Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Cloth Faced Doll

My nephew, Ian, sent me an email - telling me about a dream he had of children singing "Ring-a-ring-a-rosy" and then falling down dead. In the dream he was also pursued by a cloth faced doll - that he could only see out of the corner of his eye. He asked me to write a horror story based on his idea. 

Here's the first, unedited draft.

The Cloth Faced Doll
By Paul Mannering and Ian Wills.

Some dares are stronger than magic spells. Stronger than a pinky-promise. Stronger than swearing on your grandmother’s grave, even though she is still alive, plays tennis twice a week and gives you money on your birthday. Some dares are invoked with the words passed down through the playground generations, from the older kids to the younger ones. Some dares you have to accept, or be forever known as the kid that chickened out on a dare.  Which is why Toby Shannon crawled through the wire fence around the old Saint Yvonne School after dark, after bedtime and after being dared to go into the abandoned building. 
He had to come back with something to prove his bravery. Then he would be in the gang. Part of the group that sat together at recess and lunch. Part of the group of friends that no one messed with. He would be in and then the bullying would stop.
The Saint Yvonne School was one of the oldest buildings in the area. It had been closed for a hundred years and had been haunted for even longer. Hayden, who told Toby what he needed to do for his initiation dare, said that a kid sneaked in to the school one summer and they never found him until a week later. When they found the kid, his hair had turned white and he couldn’t speak. Now they kept him in a padded room up at the Bellview hospital, even his parents didn’t visit him.
Toby sometimes thought that a padded room at Bellview would be a nice change from going to school every day. Being pushed, and teased and laughed at, having his schoolbag thrown in the toilet, and his lunch thrown into the bushes. Compared to that, sneaking into a creepy old building would be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
The fence was rusted mesh, diamonds of wire with a trim of wind-blown litter and dead weeds. In places the fence had rusted away and you could squeeze through the gaps.  The grass inside the fence seemed dead too. Like nothing could grow in the shadow of the old school. Toby had asked his dad about the school. He’d told him to look it up on the internet. The websites said that the school had been turned into a hospital, during a Cholera epidemic a hundred years ago. Children who got sick were put there, beds lined up in the classrooms and hallways like a hospital ward. A lot of the sick kids died. Toby looked at old black and white photos, some of them showed stern faced nurses and doctors in white coats and stiff uniforms. Others were photos of sick children, lying in beds, their listless eyes sunk deep into their pale faces.
Under his feet the brown grass crunched with a sound like stepping on spilled cereal. Toby didn’t run, he walked, through the dead weeds and all the way up to the wide stone steps at the front of the building. The school stood three stories high, all the windows were boarded up, even the ones with bars over them in the round towers at the top corners.
At the top of the five wide stone steps Toby crouched down and listened hard. He could hear the wind blowing through the dead trees, making them creak and moan. He could hear the shrill scream of the wind racing through cracks and gaps in the walls. Screaming like the ghosts of children with dark eyes sunk deep in their skulls. Toby pulled a board, it was loose, just like Hayden said it would be. The door behind it had a hole big enough for Toby to slip through. He was small for his age, which is why the bullies picked on him.  Inside he stood up, the Super Dude Sam torch he carried clicked on and the narrow beam of yellow light made the shadows rear and stampede along the walls. Beyond the light, the darkness seemed darker. Toby waved the torch around, like a light-saber. “Voom-voom,” he whispered, the sound vanishing into the open space of the large hallway he stood in.
The floor was covered in dirt and trash, the tiles were arranged in a diamond pattern of brown and grey. Directly ahead and a bit to the right a set of old wooden stairs led up to the second floor. Toby looked around, the old wooden walls, the peeling paint and wallpaper, the empty cans of spray paint and cigarette butts. It seemed weird that no one had painted the walls though. There were no tagged messages on the dirty walls. Just discarded cans and signs of teenagers being here. Maybe the ghosts got them? The thought rose unbidden and unwanted in Toby’s mind. He swallowed hard and thought about how the bullying would stop if he just did this one thing.
Walking forward he passed the stairs, heading towards the back of the building. According to the floor plans he had seen online, one of the children’s wards was back there. A door of dark wood blocked his way, the oval handle of black metal set high on its face. Toby reached up and turned the handle, the door opened when he pushed. A slow agonised scream of stiff hinges echoed off the walls and nearly stopped his heart.  Toby froze; all he could hear now was the thudding of his heart and the thin rasp of his breathing. Holding the torch in one hand, he dug his asthma inhaler out of his pocket and took a deep sucking gasp. Holding his breath until he saw stars he exhaled slowly, the tight feeling in his chest easing and the taste of medicine in the back of his throat felt comforting.
The space beyond the door had been filled with junk. Old bed frames, with coiled springs and wooden frames were stacked haphazardly around the room. Toby took a careful step forward, the light flashing and catching the mouldering piles of discarded mattresses, like giant rotting cheeses, pierced with holes where rats and birds had made their nests. Toby stared as one mattress quivered and a rat squirmed out of it, Toby swallowed hard, remembering a story, an old story  found in a box of old books, a story about an evil Chinese sorcerer who would put a live rat on people’s bellies with a pot over it. Then he put a dish of hot coals on top of the pot and added more coals until the rat got so hot it would chew its way out the only way it could to save itself from burning. Another shot from his inhaler helped Toby keep breathing.
He walked into the room, stepping around the old beds and away from the mattresses that with the lumps that bulged and slithered where the rats moved. At first he thought it was the wind, a soft sighing whisper, and a cold draft brushed over his neck. Toby turned around, rubbing the back of his neck checking for spiders. The door stayed open, and he could see all the way out to the gap in the front door. A straight line that he could run- no not run. If you run, they will get you. You need to be brave and walk. One steady step at a time, always expecting that cold dead hand to fall on your shoulder and drag you down to where the dead children waited in the dark.
Toby reached the end of the room, there were a few rat-chewed magazines with weathered pages stuck to the floor. Those were no good. He needed some trophy that couldn’t have been found somewhere else. Maybe a piece of the mattress covering? The image of tearing off a strip and a whole swarm of rats tumbling out of the hole made Toby shiver. No, best to leave the mattresses well alone.
The sighing whisper came again, Toby thought he could catch the almost words of a song, a nursery rhyme. It sounded familiar. Turning his back on the room Toby walked carefully to the door and heard the whispers again. Atishoo…Atishoo…we all fall down… Children’s voices, singing, somewhere very far away and very faint.  Every hair on the back of his neck now stood up. Every nerve tingled. He would not run. If he ran they would grab him. A hundred pale ghostly hands would drag him down and he would be trapped forever, singing a song older than the children, older than the building, older than anything except death.
Breathing slowly Toby reached the front door and then looked around again. The sounds of children came clearly in the still air; the faint whispers, girl’s voices, boy’s voices, all whispering and giggling. Toby’s fists clenched. The plastic body of the Super Dude Sam torch creaked. “Stop laughing…” he said quietly.  The sound continued, he heard the bustle of nurse’s skirts, the creak of wooden floorboards, the coughs and moans of the sick and dying.  Over it all he could hear the children, the whispering, laughing children. Laughing and whispering like the bullies at school. The ones like Hayden, and Jessica and Grant and Sarah. The ones he hated so much he would rather go into a haunted house at night than have to face their torture for one more day.
“Leave me alone!” Toby’s anger burst out of him in a shout. He wheezed for air and fumbled for his inhaler but it slipped through his sweat-slicked palm and bounced across the floor. The torch light found it, lying in the dust and dirt at the bottom of the stairs. His breath whistling through the tight band closing around his throat Toby stumbled forward and on his knees he snatched up the inhaler. Pressing it, he couldn’t get enough air in for the vapour to work. A panicked feeling of suffocation gripped him and he pressed the trigger again, finally his airway opened and he took a third dose, inhaling deep breathes and waiting for the panicked shaking to stop. 
A girl in an old fashioned dress stood on the stairs in front of him, like someone from an old black and white movie. Except she was made of grey mist and he could see the stairs behind her. Her hair was braided into two long whips that hung down her back. Her eyes were shadows, circles of darker black in the shadows of her face. Cradled in the crook of one arm she carried an old fashioned doll, its body was carved from wood, the head made stitched from a scrap of cloth and padded, only one button eye remained and the dress she wore had a faded pattern of checks.  Just like the girl, all colour had bled from it. Like the girl, the doll was now a grey shadow thing.
Around him the unseen children sang, Ring-a-ring-a-rosy…   Toby would have screamed, but the air just whistled out of his throat. He whimpered and lifted the torch, hoping that the light would banish this thing born of the horrifying shadows. When the beam touched her, the girl melted away, like steam vanishing from a bath. The doll dropped to the wooden steps, landing with a solid thunk. Toby snatched it up and backed away. He didn’t care about proving anything to anyone anymore. The need to get away from this place blanked every other thought.
Once the board was back in place Toby walked quickly, still afraid to run, all the way to the mesh fence. Once he had crossed the street, then he ran. He ran until he wheezed and shook. Climbing back in his bedroom window he stuffed the doll in his school backpack and took regular puffs on his inhaler until he fell asleep.

Hayden and his gang left Toby alone the next morning before school. They waited until the morning break to gather around him, penning him in, giving him nowhere to run to.
“Bet you didn’t go. Bet you were chicken!” Hayden said and the others laughed. Jeering and making chicken clucking noises.
Toby unzipped his Super Dude Sam backpack and pulled out the doll. The head of it was padded with something soft. Woollen hair and rough stitching marked the face and eyes. Circles of red had been painted on the cloth cheeks, now the faded colour gave the doll a strange, feverish appearance.
“I went there. I saw a ghost and she gave me this.”
Hayden blinked and stared. The filthy doll stared back with her single button eye and her cotton stitched mouth seemed to smile.
“HA-HAA! Toby plays with dolls!” Hayden yelled and pushed Toby hard. He fell down, the doll yanked from his grip and raised triumphant as evidence of Hayden’s chanting. “Toby plays with do-olls! Toby plays with do-olls!”  The others took up the chant, and Toby felt tears stinging his eyes. They weren’t going to make him part of their gang. They never expected him to do what they dared. Being brave hadn’t changed anything.
Hayden and the others danced in a circle around him, chanting, and laughing. Other children came to see who was lying on the ground. They eagerly took up the chant too, Toby plays with do-olls! Toby plays with dolls! It echoed and swirled around him. A dark tornado of noise that swept the last hope of his hope away. Toby curled up in a ball and cried, the voices of the children blurring until he heard them merge with a whisper that grew in strength until it was all he could hear…
Toby plays with do-olls!
A pocket full of posie
Atishoo! Atishoo!
We all fall down!
Then silence. Toby opened his eyes and sniffled, wiping the snot and tears away from his face with a sleeve he sat up.  Hayden and the others were lying on the ground, the doll sat in the centre of the circle, near Toby’s feet. The children did not move. Arms and legs splayed in all directions, they lay like puppets with their strings cut. All so still and quiet, and Toby knew, with a sudden and terrible certainty, dead. All of them had fallen down and they would never get up again.
He picked up the cloth faced doll, and just for a moment, he thought he could hear the sound of children laughing and singing a very old song…

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Guild Wars 2 - Genocide Entertainment?

It was nearly eight years ago (February 2005) that I started playing Guild Wars Prophecies. Joining the beta testing team and falling in love with what then was an entirely ground breaking MMORPG. When the game was released officially in April that year the response was huge. Critically the game won several prestigious awards, IGN’s Best PC RPG, and Gamespy’s MMORPG of the Year. By August 2007 Prophecies, Factions and Nightfall (the first two follow up expansion packs) had sold more than 5 million copies. The game’s only true competition was World of Warcraft, which released on November 23, 2004 and is the undisputed leader in the battle for consumer dollars and time.

Unlike WoW’s monthly subscription model NCSoft and ArenaNet chose to make Guild Wars free to play. You bought the game license and then played as much as you wanted, at no charge. Arguments will always abound over which is the better game and business model. WoW’s clunky graphics and endless grinding have always put me off. Guild Wars on the other hand looks like art and plays like it too.

Guild Wars 2 had been rumoured for some time. The announcement of the follow up game first came out on March 27, 2007. The sequel announcement coincided with the release of Eye of The North, the final Guild Wars expansion pack.
Fans then waited a further 5 years for GW2 to be released. The amount of development required meant that no firm, tentative or other suggested release date was given. Utilising new, proprietary technology to produce a dynamic 3D world built around critically acclaimed concept art, Guild Wars 2 promised a totally different approach to MMORPG’s in a game where your choices and actions would change the environment around you. Where strategy and tactics would play a greater part in success and skills would be learned in an entirely different way. Oh and no monks (healing class) characters at all. You are on your own out there.

So does the game deliver?

This is where a critical review of Guild Wars 2 gets complicated. ArenaNet did the right thing in adopting many of the successful elements of World of Warcraft, we now have crafting professions, gatherable resources and dynamic areas where you spend a lot of time interacting with other players fighting monsters and achieving quest goals.

The graphics are still excellent, though they have retained some of the more artistic elements present in the concept art. This is restricted to the maps (where instead of shadow of war darkness over unexplored areas, you have a blurred, brush stroke like texture over the unreached areas of the world) and loading screens. It’s better than having sponsor advertising though (now there’s a hideous thought).

When it comes to gameplay, you still grind your way through endless mobs of enemies, all carefully levelled to be a challenge, without being unbeatable. Most of the drops are rubbish, but with the inclusion of the crafting professions you can use many of the teeth, bones, hides, and goo dropped by monsters in their death throes to make armour, weapons, jewellery, clothes and food.
The questing system is completely linear. Your personal story requires you to go from one quest to the next, often with a recommended level difference of 3 or more. This means you have to go off and do side quests to level up. The personal story line is intriguing and well written. The fun really begins in the exploring and the opportunities found in the dynamic world.
NPC’s are represented by gold hearts on the map. These are people who need items, or something killed and they are open to anyone coming to help. After killing a dozen monsters, and gathering a bunch of whatever item the NPC requires, you gain experience, and the option to buy what they are selling using karma as a currency (gold, silver and copper are also used with merchants).
This adds an entirely new element to the game. The dynamic world works best when the screen announces there is a new event nearby – and you join 200 or more other players in a live battle fighting against some great foe. It encourages the best in social gaming. When a stranger falls in front of you, you have the option to pause in battle and spend a few second resurrecting them. This also earns you experience.  The best thing about this is that these live and graphically intense battles are well managed and the graphics engine, game physics and general programme doesn’t crash or overwhelm a mid-level system even at the highest resolutions.

The rest of the time you explore, and earn experience by discovering waypoints (that you can teleport to for a small fee) and Points of Interest, which encourage you to explore the nooks and crannies of the map. The final feature are Vistas. These are high points that you climb up to, the view from there is a sweeping panorama that also earns you experience. Assisting each NPC with a gold-heart over their heads, discovering each Vista, POI and Waypoint – earns you a chest reward (with experience, buffs and currency in it).
The guilds still exist, and after some initial bugs the partying system works well now. Allowing you to team up with friends and guild mates to complete both personal quests, general adventuring and even dungeons.

This is a game designed to get you involved, and it does an admirable job of it.

While I have no problem discerning fantasy from reality, it’s the realistic elements that bother me in this game.  There is a sense of casual genocide that permeates this game. Every playable species (and every sentient non-playable species) believe that they are on the right path. They are the ones who shall inherit Tyria – the meek are going to be crushed, stabbed, slashed, burned, frozen, blown up and drowned. It’s not the conversations you have with character that you then kill en masse. It’s the finer details, like the way they scream when they are on fire. It’s quite off putting when you realise that the lumbering troll you are about to destroy has some strong personal views on the current socio-political landscape.  Humans, Asurans and Nords have all been displaced by catastrophic upheaval. This is a fantasy world set 250 years after the apocalypse. Tempers are still frayed. Humans are forcing themselves into Centaur lands, Charr have built a steam driven empire on the ruins of the human world, the Asurans are forcing their way into every corner of the world with the casual contempt they have for all races. Even the tree born Sylvari are exterminating other species in an attempt to secure themselves some nice woodland property.

The role you take in Guild Wars 2 is not noble. You aren’t so much the brave adventurer you were in Guild Wars, as a tool for nationalistic expansion and colonial assimilation. The only thing missing are the missions where you are asked to escort missionaries, or deliver plague laden blankets to primitive tribes people.  In Guild Wars none of your enemies talked to you, unless they were really bad guys and they were part of the greater story. They were also human and there was a sense of right in taking up arms against them. In this game, with its vastly expanded mythos, landscape and complexity of biodiversity – most of the creatures you encounter have something to say. The snow giants, once a complex and proud race, now farming potatoes and waiting for you to hack them up. The rat like Skritt, sometimes you have to wipe them out in their hundreds, and other times you have to save them from their obsession with shiny (and radioactive) things. The centaurs remind me a lot of Native Americans. Forced by an alien invader to take up arms – and based on the ease with which they die, they are similarly outclassed in technology.

None of these misgivings stop me playing the game. They do leave me with a lingering sense of unease and wonder if anyone else is noticing the depth of the game, or if we have all become too desensitised to violence in games to draw comparisons to real world issues.


Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Cold Beneath - Audiobook Review

Steampunk is a great genre, the creativity of those who write within it is deep and fascinating. With the simple requirements of a world where clockwork and steam technology have allowed humankind to create engineering miracles - it is very much sci-fi in the era of Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovecraft. Which is why I find myself wondering at the lack of steampunk horror. Most of what exists is in cos-play and modelling. As literature, I think a sub-genre of steamhorror is as popular as sci-fi horror. A minority group within a genre.

Tonia Brown's brilliant steampunk horror novel "The Cold Beneath" has been brought to life in a new audiobook edition by rising star Chris Barnes of Dynamic Ram Audio Productions.

Chris has spent the last year building a portolio of audio book productions for pulp publishers Airship 27 and Pro Se Productions producing such voice talents as Fiona Thraille.

The book itself is well suited to the audio book narrative treatment, written in the first person, a memoir of a dying man trapped in an Arctic hell. Chris' natural Scottish brogue is evident only in the introduction, and when he voices the dialogue of the single Scots character in the story. Other characters inlcude an American and a woman. The accents and voices for each are unique. The rest of the time he reads in the main character's voice, a smooth, warm English accent that is both clearly enunciated and delivered at an easy listening pace.

From a technical point of view the production is professional, and well worth the $9.99 for the full audio book edition. With no music, and no breaks in the story it is very easy to lose yourself in the telling of the tale of bio-mechanical genius Phillip Syntax and the tragic expedition he joins seeking the North Pole.

The characters are detailed and complex, Syntax has a background of betrayal and lost love, the expeditions leader is Gideon Lightbridge, a Civil War veteran with mechanical legs (designed by Syntax). When their prototype airship crashes in the frozen wastes, the true hororr begins.

The Cold Beneath is a masterwork of character, steampunk and above all horror, and like revenge and gazpacho soup, the audiobook version is delivered with a delightful chill. Get a copy, listen to it, you will not be disappointed.