Sunday, October 5, 2014

Block Island

*If you're one of my players, stop reading now.*

The first scenario I've been running in my Call of Cthulhu campaign is split between Arkham and Block Island. I was attracted to Block Island as a locale for three reasons: personal experience, horror literature, and history. In this post I'll talk about the first two. Next time I'll say something about the real history of the Island, which is actually pretty sinister itself.

First, experience. Julie and I weren't planning to go on a honeymoon after our wedding. But at the end of the weekend, as our friends left one by one, we found ourselves lonely and sad. So we decided to go for a short honeymoon after all. It would have to be somewhere we could drive (our wedding was in upstate New York), where we could still find reasonable accommodations. Shaina, a friend of ours, suggested that we go to Block Island, a small vacation spot off the coast of Rhode Island. She had grown up going there in summers and spoke of it fondly. Among other things, she emphasized that we needed to go to some place called "Rodman's Hollow", apparently a nature preserve on the interior of the island. She wouldn't say why.

Block Island was charming, with interesting geography, and a deep New England history. It still catered to ordinary people, lacking the pretentiousness (and massive wealth) of the other New England islands. The beaches were pretty and it had all the obvious seaside charms. We were able to stay at a lovely old hotel dating to the 19th Century. It was perfect. Following Shaina's advice, we eventually sought out Rodman's Hollow. It was easy enough to find on the better tourist maps. It was connected to a set of trails ("greenways") that wended throughout the island, passing alongside and through private property and connecting up with the island's beaches and nature preserves. 

Our first four attempts, on separate days, to get into the hollow were failures. (Keep in mind that this was before the smartphone and Google Earth.) We found ourselves circling around in our car where it was supposed to be on the map. When we saw what we thought was an entrance, the trail always led somewhere else altogether. Strangely, locals tended to be, on this point, uncommunicative, and the directions they gave were either incomplete or unhelpful. At times, we believed ourselves to be looking down into Rodman's Hollow, which appeared to be a valley of dark and dense woods. On the fourth try, we tried to walk directly into the hollow through the woods, but were defeated by thorny roses and dense underbrush. 

At first, the failures seemed comical, obviously a combination of tourist's ignorance and dumb bad luck. But as the failures mounted, the whole affair took on an eerie character. I couldn't shake the feeling that Rodman's Hollow somehow didn't want us to enter it. 

On the fifth attempt we succeeded. It was evening, about 2 hours from sunset when we walked in to the hollow. It had an overgrown, fey appearance. The floor of the path was covered in a carpet of lush grass. The details are a little hazy, but I remember dark tunnels cut through overarching trees, and trellised arches covered in green brambles. This fairy-like decoration was abetted by dilapidated, hand-painted signs pointing the way to trails with names like "Enchanted Forest" or "Weeping Rock". In our entire time, we didn't see another soul. The place was utterly still and deserted. At one point, we came up a hill into a glen where we saw a bald eagle feasting on the carcass of a deer. The huge bird took flight as soon as we arrived, leaving the bloodied carcass behind in the middle of the path. 

We had expected a simple set of trails in the hollow that would be easy to follow, but the criss-crossing paths seemed labyrinthine. At certain point we realized that we were lost. As the sun began to reach the horizon, a mild panic set in. We had no flashlights, and even if we found an exit from the hollow, we were not confident that we would be able to find the road where our car was parked in the dark. In the twilight, we began to run through the still glades of the hollow. At last we found a trail leading out onto a ridge overlooking a beach, resplendent in the magenta glow of the setting sun. From there we found our car, as the last light dwindled to darkness.  

I was put in mind of this experience when I later read Robert Aickman's story, "The Real Road to the Church". The narrator of the story has bought Le Wide, an old house on an out of the way island, hoping to get away from it all. She employs locals who speak an ancient dialect of French. She overhears them one day remarking in their antiquated French that her house is "where the porters switch". After pressing them, the locals reluctantly inform her that Le Wide is on the "le vrais chemis de l'eglise", "the true road to the church". When she asks them what this means, they say only that this is the road that "one takes to the church and also to ones grave". When she protests that she has never seen anyone passing by the house, they reply that this was because before she didn't know. The protagonist surmises that these must be a network of ancient trails that locals take to their church, probably direct and convenient ways that predate the system of roads. But it is only having learned of the existence of the "true road" that she begins to perceive--hear--the unnerving sounds of night time travelers passing by her home. While it is never clear what has happened by the end of an Aickman story, the truth is strange and sinister. This story, like most of Aickman's masterful tales, I found unnerving, frightening actually, and quite evocative. 

I worked with the theory that I should construct a scenario around a place I actually knew, drawing on things that had actually frightened me. So I decided that at the heart of the scenario would lie in a hidden hollow in the interior of Block Island. It would be a place that worked to keep people out, but once inside would be difficult to escape. A dark and disorienting fairy woods, it would be a living place, home to something with a hatred of mankind. The island would be criss-crossed by ancient trails of hidden purposes, nearly impossible to perceive until your mind had been readied to receive the truth. These trails would connect to the hollow, and perhaps other places. This was the seed of the adventure that grew in the fecund soil of Block Island's colonial history. I'll talk about that history next time.

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