Saturday, January 23, 2016

Readings: Chrysalis of Death

The semester's started and it look like I've got four fully writing-intensive courses ahead of me so I'll be posting even more infrequently than usual. I hope to read a few of the novels I have backlogged over the course of this semester although I have to juggle them and a whole shitton of Viking sagas for a course. Anyway, if you see a post with "Readings:" in the title it means it's about a book I just finished reading. And expect spoilers.

This cover doesn't lie, it just tells a half-truth.

I read through Eleanor Robinson's Chrysalis of Death this week. It's apparently Robinson's first solo book according to this post on her granddaughter's blog which I found while doing an image search for the cover. The internet can be really weird sometimes.

Dating from 1975, Chrysalis of Death is a bit of a strange book. Despite what the cover shows there are no cavemen (although there are some kind of ape-man-things) and they aren't helicopters that drop bombs (although they do basically drop napalm).

The story goes like this: In Lazy Creek (aka the middle of nowhere), Arizona, Jeff Bedloe, a hotshot paleontologist, devoted husband, and expectant father, goes to an abandoned mine in to blow up some rocks so he can give some quartz to the owner of the bed & breakfast he stayed at. This explosion frees an eggsack from the Pliocene era that bursts and releases huge spiny green-black caterpillars. People end up getting stung by these caterpillars.

So Jeff takes the quartz to Henry Andersen, owner of the Casa Verde bed & breakfast. Henry is an absolutely financial state, having been duped into buying this large estate in the ass-end of nowhere. To give you some idea of how bad a state Lazy Creek is in, about 60% of the population that we see lives or works in Casa Verde. Henry's wife, Martha, is also there at the Casa; the early chapters seem to indicate that she's wheelchair-bound while the later ones indicate she's perfectly fine. Rounding the Andersens are their two grandchildren: Karen Scott, who's college age and grieving about the death of her secret lover due to a drug overdose; and Johnny Scott, an infant who seems to be 3-4 years old.

The staff at the Casa is composed of Rene the Haitian chef,  Pedro the Mexican do-everythinger, and Juanita the Mexican maid/cook (and Pedro's girlfriend/fiance/wife).

Outside the b&b there's basically no one. Irv Parks runs the gas station, Mr. and Mrs. Dove run the diner and constantly argue, Otto runs the market, and Benjamin is a religious weirdo. We also have Mexican family that goes unnamed for most of the story and gets killed off rather quickly. One character among the townspeople that does become quite important is the Sheriff Rivera, who strong-arms some dumb tourists into paying him $10 a gallon for gasoline to get the big city. Keep in mind that those are 1975 dollars so according to one calculator that come out to about $45.24 a gallon in modern dollars.

The guests at the Casa are the aforementioned Jeff, an author named Robert Freeman, a mysterious man from "the Orient" who calls himself Wenner, the socialite Amelia Rhodes (who made her fortune by blackmail) and her maid Midge Muncy, football superstar Buck Marlino (who is a closeted homosexual) and his high-class wife Gail Marlino, and lastly business heir Morgan Crown and his gold-digger wife Vicky Crown.

Wenner gets stung by a caterpillar. After a load of projectile vomiting, he decides to stash his attache case full of drug money in the rafters, steal Jeff's jeep, and hide out in an abandoned mine to avoid undue scrutiny that a medical stay would bring. At this time the Sheriff hears that the feds are looking for a man that matches Wenner's discription to the letter, a man with lots of drug money. Amelia also gets stung by a caterpillar and becomes ill. With no doctor in town, Henry and Jeff phone the Public Health Service in Phoenix. A helicopter brings three new characters: The grim Dr. Lorrimer, the forgettable Dr. Gilbert, and Vietnam vet and pilot Riggs. Amelia dies. Lorrimer thinks there's a pandemic in the making and gets Lazy Creek quarantined. Wenner sleeps for 15 hours straight.

Remember that Mexican family I mention earlier? Well, the dad was out of town but the mother and son weren't. Wenner sneaks toward their house intent on stealing food but gets overcome by animalistic instincts and kills the two (and is also heavily implied to have raped the mother). Unsure exactly why he snapped, Wenner clears out the pantry, throws the bodies down a well then heads to the mine.

More people get stung but don't exhibit symptoms beyond swelling. Sheriff Rivera follows the Mexican family's dog to the well, then kills the dog, and throws it in there too; he doesn't want the feds involved, he wants to take the money and run. Giant black-gold butterfly begin to emerge from cocoons. The Public Health Service determines that whatever is causing the sickness is a synthetic biological weapon. Wenner attacks the market, killing Benjamin and mortally wounding Otto. Lorrimer and Karen fall in love. Wenner sneaks into the Casa to recover the money but it's gone. Freeman, Buck Marlino, and Vicky Crown all catch the disease. The dad/husband of the Mexican family sneaks past the barricade, finds his wife and son, and vows to kill whoever did the deed. Wenner's cognitive functions deteriorate.

Things go from bad to worse when Henry gets sick. Then Vicky, Buck, and Freeman go psycho just like Wenner did and blow up all the cars in the Casa, steal the horses, kill Rene, and kidnap Karen and Johnny. Wenner keels over and dies. Karen manages to hide with Johnny in one of the nooks of the mine while the "Hydes" try to make a bonfire. Jeff and Lorrimer launch a rescue mission to recover Karen and Johnny. Rivera (who is also sick by now) retrieves the attache case, then locks Martha up in Henry's room while he and everyone else march toward the helicopter evac site the Public Health Service designated.

Lorrimer and Jeff rescue Karen and Johnny, but Jeff is spotted by Buck and detonates his dynamite, presumably killing himself and the three mutants. Now experiencing symptoms of the disease herself, Martha apparently commits suicide and possibly murders Henry, who is also transforming. Johnny, who had previously contracted the disease, dies. Lorrimer notices that Karen is developing symptoms of the disease and apparently gives her a fatal dose of pills. Lorrimer sees the evac site in the distance. The helicopters unleash a cloud of greenish smoke which is then ignited, killing everyone who wasn't already dead. The helicopters turn around and head back to base, admiring a throng of giant black-gold butterflies flying toward Phoenix. That's how it ends.

I was really struck by how this book could be easily adapted into one of those low-budget TV mini-series; it wouldn't feel out of place next to The Langoliers adaptation. From an RPG perspective, the caterpillars and the "mutants"/"Hydes" they create could be interesting twist to a campaign: I could easily imagine an All Flesh Must Be Eaten game that borrows heavily from this novel. The novel is really a character drama/crime thriller with fantastical elements thrown in. The writing is a bit uneven. I think the most memorable things about it are the ubiquitous caterpillars and the "everyone fucking dies" ending.

Judgement: Definitely not a great novel but not a bad one either. I give it 7/10.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Death Dogs for Heroes & Other Worlds

"Death dogs are large two-headed hounds which are distinguished by their penetrating double bark. Death dogs hunt in large packs. [. . .] There is an 85% chance that death dogs will attack humans on sight." - AD&D Monstrous Compendium Volume One

"Death Dogs are ruthless predators. Those who travel in their territory learn to listen for the double bark bark that heralds a pack's approach." - D&D 3.0 Fiend Folio

"Death dogs are two-headed, mastiff-like hounds, nocturnal killing machines that hunt their prey without hesitation across the desert sands and wastelands. Death dog packs have been known to share territory with little friction, although they do engage in dominance battles in leaner times when hunting is difficult." - Tome of Horrors Complete

Death Dog
# Encountered: 1 or 1D12
ST: 13
EN: 0
MV: 7
Behavior: Agressive (14)
Habitat: Any warm desert, hill, plains, or underground.
AR: -1 (Natural Armor)
DM:1D10 (bites)
SP: Disease
TR: 0

Disease: A non-Death Dog creature dealt damage by a Death Dog's bites must make a 3/ST test or contract a terrible rotting disease. Every day the afflicted creature's total EN decreases by 1D2; if this would reduce EN to less than 0, apply the reduction to ST instead. This disease can only be cured by magic. At the GM's discretion any Cure spell (see Magi Carta) has a 50% chance to cure this disease.