Saturday, March 3, 2012

Wildwyck County: The Case of the Haunted House: Part I

The movement of posts from one blog to another continues. This is a recap of the events of a session of Call of Cthulhu set in Wildwyck County that occurred last summer. The tale plays out over several parts.

I haven’t mentioned it here, but I’ve been given the opportunity to run Call of Cthulhu as the backup game in my local group whenever the current referee needs a break. Our first session was on July 10th and I’ll be running it again on August 14th. This is giving me the opportunity to try out some of the material to be featured in the upcoming Fight On! article as well as scratch my itch for non-fantasy roleplaying—which is very, very nice.

I’m keeping things simple, allowing much of the campaign to develop based on the investigators’ actions and interactions with the surrounding environs. For our first session, we had three PCs and I used the Call of Cthulhu Quick Start to get things rolling. This gave me the chance to finally run “The Haunted House” scenario that had launched a thousand campaigns and appeared in every edition of CoC ever produced. I’ve always wanted to run it, but whenever I had the chance, the players were already familiar with it. At long last, with three neonates to Call of Cthulhu around the table, I finally got my wish.

The players loved it and what was intended to be a one-shot got the official go ahead to be the alternate game. I’m already looking forward to the next session. Since I’m letting the campaign develop organically, there is the need to document the events of the sessions in more detail than I’m used to. Any one of the NPCs, events, or items encountered can have great influence down the line. What follows is the first installment of my recollection of the inaugural session’s events. It quite long, so I’ve split it into several posts. If you are adverse to post game reports, you may want to skip the next few postings here at Secret Antiquities.

Also, be advised that many spoilers for “The Haunted House” scenario (later changed to “The Haunting”) appear below. If you’ve never played through that investigation, you may want to skip these posts as well. For the rest of you, I hope you enjoy this recounting of a most successful gaming session…

The year was 1920. The Great War was over and the Spanish Flu was in its death throes. Faced with so many reminders of their own mortality, it is no wonder that humanity found itself caught up in the Spiritualism movement, convinced that the shroud that separated the living and the dead could be breached by the common man. Séances, salons, and orators expounding on the secrets of the dead drew great numbers, especially in the pastoral town of Ashton, NY.

Moving amongst this local Spiritualist scene were three simple men, different in background and standing, but brought into friendly acquaintance by a shared interest in supernatural matters. Having become familiar through the regular séances held at Madam Grace’s riverside home, Chuck Adams, Joseph Bronowski, and Charlie Kovelček demonstrated that Spiritualism was no elitist pursuit. They were not learned men: Mr. Adams was one of a dying breed, a hunter and trapper who eked out a living in the wooded Catskills much like the settlers of old, relying on his wits and outdoormanship to earn his keep. Mr. Bronowski was also a man of the common clay, a farmer whose small parcel of land outside of Ashton’s limits provided him with his livelihood. Only Mr. Kovelček dwelt full time in town, earning his daily bread as a private detective specializing in photographing citizens engaged in activities they’d prefer to keep out of the public eye.

The events that took place on and around the week of October 5th-12th, 1920 began with a phone call to Charlie Kovelček. The man on the other end was Mr. Fletcher Dobbs, a well-to-do local entrepreneur who owned and leased several properties around Ashton. Mr. Dobbs was a lodge brother to Charlie’s cousin, Adam, and that family member has suggested his shamus cousin after hearing of Mr. Dobbs’ recent troubles. Hesitant to speak in more detail over the phone, Mr. Dobbs arranged a meeting with Charlie the following day at Joe’s Cup & Saucer, a popular diner on Palisade Ave. Mr. Dobbs suggested that if Charlie had any associates knowledgeable about inexplicable events he might wish to bring them along.

At 1 PM the following day, Charlie, Chuck, and Joseph sat at a booth at Joe’s awaiting their would-be employer. Mr. Dobbs arrived precisely on time, sliding through the door at Joe’s like a predatory fish swimming amongst guppies. His suit was pressed, his hair immaculate, and his pencil-moustache as neat as a scalpel incision. He spotted the trio instantly and took a seat in the booth.

His problem was simple in theory: Misfortune had struck a young Eye-talian couple, the Macarios, renting one of his properties on 1735 Willow St. in the questionable neighborhood of Drybog. The husband had gone inexplicitly mad a year ago, leaving the young mother alone at home with two young boys. Then, one month ago and just as abruptly, the mother had tried to stab the children to death. The boys fled the house with minor injuries and the police arrested the woman immediately thereafter. Both she and her husband were now patients at the Frost Hollow Asylum some hours south of town.

Mr. Dobbs admitted that he had heard certain rumors about the property prior to his purchase of it three years ago, but the house’s price was simply too good to pass up. He had done some minor renovations before renting it to the unlucky Macarios two years ago. In the wake of the recent events, Dobbs stated that he had heard the neighbors say that Mrs. Macario wouldn’t go into a certain second floor bedroom and that each family member claimed to have glimpsed an indistinct humanoid form with burning eyes in the home on different occasions.

This left Dobbs in an unfortunate situation. Although dismissive of the tales that the home was haunted, he was nevertheless unwilling to rent the property out again without getting to bottom of things. When he had complained to his lodge brother, he was given Charlie’s number and told that he was reliable, discrete, and had some familiarity with unusual phenomenon. If Mr. Kovelček, Mr. Bronowski, and Mr. Adams were willing to investigate the building and determine what was going on (and, should it prove to be more than simple hallucinations, deal with the problem), they would be paid a princely sum of $20 a day plus a $100 bonus on settling the problem to Mr. Dobbs’ satisfaction. With money like that being offered, the trio could hardly pass on the offer and readily accepted.

As it was mid-afternoon by the time their meeting adjourned, the men decided that a quick trip to the Ashton Hall of Records was all they had time for and piled into Charlie’s Model T. Passing by the New Town Hall, an impressive Greek Revival edifice that was completed, but now the subject of an investigation on official misappropriation of funds, the men pulled up in front of Old Town Hall, a former river captain’s palatial home turned public building. Descending down to the basement, they waved to Cecile, the records clerk, and began requesting public documents pertaining to the property at 1735 Willow.

After four hours of requests and pouring over the public records (and a very kind records clerk keeping the office open after closing), they had discovered scant information regarding the property. It had been constructed in 1835 by a prosperous merchant named Meriwether, but he sold the property soon thereafter to a Mr. Walter Corbitt, esquire after falling ill. Corbitt seemed to have remained in the home until at least 1852 when his neighbors brought a lawsuit against him, seeking to evict him from the neighborhood “in consequence of his surious [sic] habits and unauspicious demeanor.” The trio was unable to learn the outcome of the lawsuit before Cecile insisted the Hall of Records was closed for the evening.

With a little daylight remaining, the investigators decided to drive past the Willow St. location to glimpse the house firsthand. The house stood in Drybog, a section of former swampland drained in the early 1800s to make room for the expanding town. It remained a lower class neighborhood despite attempts to gentrify the area. A pair of recently constructed office buildings flanked the saltbox Dutch Colonial building, making it seem like an old, angry dog lurking between towering oaks. The neighboring buildings were all large homes that had been partitioned into separate small apartments rented by immigrant families or the nearly destitute. The only sign of life was a small newspaper and cigar stand that was in the process of closing.

The three stopped to chat with the proprietor of the newsstand who introduced himself as Jim Dooley, a resident of Drybog for over twenty years. The amicable Mr. Dooley was able to provide more information on the house and its unlucky former residents. In 1909, three people died in the Sheehan family, the residents of the property at that time. In 1914, the Schulyers lived in the home. Tragedy struck when their oldest boy, Bill, went crazy and killed himself with a butcher’s knife. And in ’17 or ’18, a third family had took residency, but moved out almost immediately after. The investigators thanked the loquacious Mr. Dooley before heading to their separate residences with the intent to start the investigation anew on the morrow.

Wednesday saw them back at the Hall of Records, this time searching for more information on Corbitt and the lawsuit. To speed up their efforts, Chuck Adams decided to check the “morgue” at the Ashton Sentinel, the local daily newspaper, to see if he could uncover any additional information regarding the house during the years between 1852 and 1909. Unfortunately for Mr. Adams, the clerk at the Sentinel was Wesley Carroll, a notorious stick-in-the-mud who was unwilling to let anyone down into the paper’s morgue unless they bore a letter of reference from the Mayor or a phone call from the Sentinel’s editor. Even Mr. Adam’s generous offer of $5 to look the other way failed to alter the prissy clerk’s resolve. Chuck departed and rejoined his fellows back at the Hall of Records.

After being informed by Cecile that she would not be remaining open for one second after 5 PM, the three delved back into the public record. The search was long and painstaking, but fruitful. It was discovered that Corbitt won the lawsuit that attempted to drive him out of the area. In addition, they learned that he died in 1866 and that the executor of his will was a Reverend Michael Thomas, pastor of the Chapel of Contemplation & Church of Our Lord Granter of Secrets. Further research determined that the Chapel closed in 1912 after an unspecified police action against the church. As it was getting late (and Cecile was giving them an evil glare), the three decided to drive past the Church before calling it an night. They traveled once again to the Drybog section of town and found the Chapel’s address at 11 West Creek Street.

West Creek Street ran through an even gloomier and more deserted section of the neighborhood than Willow St. Boarded-up windows faced the leave-strewn road and the Chapel turned out to be nothing more than collapsing masonry walls in the middle of an overgrown lot. Parking their cars, the investigators cautiously approached the falling stone walls and spread out. A splash of white deep inside the former church caught their attention and they entered to discover what it was. As they crossed the decrepit floor, a portion of the rotten boards gave way beneath Chuck and nearly dropped him into the damp cellar beneath the former chapel. Only his quick wits and a nearby standing column saved him for a probable broken leg. Looking down into the hole, the investigators sighted ancient furnishings in a basement filled with shallow standing water. It was decided that the cellar could wait for daylight before being explored.

At the far side of the chapel, the splash of white turned out to be a freshly painted symbol. A trio of Y-shaped lines formed a pyramid with an eye painted in its center. And although Joseph knew that both the pyramid and eye were potent occult symbols, this particular arrangement was unknown to him. Charlie snapped a photograph of the symbol while Joseph copied it into a small journal he carried. Scouring the area for more evidence uncovered a single set of footprints leading to and away from the paint, but no other indications of who painted the sigil. The three departed, planning to return when daylight was on their side…

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