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Pelgrane Week: That Old Black Magic: Writing The Big Hoodoo

Posted on May 6, 2011 by Flames

Pelgrane Week continues with a new design essay by The Big Hoodoo author by Bill White. Bill discusses writing an adventure in 1950s California and other details for Trail of Cthulhu.

That Old Black Magic

    I’ve written two adventures for Trail of Cthulhu, a game of Lovecraftian investigation written by Kenneth Hite using Robin Laws’ GUMSHOE system. Both are unusual in that they are set in the 1950s, rather than TOC’s usual 1930s setting (itself one of the features that distinguishes Trail of Cthulhu from its more venerable cousin, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, which takes the 1920s as its canonical milieu). The first, called Castle Bravo, is set aboard an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific during nuclear bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. Its appeal is, I think, straightforward: an atomic bomb goes off and the PCs, as the naval and scientific personnel involved, must deal with monstrous emergences in its aftermath. The concept is intended to evoke the atomic horror movie genre of the 1950s, with its fever-dream fears of radioactive Commie mutant monster invasion—but the adventure works on its own terms, with a slow ramping up of paranoia and things-aren’t-quite-right-here suspicion that comes to a violent climax of military action.

    But it’s the other one that I want to take advantage of this opportunity to talk about. Now, The Big Hoodoo is not really high concept the way Castle Bravo is. So when I tell potential players that it’s about science fiction writers in 1950s California investigating the death of their friend the occult-loving rocket scientist Jack Parsons, only a few people get really excited.

    Nonetheless, really excited those few do get, because Jack Parsons is catnip for a particular breed of Lovecraft-loving role-player. And so I want to talk about this adventure, because The Big Hoodoo is in its way a love-letter to the larger fan culture of which role-playing is part.

    Let me try to explain what I mean.

    Geeking Out On History

    Somewhere in the pages of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu adventure called Masks of Nyarlathotep, there is an aside in the description of one NPC to the effect that one of the pleasures of the game is meeting historical figures before they become famous. To me, this off-the-cuff remark hints at the appeal of The Big Hoodoo to a particular segment of its target audience. All American role-playing is geek (i.e., genre fannish) culture, of course, but the players who like roleplaying Lovecraftiana tend to be unabashed history geeks—they relish the quirky ins and outs of historical circumstance, they take to heart the notion that “the past is another country” and want to get their visa stamped, and above all they are taken with the possibilities of secret history: the idea, in other words, that many of our received notions about what happened in the past to produce the present are just flat-out wrong.

    Now, I love history geeks. Frankly, I’m one myself. I was a history major as a college undergraduate, and if nothing else that made me aware of the richness and strangeness of the past, full of both unexpected divergence from and surprising congruences with the present. I remember taking a course on Byzantine history and being delighted that the Byzantines had “sports fans” just like the modern world does—except the sport was chariot racing.

    In any event, some of the most satisfying gaming that I’ve done has been historical gaming. For years, my brother and I played a one-on-one PBEM game (using the Hero System, of all things) set in the 1930s. It was a mash-up of Indiana Jones, Howard Hughes, and Robert E. Howard: two-fisted stalwarts take to the air in war-surplus aeroplanes to fight antediluvian sorceries and Nazi occultists. We called it “Air Hero” and it was a ton of fun.

    It was with our Air Hero game in mind, I think, that my brother came back from Origins a few years ago and handed me a copy of the Trail of Cthulhu hardcover that he’d picked up there. “Run this game for me, Bill,” he said, “and you can keep this book.”

    So I did. I wrote an adventure called, “I, Governor; or, The Unpleasant Profession of Upton Sinclair.” It was set in 1934 California, and the historical geekiness at its heart was the fact that, before he became a famous science-fiction writer notorious for his libertarian political views, Robert Heinlein worked for the gubernatorial campaign of a well-known socialist muckraker who ran on a platform to “End Poverty in California.” Clearly some sort of Mythos weirdness had to be at the heart of that, and so the title is a portmanteau combining the names of a creepy Heinlein story and an earnest political pamphlet Sinclair wrote about his plan. Given that one of the PCs was Robert Heinlein, it made sense to me to make the other PCs historical figures as well, and so the first time I ran the game players could choose to be Heinlein or Sinclair as well as “girl reporter” Adela Rogers St. Johns, movie producer Irving Thalberg, documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, or rural sociologist Paul S. Taylor—all real people active at the time, each with very interesting and vivid personal backgrounds. They were strong characters.

    It wasn’t perfect, but we had a good time with the adventure the first time I ran it. My brother played Irving Thalberg as a fast-talking film exec with a bum ticker, and he had a blast, so I think he got his money’s worth. Some players did feel a little hesitation about playing “real people” because they felt constrained by the historicity of their characters—they didn’t want to “play the person wrong,” in other words—but most overcame that difficulty in short order. For other players—the history geeks—the “realness” of the character was actually a big hook for roleplaying. One player who had managed to find a wireless connection in the hotel ballroom of the convention where we were playing in fact googled his character then and there and was excited by the connections he saw between the person’s biography and the story at the table. And I liked the adventure well enough that I kept running it at other conventions.

    When I did, I noticed that there was usually a player whose eyes lit up at the chance to play Bob Heinlein. Those players tended to be not just fans of science fiction, but fans of science fiction culture—which meant that they were aware of the history of science fiction as a cultural phenomenon, from its emergence in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s through its Golden Age in the 1950s and the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s to cyberpunk and beyond, and that they were acquainted with the quirks and peccadilloes of some of the luminaries of the SF scene—including Bob Heinlein.

    Strange Angel

    It was in fact one such player who first mentioned Jack Parsons to me as someone who’d fit in perfectly with the adventure I’d written, but I’d never heard of him. “Jack Parsons? Who is Jack Parsons?”

    Who is Jack Parsons! I blush today at my own ignorance! Jack Parsons is an unsung hero of the American space program, a self-taught chemist and explosives expert who as a teenager was building and test-firing rockets along a dry riverbed outside of Pasadena where today NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is located; Parsons helped institute JPL. During World War II, Parsons and his colleagues—a ragtag group who called themselves the Suicide Squad—designed, tested, and built jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) rockets for the U.S. military to enable heavily laden aircraft to boost themselves airborne off of short runways on captured islands in the Pacific.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that a young man who was interested in chemistry and rockets in the middle of the Twentieth Century was also an active science fiction fan. During the late Thirties and early Forties, Parsons would show up at the meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, through which he met such sci-fi luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Jack Williamson as well as Robert Heinlein.

    But what may in fact be at least a little surprising is that besides being a rocket scientist and a science fiction fan, Parsons was also a magician. He devoured the writings of British occultist Aleister Crowley, and eventually he and his wife joined the California chapter of Crowley’s pagan sect, the “Agape Lodge” of the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, and began to practice the Gnostic religious devotion that Crowley had named “Thelema” (Greek for “Will”). He attempted magical “workings” using the formulae Crowley reconstructed from the writings of Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan scholar who lectured in mathematics and sought the secrets of the angels.

    Eventually, Parsons would become a leader of the Agape Lodge, albeit not a terribly successful one. The Pasadena mansion he inherited from his father—whom his mother had kicked out of the house for philandering when Jack was a boy—was turned into a bohemian apartment building whimsically called “the Parsonage” and used to host OTO ceremonies and wild parties where Parsons would drunkenly recite ecstatic poetry in praise of the god Pan. There are Pasadena police report files investigating complaints about a naked pregnant woman jumping through a ring of fire at one such affair and other lewdness.

    Now, after the war, things started to fall apart for Parsons. His wife Helen left him for the former head of the Agape Lodge, a British expatriate named Wilfred Smith, after Jack started sleeping with Helen’s kid sister Sara. Then L. Ron Hubbard, with a smirk on his face, a lie on his lips, and larceny in his heart, showed up at the Parsonage—possibly because Bob Heinlein’s then-wife Leslyn thought he was a creep and wouldn’t let him stay with them. But Hubbard impressed Parsons—no good judge of character he—who recruited him to be his magical partner. Hubbard impressed Sara, too, who left Jack’s bed for Ron’s. Parsons gritted his teeth and got on with “the Babalon Working,” an act of ceremonial magic intended to conjure an elemental goddess-muse in human form who would be instrumental in the further creation of a “Moon-Child”—this being a kind of Thelemite messiah who would bring about a new age of anarchical freedom. After several weeks and a final ceremony in the Mojave Desert, Jack thought that the arrival on his doorstep of a blue-eyed, red-haired former Navy WAVE and budding avant-garde artist named Marjorie Cameron betokened the success of the first part of the Babalon Working. “I have my elemental!” he told Crowley in a report, claiming that he and Hubbard had done it. From London, Crowley could only fume, “I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts.”

    While Parsons was attempting to conjure the Moon Child via acts of sex magic with Marjorie, Hubbard and Sara absconded wit h $20,000 of Jack’s money that they were supposed to be using to buy boats in Florida and sail them back to California to sell at a profit. Parsons tracked them to a marina in Florida and, when they attempted to sail off, conjured up a storm to bring them back to port. Only slightly abashed, Hubbard gave back what little was left of the money but kept the girl (they would later divorce). He then headed off to bring the world first Dianetics, billed as a self-help science of mental health, and then later Scientology (which, though based on Dianetics, also encompassed a quasi-religious spirituality and a secret sci-fi cosmology involving ancient space tyrants and imprisoned alien souls that Hubbard called “the Space Opera”).

    Meanwhile, Parsons returned to California and found himself under investigation as the result of FBI suspicions about his loyalty in the new Cold War era amid accusations of careless handling of sensitive documents. Financially strapped and unable to find work as a scientist in the burgeoning but security-conscious aerospace industry, he lost the mansion his father had left him and had to work as a pyrotechnician for the movie business. He and Marjorie fought, reconciled, and fought some more. After a final reconciliation, they planned a trip to Mexico together. On the day they were supposed to leave, Parsons went into his garage laboratory in the early afternoon to mix up a batch of chemicals for a customer. There was an explosion, and Jack’s mangled body was rushed to the hospital where he died some hours later.

    So, thanks to the history geeks who play Cthulhu games, I learned this great story about Jack Parsons! I added him as a teenage rocket scientist to my list of pregenerated PCs for “I, Governor.” But there was clearly something richer and stranger there. It was too bad, I thought, that the most interesting stuff about Jack Parsons happened after the end of the Thirties and the Trail of Cthulhu setting era. The combination of occult magic, rocket science, and febrile sci-fi in Parson’s story made it a veritable poster child of the Lovecraftian world-view, in which it is dangerous for the mind to correlate all its contents.

    Slouching Toward Babalon

    Meanwhile, “I, Governor,” also led directly to me writing a Trail of Cthulhu adventure for Pelgrane Press. In 2009 I was at Gen Con to run “I, Governor” among other things and there I met Simon Rogers, Pelgrane’s publisher. When I mentioned that I had run a game of Trail earlier that weekend, he gave me his e-mail address and told me to pitch an adventure idea or two and he’d give them a look.

    I pitched a few ideas, including “I, Governor,” but the idea that Simon really liked was the one about a 1950s atomic bomb test and the crew of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier having to deal with Mythos weirdness in the aftermath—like I said, very high concept. A friend had mentioned an image in his head that put him mind of the work of Lovecraft: a World War II-era aircraft carrier circling a mysterious island in the Pacific. That image became Castle Bravo.

    Then when Simon wondered if I’d be interested in writing a follow-up adventure, it seemed obvious to me that it should be based it around the death of Jack Parsons in 1952. We’d already seen that a scenario set in the 1950s required no real rules changes, and here was an opportunity to write an adventure using historical characters as PCs the way that “I, Governor” did.

    I started doing more research and writing up notes for an adventure. After a while, it occurred to me that the seedy cast of characters, the early Fifties time period, and the southern California setting all meant that the perfect stylistic hook for the adventure I’d been calling “The Babalon Working” was film noir, a type of melodramatic crime picture that emerged in the 1940s, characterized by a cynical shades-of-grey moral tone, baroque plotlines, and a louche eroticism. Think of films like The Postman Always Rings Twice, where a femme fatale convinces her not-too-bright tough guy lover to kill her much older husband so they can be together, only to be convicted of murder when she dies in a car crash that the police think he arranged, or The Maltese Falcon, where a hardboiled private eye goes toe-to-toe in a battle of wits against a squad of scheming, double-crossing two-timers—including the beautiful and mysterious woman who is his client—who each try to use and manipulate him for their own ends. That’s film noir. And it seemed that “noirish” perfectly described what I’d been reading: a disreputable circle of characters working at cross-purposes with no clear good guys or bad guys who were enmeshed in a complicated web of sex, money, and deceit. And the fact that it all took place in Pasadena meant that it shared a physical setting with many of the films noir of the period.

    So I had a noirish story and a noirish mise en scène, but I needed a noirish title! Many noir films are called “The Big . . .” something—The Big Sleep, The Big Combo, The Big Heat—so I wanted a title like that. The more I thought about it, the more I came to like “The Big Hoodoo,” because “hoodoo” can mean “an act of magic” on one hand, but it’s also a quaint Americanism for a fuss, commotion, or to-do: “What’s all the hoodoo going on in here?” As an added bonus, a “hoodoo” is also the name of a kind of spooky-looking wind-carved striated rock formation found in Utah and other rocky desert regions, so it required only a little bit of license to have a key scene take place near a Mojave Desert hoodoo stone. “The Big Hoodoo” is the perfect title! At the end of the adventure when the main bad guy gets to deliver his villainous monologue and he snarls, “Parsons! I’ve beaten you at your own game! Now I’m the one doing the big hoodoo!” It is a nice moment.

    What’s more, the moody grittiness of film noir seemed to me to serve as a perfect counterpoint to the overwrought existentialist hysteria of Lovecraft’s writing. What I mean is, in much of Lovecraft’s first-person point-of-view narration, the protagonist is barely keeping it all together. Having figured out the malevolent moral indifference of the universe and the insignificance of humanity within the larger cosmos, he has to hold one hand over his mouth to keep from screaming in mind-shattering horror while he tremblingly pens his last testament with the other. In film noir, on the other hand, characters figure out the indifference thing and their insignificance all the time, and they just keep keeping on. “When his partner is killed,” says Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, “a man is supposed to do something about it.” So either Lovecraft is wrong, and we’re tougher than he thought, or he’s right, and we’re all quietly mad from having gazed upon the terrifying vistas of reality that came into view in the years after Lovecraft’s death: the atom bomb, the Holocaust, and all the rest.

    Let’s Get Science Fiction Back In the Gutter Where It Belongs

    But I started by saying that I wanted to explain how “The Big Hoodoo” was a love letter to geek culture, by which I mean the entire suite of fantasy, science fiction, superhero comics, and gaming-related genre fandom that started to form during the Great Depression, took shape in the Fifties and Sixties, and exploded into broader popularity as the Twentieth Century wound down. I don’t know if the larger cultural history of which all of this is a part has been written yet, but it deserves to be. Because it seems clear that science fiction and its allied genres emerged in response to contemporaneous social, institutional, and technological shifts occasioned by the rise of industrialized modernity, flowered at exactly the time when making sense of those shifts was critical, and grew and changed in response to further developments. Here’s noted science fiction writer Bruce Sterling talking about the state of science fiction as a genre:

    At one time, in its clumsy way, Science Fiction offered some kind of coherent social vision. SF may have been gaudy and naive, and possessed by half-baked fantasies of power and wish-fulfillment, but at least SF spoke a contemporary language. Science Fiction did the job of describing, in some eldritch way, what was actually happening, at least in the popular imagination. Maybe it wasn’t for everybody, but if you were a bright, unfastidious sort, you could read SF and feel, in some satisfying and deeply unconscious way, that you’d been given a real grip on the chrome-plated handles of the Atomic Age.

    As that excerpt implies, Sterling sees sf in the Nineties (when he was writing) as has having fallen from whatever greatness it had. “People retched in the 60s when De Camp and Carter skinned the corpse of Robert E. Howard for its hide and tallow,” he says, “but nowadays necrophilia is run on an industrial basis.” He provides a laundry list of offenses against authenticity, originality, and imagination, including sequels, trilogies, shared-world anthologies, “role-playing tie-ins,” and “sharecropping books written by pip-squeaks under the blazoned name of established authors.” According to Sterling, today SF has “lost touch with its cultural reason for being” and instead shambles forward zombie-like on the strength of its existence as a recognized marketing category—its ownership of a section of the bookstore shelves.

    And while Sterling has a point, I think it’s also more complicated than that. The purity of Golden Age SF as socio-cultural oracle required an unambivalent embrace of technological possibility and progress that was hard to sustain in the face of waht was going on in the world. For example, it’s possible that the rise in the popularity of fantasy, as distinct from science fiction, can be traced to the emergence of New Age sentimentality in the aftermath of the cultural conflicts of the Sixties. Didn’t J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy gain a following among back-to-nature flower children (a “deplorable cultus,” the Oxford don called them, disapprovingly) because of its anti-industrial themes?

    In the evolution of the fantasy and science fiction marketing category, you can begin to see the outlines of a story connecting fan culture to broad engagement with the constraints, conformities, and contradictions of Twentieth century American life. And things like the formation of the Society for Creative Anachronism in the mid Sixties—with its ties to fantasy authors and larp practice—adds depth to that story. Furthermore, some scholars and other observers connect the adoption of Dungeons & Dragons by adolescents in the Seventies and Eighties with a kind of cultural and social sense-making. For example, according to an English professor named David Novitz, writing in the mid-Nineties:

    The rise of second-wave feminism . . . while timely and important, posed particular difficulties for young middle-class boys. Many were exposed to a highly rhetorical debate in the home and elsewhere about male inadequacies. Males were explicitly associated with almost everything that was wrong with society, and the determination of well-meaning parents not to replicate those tendencies in their sons led to an adult intrusion into boys’ lives that, if we except the proscription on Barbie dolls, found no direct parallel in the lives of girls. While new opportunities were being opened for girls . . . boys were at times made to assume the psychological burden of responsibility for states of affairs that were not of their making. One effect of all of this . . . was to encourage boys to look elsewhere not just for their play and entertainment, but also for the freedom, support, and approval that were not always available to them in the classroom, at home, or in the media. What they developed was a space beyond the reach of adult condemnation; a space in which the growing adolescent desire for freedom and control would in some measure be met.

    So my point is that when you look around you can see this thing that could be called geek culture, or fan culture, or (as communications professor Henry Jenkins does) participatory culture that’s really important because of its responsiveness to broader socio-cultural trends on the one hand and the cultural productivity and expressiveness of its participants—think sci-fi and gaming conventions, fanfic and even pre-Internet comic book letters columns—on the other. And as you look back, you can see that participatory culture has a history.

    And that history starts right about where “The Big Hoodoo” does.

    A Good Enough Man for Any World

    That claim is a little imprecise, but it’s close enough. Parsons was intimately connected with early sci-fi fandom, and early sci-fi fandom makes its appearance in “The Big Hoodoo” in the person of Forrest J. Ackerman, founding member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, the first person to ever wear a costume to a science fiction convention, and insatiable collector of science fiction, fantasy, and horror memorabilia. Forrie is the first person that the player characters meet, in the parking lot outside Parsons’ funeral, and so he is their point of entrance to the strange inferno at the intersection of science (i.e., reality), fandom, and the occult.

    Now, Forrie is not a wise and impartial guide; no Virgil he. His fannishness makes him starry-eyed around celebrity, and his obsession for memorabilia is a handle that lets him be manipulated by heroes and villains alike. Depending on how the PCs respond to him, he becomes either amusing comic relief or an exasperating but not terribly threatening foil.

    The good guys—the player characters, that is—are his heroes. The pregenerated characters are Robert Heinlein, his wife Ginny (a chemical engineer), science fiction and mystery editor Tony Boucher (one of the founders of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), and a very young Philip K. Dick at the beginning of his sf career. Forrie loves and admires them; he gushes over them; and he agonizes if he has to betray them. This element would be lost if the PCs were typical TOC investigators: a private detective, a reporter, a priest. Having them be science fiction writers makes the whole game operate at a meta-level: it is fantasy and science fiction reflecting on itself.

    Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes

    Ultimately, the reason why I like The Big Hoodoo is that it goes back to the genre fiction roots of participatory culture in general and Lovecraftian role-playing in particular, and transforms them into the form and material of itself—The Big Hoodoo is role-playing assimilating its own history, in other words. I know that I’ve just made a strange claim, but I think it’s true.

    The very popularity of fantasy and science fiction, its triumph in the media marketplace—so that comic book superheroes saturate the cineplex, A Game of Thrones appears on HBO (Middle Earth meets The Sopranos), and school kids carry Magic: The Gathering lunchboxes—underscores the danger that Bruce Sterling was talking about, the danger of losing the very connection to imagination and originality that brought people to the genre in the first place and replacing it with a mindless treadmill of soulless corporate-produced media content. In its earliest form, “fandom” was about more than consumption; it was about production.

    Ultimately, I look at “The Big Hoodoo” as a chance for roleplayers to engage with their own participatory cultural history via the medium of roleplaying. It’s not about delivering a lesson, though; it’s about making meaning for ourselves. Whenever I run it, I am struck by the creativity and imagination of the people who play it, and I am convinced of the strength of roleplaying as a medium.

    So when I say that at its heart The Big Hoodoo is a love letter to fan culture, that is why.

    Bill White – 2011

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      One Response to “Pelgrane Week: That Old Black Magic: Writing The Big Hoodoo”

      1. GB Steve says:

        Very nice!

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