Inside Pulse 12

Book Review: Madness on the Orient Express (Call of Cthulhu)

Madness on the Orient Express (Call of Cthulhu)
Publisher: Chaosium
Cost: $15.95
Page Count: 286
Release Date: 12/1/2014
Get it Here: Chaosium.com

So as I write this, I am still waiting for my physical copy of Horror on the Orient Express and all of its ancillary goodies to arrive. Oh the pain of being in Washington, D.C. when Chaosium is in San Francisco. Even though I was backer #20, I’ll probably be one of the last to get mine. Oh well, at least I got to fiddle with the prototypes of some ancillary items back in January. I can live with the wait even if the reviewer/critic side of me wants everything NOW! Case in point, Madness on the Orient Express. I really wanted to read and review it but alas my copy might not even be sent to me yet and I wanted to get a review in before Christmas so that Call of Cthulhu fans could know if the anthology would make a lovely last minute (or late) present or not. So I emailed Charlie Krank, the Lord High Priest President of Chaosium and asked if there was an electronic version I could read while waiting for my physical copy to arrive. Now there isn’t an ebook version for sale (yet), but Charlie sent me a PDF proof of the anthology so that I could get the review done in time. I know there are naysayers, but I’ve always found Chaosium to be top notch with customer service going back to the days when I was in middle school and they’d reply to any letter I wrote about the game. This is just another example of it. Hell, even when I shred a first party CoC release, they still are just happy I reviewed their products. Well, maybe not as happy as when I give something a glowing review. ANYWAY, I bring this story up mainly to say that because I have a proof and not the final copy, this review will ignore any spelling, grammatical, layout, and other errors of that ilk because they might not be in the version that makes it into our hands. As such this is a review of just the sixteen stories (and Introduction by the Editor) you’ll find within this collection. Now, let’s begin.

Madness on the Orient Express came about as a stretch goal from Chaosium’s highly success Kickstarter to remake Horror on the Orient Express. This collection of fiction, edited by James Lowder, who wrote some of my favorite TSR novels from 2e AD&D, focuses on two things: The Cthulhu Mythos and trains. In almost all of these stories the train is the Orient Express, per the title and inspiration for this anthology. In a few the train isn’t named and in a few others the train is the modern Belmond version of the Orient Express, so it’s not universally the same train from the 1920s, which isn’t a bad thing. This is just to let you know that this won’t be a book of nothing but 1920s stories. That’s a good thing because it lets the writers be a little more creative with the subject matter. After all, you’re probably looking at the fact each story much involve Mythos monsters and a train and wondering how diverse this collection of stories could be compared to a more open ended topic. Well the truth is, the stories are all VERY different from each other, as is the quality. Hey, in an anthology no two people are probably going to like/dislike the same exact stories. With a wide selection of authors and their writing styles, not every story will be enjoyed by every reader. So just because I give a story a thumb’s up or thumb’s down in this review doesn’t mean you’ll agree. If the stories I talk about here sound intriguing, then buy all means, order the book!

The book starts off with an introduction by James Lowder, who has a great track record with editing Anthologies. I was hoping he’d have a story in here too but no, just the intro. The intro gives you an idea of what is to come, reinterating the theme of the collection and setting the tone for what you are about to read. It’s a pretty standard introduction. I know most people skip these, but it’s really well written.

There is a Book by Dennis Detwiller. Earlier this year a book by Dennis entitles Tales From Failed Anatomies came out. This was a collection of Delta Green short stories and it is one of the two frontrunners for our “Best Tabletop Fiction” award at the end of the year along with The Return of Nagash. As such, I was really happy to see Dennis kick off this collection. His story is about the history of a book. I won’t name the book for spoiler reasons but it’s a Call of Cthulhu anthology so you pretty much know it already. This is about how the book is more than ink and papyrus but almost a living breathing thing that existed even before mankind. This story tells about how book found dupes to write it into our reality rather than being a product of mankind’s imagination or collective unconsciousness. The story is absolutely fantastic. In fact there is only one tiny problem I had with it and it is that it didn’t really keep to the theme of the anthology. The book doesn’t revolve around a train. Rather it mentioned a train twice and only in the last section stating how a character got off a unnamed train. That’s it. It was like being in a Batman anthology and having a character say “Isn’t that Bruce Wayne walking into that Deli?” as the only reference to anything Batman related. So YAY for the sheer quality of the story but boo for keeping with the theme.

The Lost Station Horror by Geoff Gillan. This is one of two stories in the collection that uses the age old Mythos theme of people accidentally digging/finding something Man was not meant to know. The story (mostly) takes place in Bulgaria and it’s very well done. In many ways it felt like a classic Victorian horror story, somewhat in the vein of M.R. James right down to the name of the town as “Z—.” Always a nice touch! The story is about a poor railway engineer who signs on to help the Bulgarians lay down track and a station for the Orient Express (and other train lines). Unfortunately the construction unearths something horrific which leads to madness and death for many people. It’s a very fun but creepy story and I loved that it took the theme of the Orient Express but used the building of the line and its prehistory rather than being on the train itself. Nice touch.

Bitter Shadows by Lisa Morton. This is the only story in the collection that made me really FEEL for a character. I liked, even loved some of the tales, but Bitter Shadows had is the only one that had me feel truly sorry for a character. Bitter Shadows is the story of Georges, a down on his luck silent film maker taking a ride on the Orient Express hoping to find inspiration and brilliance once again to get his life (and films) back on track. The ride ends up being far more eventful than he could have ever expected. He encounters thieves, espionage, a Mythos artifact that causes strange dreams and a chance encounter with an alien creature men might think of as a god…which he gets on film. Things don’t end well for Georges, but not in the negative fashion Mythos antagonists usually experience. No, this is just a really depressing end for a sweet old man. A really great short story, especially since I rarely find myself becoming emotionally invested in fictional characters.

La Musique De L’ennui by Kenneth Hite. So this is a really unique story that intermingles The Phantom of the Opera with The King In Yellow. It’s a lot of fun but superfans of Phantom (in all its forms), Dracula and even the Orient Express with probably quibble with some of the inaccuracies in the piece, but it’s a FICTION STORY – not an actual declaration of facts about these particular fandoms so please keep that in mind. I only bring this up because of the many ways Dracula seems to encroach on my life (If you don’t know, this review is not the place for it) and my wife REALLY loves Phantom of the Opera to the point where she is part of the blogosphere on it (and where we helped kickstart a fantastic documentary on a particular facet of the character). So all the while I was loving the debate between Kristie and Eldon (all too familiar, I can tell you), I could just see bits of that particular Phantom fandom ripping the story apart for Phantom related bits rather than focusing on the really awesome (and well told) intermingling of Chambers and Leroux’s characters. I can just hear the “NO ONE THINKS GERARD BUTLER IS THE BEST PHANTOM.” nit-picking from some of those bloggers in my head. Hopefully that doesn’t actually happen too much because the story is one of the best things Hite has ever written.

Anyway, the story is set in modern times and is about a bunch of Phantom of the Opera super fans going on a Phantom themed tour on the Orient Express. Considering how much a OE trip costs normally, I can only imagine how all these extras would add to the overall bill. Yeesh. The main character is a blogger named Kristie who is a bit of a self-absorbed and self-righteous zealot of her particular fandom. Along the way eerie things begin to happen and parallels between The King in Yellow and The Phantom of the Opera begin to occur. This was such a wonderful outside the box idea for a story and yet as I read it I was kind of shocked no one tried to pair the two ideas together before. It’s unlike anything else in the collection and it really shows how creative one can get with the two topics each author had to include in their stories. Definitely a highlight of the collection.

A Great and Terrible Hunger by Elaine Cunningham. This was my first time reading something by Elaine that wasn’t Forgotten Realms related. This was another fun take on the themes the authors had to work with. Here you have an escalating feud between two chefs that work on the Orient Express. Finally the two agree to a cooking contest with the loser leaving the train. One of the chefs finds a…unique ingredient that he is quite sure the other will not be able to duplicate. At the same time a fog of madness seems to set down upon all those on board the train. Are the two related? While you can definitely see the ending of the story coming a mile away, it’s really well written, the characters are full developed (especially with the limited page count) and it’s as funny as it is creepy at times.

Inscrutable by Robin Laws. Now this is an odd story with a very slow burn, but one well worth sticking with for the ending makes it all worthwhile. Once again this tales has to do with a set of travelers on board the Orient Express. The two main characters are Sir Russell and his manservant Phut. The two make an excellent team and Phut has saved his intrepid explorer master’s life many a time. In fact even during this story, Phut and Sir Russell have to deal with…let’s say some Mythos Cultists while they are trying to enjoy their dinner. Sir Russell is simply an adventurer but one who is blind to the alien horrors that seem to have it in for him. Phut however is all too aware of them. In fact, more so than any human could possibly be…. Again, no spoilers, but this was a terrific story with the last page really turning the story on its head in a terrific and unexpected conclusion. The story starts out dry but stick with it – you won’t be disappointed.

Engineered by Avi Marmell. Even in the glory days of the Orient Express, one had to take terrorist threats seriously. In fact, the protagonist of this story is on the train to track down and stop his own brother who has been making serious threats again the train if it keeps running. The catch? The brother helped design the rail system and the layout of the tracks of the Orient Express and many other trains. What could make this man who dedicated his life to the locomotive industry now threaten destruction to its crown jewel? The answer is in the geometry of things. It’s a fascinating look at accidental shapes, patterns and angles…all of which can mean something terrible in a Mythos story. Another fun, original take on the anthology concept and one of my favorites in the collection.

Black Cat of the Orient by Lucien Soulban. This is a story I think people are either going to really like or really hate. I found it to run on a bit longer than needed, which really slowed down the pace and made it feel drier than it really is. In truth like Inscrutable if you stick with this past what seems like pages of filler, you’ll find those first few pages actually have a point. Essentially the story is about a man named Jack Andrews who, like many others who have had Mythos encounters have been paid to hang out with some rich Spiritualists on the Orient Express and regale their tales for the amusement of the upper class. Of course as we see, the Spiritualists aren’t getting the full scope and horror from the “black cats” in attendance. For much of the story, this tale feels more like a psychological comparison between those who are interested in what they imagine the occult to be like and those that have actually survived dealings with it. Then the story takes a bit of a turn as Jack Andrews’ gets closer to the place where his Mythos experience occurred, causes death and insanity for many on board the train. Whoops. A fun read with a slightly unexpected twist to his story. It’s a tragic but fitting Mythos tale showing that you don’t beat these types of beings – you only survive them and sometimes, that’s the lesser of the two fates.

The Face of the Deep by C.A. Suleiman. Ah, secret societies and special orders. What would a Call of Cthulhu anthology be without them? In this case we have the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire with its new inductee Alfred Pendleton. It’s an odd story because the first three and a half pages are just three friends talking about the Order and life in general. Then when Alfred decided to sneak down to the baggage car, something otherworldly begins to happen to him. Whether or not the Order is involve is never said. It could all just be a bad coincidence with Arthur being on the wrong train at the wrong time. In many ways the story could actually just be a man’s drunken hallucination and stupidity, but you can never be sure, especially in this sort of anthology. It’s a decent story, not bad by any means, but the weakest in the anthology up to this point. The two halves feel disjointed and the “all of a sudden something weird happens” does feel a bit thrown together haphazardly which might annoy some readers. Truth be told though, in many of Lovecraft’s stories, an ordinary Joe just runs afoul of something horrible for no particular reason other than bad luck. So, while you might want a bit more of a cohesive setup, there’s nothing wrong with the approach taken in this story.

Demons Dreaming by Cody Goodfellow. Oof. In every anthology there tends to be a story the reader just doesn’t care for and this was it for me. This was twenty-one pages of pure PAIN to get through. Bad characters, bad story, bad narrative, bad everything. Essentially it’s about one colleague trying to share with another the secrets of an Assassin’s Guild he has infiltrated…or perhaps converted to. The catch is that he is going to force the secrets on his peer whether they like it or not…which they don’t. I don’t want to do spoilers, but I will say this story was painful to get through. I didn’t like the narrative style and the dialogue felt stilted, phony and just poorly worded (OH MY GOD THE ACCENT ATTEMPTS.). The initial premise is okay, but I didn’t enjoy any of the follow through. The train aspect of the story is just kind of tacked on as a location for the pre and post climax to occur but really it could have been anywhere from a hotel room to a taxi cab. I guess the only positive thing I can say it that it was nice to see some author attempt a quasi-Dreamlands approach to the Mythos in their tale rather than the more common form Lovecraft wrote about, but honestly, you can skip this story if you buy the anthology and you’ll be a lot happier that you did.

A Finger’s Worth of Coal by Richard Dansky. This was another of my favorite stories in the collection simply because it is so unusual in premise. I have to admit I usually hate time travel stories. This one however, was really well done. This story revolves around the fact coal takes a long time to form. What was going on all those centuries or even millennia ago when the coal was in its beginning stages. What or walked the Earth? Could something from that Hyperborean Age still linger with the chief fuel of trains during the era this story takes place? Could it be trapped in those black little collections of carbon? If so, what happens when you burn the prison? A Professor, his burly assistant and a lawyer on board the Orient Express are the lucky triad that have to find out. Again, I really loved this story. The characters were really interested and the Professor with his acceptance of the Mythos so readily was an unusual choice, but one that makes sense later on in the story. The dialogue is especially refreshing, doubly so after the previous story and the entire tale is a lot of FUN…at least for the readers. It’s not at all fun for any of the main characters.

Bound For Home by Christopher Golden. Usually I don’t care for fiction stories where the main character is a real life person. It’s meant to be an homage/tribute but it always feels slightly sleazy to me. That said, I really enjoyed Bound For Home even though the story’s ending is a bit unfulfilling. It feels more like the beginning of a novel or collection of short stories involving the main character. Essentially the story is a two fisted pulp version of Harry Houdini and a cult that wants to harness his ability to constantly cheat and defy death. It’s a very enjoyable read until the end…where the problem is that you were expecting more of a resolution or a more satisfying conclusion. That said if Mr. Golden wants to write a full novel expanding this premise and the characters within, I will be more than happy to read it!

On the Eastbound Train by Darrell Schweitzer. The flow of this story feels a little off when you first read it, but I suspect it is supposed to be that way. After all the narrator of this tale is giving a second hand account of someone else’s Mythos experience and so it makes sense that the story feels a bit disjointed. This is no way reflects on the quality of the tale however as it’s another fun one that feels like a Victorian ghost story in mood and tone. There is a false ending to this piece, which is perfectly in-line with the atmosphere of the story and the time period in which it takes place. The true ending (sounds like I’m talking about a JRPG here) is even better. It’s unexpected and heightens the creepiness of the overall tale. It’s a weird piece that might not appeal to everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it.

The God Beneath the Mountain by James L Sutter. A young doctor find and loses love in the shadow of an Italian mountain. Here the Simplon builders are trying to tunnel through in order to create a route for the Orient Express. Much like with The Lost Station Horror, something horrific is unearthed. This is a very nice story and only the very end of the story even introduces a Mythos connection. Otherwise it reads like a slice of life piece. It could almost be in a romance collection except for the ending with a loathsome beastie running amok for a while. This was a very different piece from anything else in the anthology and it really stands out because of it.

Daddy, Daddy by Penelope Love. Sylvia Plath meets The Thing on the Doorstep. I wasn’t sure why the novel started out with a quote from each but as you read the book, it makes perfect sense. Daddy, Daddy is essentially, “What if the Waite family was Australian and even more insane than Lovecraft wrote them?” There is an exceptionally weird and icky father-daughter dynamic going on here, but no it’s not incestuous or anything like that. You’ll have to read the story to truly understand. Basically you have a controlling old wizard and his dominated daughter. The daughter years to be free of the father but can’t seem to get away. Now the two are travelling on the Orient Express in the mid 70s. The father promises the daughter they will be free of each other at the end of the line but both have very different ideas as to what that means.

The writing style of Daddy, Daddy is very modern compared to the other tales in the book and as such the narrative can be very jarring. It’s not a bad thing. In fact I quite liked the story save for the last three or four paragraphs which felts talked on to get the piece a 70s style horror ending. It fits the time period of the tale at least. This will be another story people either really like or really hate just due to how it feels. The insanity ebbing from every word of the tale creates an atmosphere unlike any other in the collection, but it has a bit of a Dostoyevsky existentialism feel to the writing style (If Fyodor ever wrote Cthulhu inspired tales – wouldn’t that have been neat) and I realize that European Existentialism and/or surreal narratives aren’t for everyone (although this is Lovecraftian inspired horror so you have to expect this to some degree, right?) so I just want to warn you ahead of time that you might not care for this one, even if I really liked the sheer bizarreness of it.

Stained Windows by Joshua Alan Doetsch. So if the last one made me think of Dostoyevsky existentialism, this story made me think of Camus. The tone and writing style really reminded me of The Stranger although the stories are completely different. Anyway, this is by far the most dreamlike, surreal and offbeat story in the entire collection and it’s the perfect way to end Madness on the Orient Express because honestly the title of this anthology could also be the title of this short story as well.

Stained Windows is about a gentleman thief who is a bit over his head with his latest “acquisition.” The main character has stolen an ancient tome and he’s on the Orient Express to deliver it to a buyer. However, a lot of other…factions want the tome too and they’re not going to take no for an answer. Along the way, the protagonist meets a whole bevy of characters, each of which gets stranger and madder the closer they get to the end of the line. The snappy dialogue of this piece makes it this a real treat, if not the outright crown jewel of the anthology and the ending is both abrupt and awesome. It’s not at all the ending you will expect for this tale but after you read it (maybe even re-read the story to get the full effect), it’s pretty perfect.

So all in all, there was only a single story in Madness on the Orient Express I didn’t care for. The others ranged from decent to absolutely fantastic. Even if you have no plans to purchase Horror on the Orient Express (maybe you’re not a tabletop gamer), you should definitely purchase this anthology if you’re at all a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos. The stories are exceptionally diverse, which is impressive considering how limited the conjoined topics they all share seem at first glance. This is definitely one of the best anthologies Chaosium has put out in some time and I really recommend it to horror fans across the board. This has really been a great year for tabletop fiction across the board and even with that in mind Madness on the Orient Express stands out as one of the true highlights for 2015.

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