gradually become a darklord.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

Eric Jean

Oscar Wilde's only work of prose fiction, "The Picture of Dorian Grey" is a Ravenloftian treasure trove, whether for standard Ravenloft or, especially, for MotRD.

The main story centers on the character of Dorian Grey, initially a pure-hearted, high-minded young, Victorian aristocrat, who poses for a portrait for his good friend, Basil Hallward. Lord Henry, a mutual friend of the two, encourages him to give up goodness and real life, living instead for pleasure and art alone. As he begins to be swayed to this thinking, Dorian realises that as he ages, he will become less beautiful and this he cannot stand as he lives for beauty and sensuality alone. In a moment of desperation, he makes the wish that, instead of the painting mockingly remaining beautiful and young forever, that HE instead should remain untouched by age and the painting should age instead.

His wish (by some, unknown force WE would all assume to be the Dark Powers) is granted and as he begins to live his evil life of debauchery, the painting begins, not only to age in his place, but changes to mark all of his sins to become, in time, a hideous monstrosity.

So long as the painting remains intact, he is effectively immortal and "free" from the effects of his dark life. In the end, however, his obsession with that painting is his undoing...

Dorian Gray has all the makings of a great darklord (if one in his image has yet to be invented, which, come to think of it, seems unlikely). Otherwise, he would make a great NPC, particularly in the context of a cultured domain like Dementlieu, where he would, of course, be invited to all the best parties, despite the rumours of his dark deeds. His colleagues Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward would both make great NPCs as well, as would the gypsy-esque theatre manager and his daughter and several of the noble lords and ladies of the play.

This one should be required reading for anyone wanting to look into the temptation and potential corruption of a life a pleasure in high society!

 

Seven Gothic Tales, Last Tales

By Isak Dinesen

Nathan Okerlund

I mention these books of short stories because I think there is no better example of the Gothic atmosphere.Some stories have elements of magic or the occult, but others are simply stories of murder, betrayal, vengeance, hopeless passions, lost love, twins separated at birth, people swapping identities, and so forth--all the staples of the Gothic diet.Most of these stories are more useful for background or atmosphere than for adventure ideas per se, but "The Monkeu" and "The Caryatids" both offer ideas for a Ravenloft or Masque campaign.

 

The Shadow Out of Time and Other Tales

By August Derleth

Jeremy Roby

This book is a collection of August Derleth stories and the H.P. Lovecraft tales that inspired them. (The jacket flap would says the Derleth stories are "collaborations" that sprang from the notes of Lovecraft which Derleth simply "fleshed" out. It was later discovered that Derleth fabricated these "notes" in order to keep Lovecraft's name in the spotlight. In truth, these stories are merely Derleth's amateurish attempts at mimicking his idol.)

There are six true Lovecraft tales in this collection. They seem haphazardly selected with no thematic connection except that they mirror the stories presented later by Derleth. For example, The Picture in the House has a traveler stop at an old country house during a rainstor and meeting that dwelling's eccentric inhabitant. Wentworth's Day also has a traveler stop at a decrepit backwoods home during a rainstorm and encountering its strange owner.

Because any true horror fan should be familiar with Lovecraft's works, I will focus on August Derleth's contributions. I've heard critics say his Cthulhu Mythos works are derivative, repetitive and totally lacking subtlety. And for the most part, I have to agree with themů

The first entry, The Survivor, is actually a pretty good Lovecraft imitation. It details the history of an extremely long-lived doctor and the nefarious means he achieved it. The overall story is sufficiently creepy, but the plot progression (with the narrator slowly discovering all the clues to the doctor's activities) is way too predictable.

The next two stories, Wentworth's Day and The Peabody Heritage, are more traditional ghost stories wrapped up in the trappings of Lovecraft's Mythos. Wentworth's Day is about a delivery man who takes a wrong turn and ends up in Dunwich. Unfortunately, this doesn't add much to the story. The Peabody Heritage is about a sorcerer who lived in the wilderness of Massachusetts and the heir that comes back to claim his ancestral home. Again, this story has almost no real connection to Lovecraft's universe (besides the needlessly encyclopedic listing of forbidden books Derleth adds in to almost all his stories).

The Gable Window is an interesting concept, but only a so-so story. Again, it has an heir returning to his ancestral home. The narrator then discovers a mysterious glass lens that allows the viewer to peer into alien dimensions. Derleth exercises uncharacteristic restraint with his descriptions of the horrors that the window holds. The ending is rather silly, however. Where Lovecraft sufficiently built up an atmosphere of dread and then sprung the surprise climax at the end of the story, Derleth's clumsily concludes with a "revelation" that even a third grader could see coming a mile off.

The Ancestor is a tale about an obsessed scientist and his frantic attempts at past-life regression. It reminds me of Lovecraft's earlier works because it hints that there are something man was not meant to know. Unfortunately, this type of story isn't a very original idea so the climax was once again too predictable.

The Fisherman of Falcon Point reminds me somewhat of Lovecraft's The Terrible Old Man. Basically, it relates a legend of a strange inhabitant of a small New England fishing village. It also ties in to the events in the Shadow Over Innsmouth, but only tangentially. The Lamp of Alhazred is not a true horror story at all. It's really just a shabby fictional account of Lovecraft's life and works. Out of all the pastiches this book offers, this might be my least favorite. The Dark Brotherhood is yet another bad rip-off of an old idea, this time of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (which I believe had already been released by the time this story was first published). To make matters worse, the only Lovecraftian aspect of the entire story is the description of the alien invaders.

The Shadow Out of Space is supposedly a companion piece to Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time (which can also be found in this collection). In truth, it is just a re-hash of the same story with slightly different characters. It describes a race of super-beings who "mind-nap" people so they can find suitable bodies (and time periods) to live in. At no other place are the differences between each author's skills clearer. Whereas Lovecraft's tale was masterfully crafted, building up to the scenes of alien horror, Derleth just throws it out there and tells you it's supposed to be scary.

The last story, The Shuttered Room, deserves special mention. Once again, we return to Dunwich, with someone inheriting an old house. This time, it's one of the famed Whately clan, a distant relative of the characters from The Dunwich Horror. The author also throws the Deep Ones from The Shadow Over Innsmouth (also reprinted in this collection) into the mix.

This story highlights a couple of Derleth's failings - namely, of trying to tie together all the disparate Mythos of Lovecraft. Lovecraft rightly left things ambiguous, with some stories blatantly contradicting others. Derleth tries to smooth over those discrepancies, however, instead of letting them be. This adherence to a (chiefly made-up) hierarchy detracts from the storytelling. Also, Derleth is entirely too referential. Instead of creating his own towns and characters, he apes Lovecraft's. It's one thing to copy the type of story to be told from your idol, it's another to steal his characters as well.

 

The Warhound and the World's Pain

By Michael Moorcock

Jason Am(brus)

One of Moorcock's lesser known works, WatWP chronicles the unusual adventures of one Ulrich Von Beck, 16th century mercenary knight and nobleman, caught in the turmoil of perhaps the bloodiest chapter in German history prior to WWII; the Protestant-Catholic wars. Ulrich is not your conventional hero, he is devoid of any foolish or naive notions of benevolence and altruism. His chief occupations are with the size of his coin purse, and his health, regardless of which side of the struggle he has to fight on. He sells his considerable talents to the highest bidder, and does his best to keep his reputation intact. And yet Von Beck is no villain or antihero, he takes no pleasure in the suffering of others, or the senseless slaughter that he is constantly made apart of. He simply sees himself as an instrument of war, made to succeed no matter what cause he fights for. He is the poster-child True Neutral.

The story takes an interesting twist following Ulirch's latest commission at the head of a small army that he's just lead to victory in the name of some local Baron. Rumors of the plague and famine are everywhere, and deciding that his fate would best be served elsewhere, Von Beck promptly abandons his troops in the night and flees into the forest with the remaining rations. There he stumbles upon a most peculiar sight, a lavish country retreat, fully stocked with food and drink, but otherwise deserted and without sign of any occupants. It is here that Ulrich makes a most startling discovery after spending a few days of rest; the small palace is inhabited after all, and its master is no less that Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness. The Devil, taking the form of a blindingly beautiful Adonis, invites Ulrich to his table and reveals to him an incredible secret that will shake the foundations of the world, and risk ending life as we know it. Now the world's only hope lies in the hands of a man that has made a career out of not choosing sides. I won't give away too much here, safe to say that this is story one hell of a ride. This seminal event leads Ulrich Von Beck to embark on a mind-altering adventure across the world (both real and fantastic), with powerful enemies at his heels, ready to turn the world inside out to see him fail in his quest.

This book, besides being brilliantly written in an unusual style that blends actual historical events with fantastical/biblical elements, is an excellent source of Ravenloft adventuring material. The character of Ulrich in itself is a unique example of the workings of character alignment, and what it can really mean in a "good vs. evil" scenario. The villains in the story are also refreshingly devious and uncompromising, features generally found lacking in good antagonists. The setting can also be an excellent inspiration for any DM looking to run a "holy war" scenario, perhaps between the divergent branches of the faith of Ezra, or the like.

I highly recommend this book, and it's offshoot stories that can be found in the annotated Von Beck collection, that covers other generations and branches of Ulrich's family throughout the ages.

 

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