The Dream Detective: Case of the Blue Raja

The Dream Detective: Case of the Blue Raja

Fifth Episode

CASE OF THE BLUE RAJAH

I

Inspector Grimsby called upon me one evening, wearing a great glumness of countenance.

“Look here,” said he, “I’m in a bit of a corner. You’ll have heard that a committee of commercial magnates has been formed to buy, and on behalf of the City of London to present to the Crown, the big Indian diamond?”

I nodded and pushed the box of cigarettes towards him.

“Well,” he continued, thoughtfully selecting one, “they are meeting in Moorgate Street to-morrow morning to complete the deal and formally take over the stone. Sir Michael Cayley, the Lord Mayor, will be present, and he’s received a letter, which has been passed on to me.”

He fumbled for his pocket-case. Grimsby is a man who will go far. He is the youngest detective-inspector in the service, and he has that priceless gift—the art of using other people for the furtherance of his own ends. I do not intend this criticism unkindly. Grimsby does nothing dishonourable and seeks to rob no man of the credit that may be due. There is nothing underhand about Grimsby, but he is exceedingly diplomatic. He imparts official secrets to me with an ingenuousness entirely disarming—but always for reasons of his own.

“Here you are,” he said, and passed a letter to me. It read as follows—

“To the Right Hon. the Lord Mayor of London.

“My Lord,

“Beware that the Blue Rajah is not stolen on Wednesday the 13th inst. Do not lose sight of it for one moment.

“Your Lordship’s obedient servant,

“Moris Klaw.’’

“You see,” continued Grimsby, “Wednesday the thirteenth is to-morrow, when the thing is being brought to Moorgate Street. Naturally, Sir Michael communicated with the Yard, and as I’m in the know about Moris Klaw, I got the job of looking into the matter. I was at the Mansion House this morning.”

“I suppose Sir Michael regards this note with suspicion?”

“Well, he’s not silly enough to suppose that anybody who thought of stealing the diamond would drop him a line advising him of the matter! But he’d never heard of Moris Klaw until I explained about him. When I told him that Klaw had a theory about the Cycle of Crime, and his letter probably meant that, according to said theory, on Wednesday the thirteenth the Blue Rajah was due to be lifted, so to speak, he laughed. You’ll have noticed that people mostly laugh at first about Moris Klaw?”

“Certainly. You did, yourself!”

“I know it—and I’m suffering for it! Klaw won’t lift his little finger when I ask him; and as for his daughter, she giggles as though she was looking at a comedian when she looks at me! She thinks I’m properly funny!”

“You’ve been to Wapping, then?”

“Yes, this afternoon. The Lord Mayor wanted a lot of convincing that Moris Klaw was on the straight after I’d told him that the old gentleman was a dealer in curios in the East End. Finally, he suggested that I should find out what the warning meant exactly. But I couldn’t get to see Klaw; his daughter said he was out.”

“I suppose every precaution will be taken?”

“To-morrow morning we have arranged that I and two other C.I.D. men are to accompany the party to the Safe Deposit vaults to fetch the diamond and we shall guard it on the way back afterwards.”

“Who’s going to fetch it?”

“Sir John Carron, representing the India Office, Mr. Mark Anderson—the expert—representing the City, and Mr. Gautami Chinje, representing the Gaekwar of Nizam. I was wondering”— he surveyed the burning end of his cigarette—“if you had time to run down to Wapping yourself, and find out from what direction we ought to look for trouble?”

“Sorry, Grimsby,” I replied; “I would do it with pleasure, but my evening is fully taken up. Personally, it appears to me that Moris Klaw’s warning was a timely one. You seem to be watching the stone pretty closely.”

“Like a cat watches a mouse!” he rapped. “If any one steals the Blue Rajah to-morrow, he’ll be a clever fellow.”

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The Dream Detective: Case of the Ivory Statue

Fourth Episode

CASE OF THE IVORY STATUE

I

Where a case did not touch his peculiar interest, appeals to Moris Klaw fell upon deaf ears. However dastardly a crime, if its details were of the sordid sort, he shrank within his Wapping curio-shop as closely as any tortoise within its shell.

“Of what use,” he said to me on one occasion, “are my acute psychic sensibilities to detect who it is with a chopper that has brained some unhappy washerwoman? Shall I bring to bear those delicate perceptions which it has taken me so many years to acquire in order that some ugly old fool shall learn what has become of his pretty young wife? I think not—no!”

Sometimes, however, when Inspector Grimsby of Scotland Yard was at a loss, he would induce me to intercede with the eccentric old dealer, and sometimes Moris Klaw would throw out a hint.

Beyond doubt the cases that really interested him were those that afforded scope for the exploiting of his pet theories; the Cycle of Crime, the criminal history of all valuable relics, the indestructibility of thought. Such a case came under my personal notice on one occasion, and my friend Coram was instrumental in enlisting the services of Moris Klaw. It was, I think, one of the most mysterious affairs with which I ever came in contact, and the better to understand it you must permit me to explain how Roger Paxton, the sculptor, came to have such a valuable thing in his studio as that which we all assumed had inspired the strange business.

It was Sir Melville Fennel, then, who commissioned Paxton to execute a chryselephantine statue. Sir Melville’s museum of works of art, ancient and modern, is admittedly the second finest private collection of the kind in the world. The late Mr. Pierpont Morgan’s alone took precedence.

The commission came as something of a surprise. The art of chryselephantine sculpture, save for one attempt at revival, in Belgium, has been dead for untold generations. By many modern critics, indeed, it is condemned, as being not art but a parody of art.

Given carte-blanche in the matter of cost, Paxton produced a piece of work which induced the critics to talk about a modern Phidias. Based upon designs furnished by the eccentric but wealthy baronet, the statue represented a slim and graceful girl reclining as in exhaustion upon an ebony throne. The ivory face, with its wearily closed eyes, was a veritable triumph, and was surmounted by a head-dress of gold intertwined among a mass of dishevelled hair. One ivory arm hung down so that the fingers almost touched the pedestal; the left hand was pressed to the breast as though against a throbbing heart. Gold bracelets and anklets, furnished by Sir Melville, were introduced into the composition; and, despite the artist’s protest, a heavy girdle, encrusted with gems and found in the tomb of some favourite of a long-dead Pharaoh, encircled the waist. When complete, the thing was, from a merely intrinsic point of view, worth several thousand pounds.

As the baronet had agreed to the exhibition of the statue prior to its removal to Fennel Hall, Paxton’s star was seemingly in the ascendant, when the singular event occurred that threatened to bring about his ruin.

The sculptor gave one of the pleasant little dinners for which he had gained a reputation. His task was practically completed, and his friends had all been enjoined to come early, so that the statue could be viewed before the light failed. We were quite a bachelor party, and I shall always remember the circle of admiring faces surrounding the figure of the reclining dancer—warmed in the soft light to an almost uncanny semblance of fair flesh and blood.

“You see,” explained Paxton, “this composite work although it has latterly fallen into disrepute, affords magnificent scope for decorative purposes; such a richness of colour can be obtained. The ornaments are genuine antiques and of great value—a fad of my patron’s.”

For some minutes we stood silently admiring the beautiful workmanship; then Harman inquired: “Of what is the hair composed?”

Paxton Smiled. “A little secret I borrowed from the Greeks!” he replied, with condonable vanity. “Polyclitus and his contemporaries excelled at the work.”

“That jewelled girdle looks detachable,” I said.

“It is firmly fastened to the waist of the figure,” answered the sculptor. “I defy any one to detach it inside an hour.”

“From a modern point of view the thing is an innovation,” remarked one of the others, thoughtfully.

Coram, curator of the Menzies Museum, who up to the present had stood in silent contemplation of the figure, now spoke for the first time. “The cost of materials is too great for this style of work ever to become popular,” he averred. “That girdle, by the way, represents a small fortune, and together with the anklets, armlets and head-dress, might well tempt any burglar. What precautions do you take, Paxton?”

“Sleep out here every night,” was the reply; “and there is always some one here in the daytime. Incidentally, a curious thing occurred last week. I had just fixed the girdle, which, I may explain, was once the property of Nicris, a favourite of Ramses III., and my model was alone here for a few minutes. As I was returning from the house I heard her cry out, and when I came to look for her she was crouching in a corner trembling. What do you suppose had frightened her?”

“Give it up,” said Harman.

“She swore that Nicris—for the statue is supposed to represent her—had moved!”

“Imagination,” replied Coram; “but easily to be understood. I could believe it, myself, if I were here alone long enough.”

“I fancy,” continued Paxton, “that she must have heard some of the tales that have been circulated concerning the girdle. The thing has a rather peculiar history. It was discovered in the tomb of the dancer by whom it had once been worn; and it is said that an inscription was unearthed at the same time containing an account of Nicris’s death under particularly horrible circumstances. Seton—you fellows know Seton—who was present at the opening of the sarcophagus, tells me that the Arabs, on catching sight of the girdle, all prostrated themselves and then took to their heels. Sir Melville Fennel’s agent sent it on to England, however, and Sir Melville conceived the idea of this statue.”

“Luckily for you,” added Coram.

“Quite so,” laughed the sculptor; and, carefully locking the studio door, he led the way up the short path to the house.

We were a very merry party, and the night was far advanced ere the gathering broke up. Coram and I were the last to depart; and having listened to the voices of Harman and the others dying away as they neared the end of the street, we also prepared to take our leave.

“Just come with me as far as the studio,” said Paxton, “and having seen that all’s well I’ll let you out by the garden door.”

Accordingly, we donned our coats and hats, and followed our host to the end of the garden, where his studio was situated. The door unlocked, we all three stepped inside the place and gazed upon the figure of Nicris—the pallid face and arms seeming almost unearthly in the cold moonlight, wherein each jewel of the girdle and head-dress glittered strangely.

“Of course,” muttered Coram, “the thing’s altogether irregular—a fact which the critics will not fail to impress upon you; but it is unquestionably very fine, Paxton. How uncannily human it is! I don’t entirely envy you your bedchamber, old man!”

“Oh, I sleep well enough,” laughed Paxton. “No luxury, though; just this corner curtained off and a camp bedstead.”

“A truly Spartan couch!” I said. “Well, goodnight, Paxton. We shall probably see you to-morrow—I mean later to-day!”

With that we parted, leaving the sculptor to his lonely vigil at the shrine of Nicris, and as my rooms were no great distance away, some half-hour later I was in bed and asleep.

I little suspected that I had actually witnessed the commencement of one of the most amazing mysteries which ever cried out for the presence of Moris Klaw.

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The Dream Detective: Case of the Crusader’s Axe

Third Episode

CASE OF THE CRUSADER’S AXE

I

I have heard people speak of Moris Klaw’s failures. So far as my information bears me, he never experienced any. “What,” I have been asked, “of the Cresping murder case? He certainly failed there.”
Respecting this question of his failure or success in the sensational case which first acquainted the entire country with the existence of Crespie Hall, and that brought the old world village of Cresping into such unwonted prominence, I shall now invite your opinion.

The investigation—the crime having baffled the local men—ultimately was placed in the hands of Detective-Inspector Grimsby; and through Grimsby I was brought into close touch with the matter. I had met Grimsby during the course of the mysterious happenings at the Menzies Museum, and at that time I also had made the acquaintance of Moris Klaw.

Thus, as I sat over my breakfast one morning reading an account of the Cresping murder case, I was no more than moderately surprised to see Inspector Grimsby walk into my rooms.

He declined my offer of a really good Egyptian cigarette. “Thanks all the same,” he said; “but there’s only one smoke I can think on.”

With that he lighted one of the cheroots of which he smoked an incredible quantity, and got up from his chair, restlessly.

“I’ve just run up from Cresping by the early train,” he began abruptly. “You’ve heard all about the murder, of course?”

I pointed to my newspaper, conspicuous upon the front page of which was—

THE MURDER AT CRESPIE HALL

“Ah, yes,” he said, absently. “Well, I’ve been sent down, and to tell you the white and unsullied truth I’m in a knot!”

I passed him a cup of coffee.

“What are the difficulties?” I asked.

“There’s only one,” he rapped back: “who did it!”

“It looks to me a very clear case against Ryder, the ex-butler.”

“So it did to me,” he agreed—“until I got down there! I’d got a warrant in my pocket all ready. Then I began to have doubts!”

“What do you propose to do?”

Grimsby hesitated.

“Well,” he replied, “it wouldn’t do any good to make a mistake in a murder case; so what I should like to do would be to get another opinion—not official, of course!”

I glanced across at him.

“Mr. Moris Klaw?”

He nodded.

“Exactly!”

“You’ve changed your opinion respecting him?”

“Mr. Searles, his investigation of the Menzies Museum outrages completely stood me on my head! I’m not joking. I’d always thought him a crank, and in some ways I think so still; but at seeing through a brick wall I’d put all I’ve got on Moris Klaw any day!”

“But surely you are wasting time by coming to me?”

“No, I’m not,” said Grimsby, confidently. “Moris Klaw, for all his retiring habits, is not a man that wants his light hidden under a bushel! He knows that you are collecting material about his methods, and he’s more likely to move for you than for me.”

I saw through Grimsby’s plan. He wanted me to invite Moris Klaw to look into the Crespie murder case, in order that he (Grimsby) might reap any official benefit accruing without loss of self-esteem! I laughed.

“All right, Grimsby!” I said. “Since he has made no move, voluntarily, it may be that the case does not interest him; but we can try.”

Accordingly, having consulted an A.B.C. we presently entrained for Wapping, and as a laggard sun began to show up the dinginess and the dirtiness of that locality, sought out a certain shop, whose locale I shall no more closely describe than in saying that it is close to Wapping Old Stairs.

One turns down a narrow court, with a blank wall on the right and a nailed-up doorway and boarded-up window on the left. Through the cracks of the latter boarding, the inquiring visitor may catch a glimpse, beyond a cavernous place which once was some kind of warehouse, of Old Thames tiding muddily.

The court is a cul de sac. The shop of Moris Klaw occupies the blind end. Some broken marble pedestals stand upon the footway, among seatless chairs, dilapidated chests and a litter of books, stuffed birds, cameos, ink-stands, swords, lamps, and other unclassifiable rubbish. A black doorway yawns amid the litter.

Imagine Inspector Grimsby and I as entering into this singular Cumean cave.

Our eyes, at first, failed to penetrate the gloom. All about moved rustling suggestions of animal activity. The indescribable odour of old furniture assailed our nostrils together with an equally indescribable smell of avian, reptilian, and rodent life.

“Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! the devil’s come for you!”

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The Dream Detective: Case of the Potsherd of Anubis

Second Episode

CASE OF THE POTSHERD OF ANUBIS

In examining the mass of material which I have collated respecting Moris Klaw, several outstanding facts strike me, as being worthy of some special notice.

For instance, an unusual number of the cases in which he was concerned centred about curios and relics of various kinds. His personal tastes (he was, I think, primarily, an antiquarian) may have led him to examine such cases in preference to others. Then again, no two of his acquaintances agree upon the point of Moris Klaw’s actual identity and personality. He was a master of disguise; and the grand secret of his life was one which he jealously guarded from all.

But was the Moris Klaw who kept the curio-shop in Wapping the real Moris Klaw? And to what extent did he believe in those psychical phenomena upon which professedly his methods were based? As particularly bearing upon this phase of the matter, I have selected, for narration here, the story of the potsherd.

Since the Boswell, in records of this kind, has often appeared, to my mind, to overshadow the Johnson, I have decided to present this episode in the words of Mr. J.E. Wilson Clifford, electrical engineer, of Copthall House, Copthall Avenue, E.C., to whom I am indebted for a full and careful account. I do not think I could improve upon his paper, and my own views might unduly intrude upon the story; therefore, with your permission, I will vacate the rostrum in favour of Mr. Clifford, for whom I solicit your attention.

I

MR. CLIFFORD’S STORY OF THE EGYPTIAN POTSHERD

During the autumn of 19__, I was sharing a pleasant set of rooms with Mark Lesty, who was shortly taking up an appointment at a London hospital, and it was, I think, about the middle of that month, that the extraordinary affair of Halesowen and his Egyptian potsherd came under our notice.

Our rooms (they were in a south-west suburb) overlooked a fine expanse of Common. Halesowen rented a flat commanding a similar prospect; and, at the time of which I write, he had but recently returned from a protracted visit to Egypt.

Halesowen was a tall, fair man, clean-shaven, very fresh coloured and wearing his hair cropped close to his head. He was well travelled, and no mean antiquary. He lived entirely by himself; and Lesty and I frequently spent the evening at his place, which was a veritable museum of curiosities. I distinctly recall the first time that he showed us his latest acquisitions.

Both the windows were wide open and the awning fluttered in the slight breeze. Dusk was just descending, and we sat looking out over the Common and puffing silently at our briars. We had been examining the relics that Halesowen had brought back from the land of the Pharaohs, the one, I remember, which had most impressed me, tyro that I was, being the mummy of a sacred cat from Bubastis.

“It wouldn’t have been worth bringing back only for the wrapping,” Halesowen assured me. “This, now, is really unique.”

The object referred to was a broken pot or vase, upon which he pointed out a number of hieroglyphics and a figure with the head of a jackal. “A potsherd inscribed with the figure of Anubis,” he explained. “Very valuable.”

“Why?” Lesty inquired, in his lazy way.

“Well,” Halesowen replied, “the characters of the inscription are of a kind entirely unfamiliar to me. I believe them to be a sort of secret writing, possibly peculiar to some brotherhood. I am risking expert opinion, although in every sense, I stole the thing!”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Well, Professor Sheraton—you’ll see his name on a row of cases in the B.M.—excavated it. But it’s a moral certainty he didn’t intend to advise the authorities of his find. He was going to smuggle it out of Egypt into his private collection. I had marked the spot where he found it for inquiries of my own. This dishonest old fossil—”

Lesty laughed.

“Oh! my own motives weren’t above suspicion! But any way the Professor anticipated me. Accordingly, I employed one Ali, a distinguished member of a family of thieves, to visit the learned gentleman’s tent! Cutting the story—there’s the pot!”

“Here! I say!” drawled Lesty. “You’ll come to a bad end, young fellow!”

“The position is a peculiar one,” replied Halesowen, smiling. “Neither of us had any legal claim to the sherd—whilst we were upon Egyptian territory. Therefore, even if the Professor learnt that I had the thing—and he may suspect—he couldn’t prosecute me!”

“Devilish high-handed!” commented Lesty.

“Yes. But remember we were well off the map—miles away from Cook’s route. The possession of this potsherd ought to make a man’s reputation—any man who knows a bit about the subject. Curiously enough, a third party had had his eye upon the place where this much-sought sherd was found. And in some mysterious fashion he tumbled to the fact that it had fallen into my hands. He made a sort of veiled offer of a hundred pounds for it. I refused, but ran across him again, a week or so later, in Cairo, and he raised his price to two hundred.”

“That’s strange,” I said. “Who was he?”

“Called himself Zeda—Dr. Louis Zeda. He quite lost his temper when I declined to sell, and I’ve not set eyes on him since.”
He relocked the fragment in his cabinet, and we lapsed into silence, to sit gazing meditatively across the Common, picturesque in the dim autumn twilight.

“By the way, Halesowen,” I said, “I see that the flat next door, same floor as this, is to let.”

“That’s so,” he replied. “Why don’t you men take it?”

“We’ll think about it,” yawned Lesty, stretching his long limbs. “Might look over it in the morning.”

The following day we viewed the vacant flat, but found, upon inquiry of the agent, that it had already been let. However, as our own rooms suited us very well, we were not greatly concerned. Just as we finished dinner the same evening, Halesowen came in, and, without preamble, plunged into a surprising tale of uncanny happenings at his place.

“Take it slow,” said Lesty. “You say it was after we came away?”

“About an hour after,” replied Halesowen. “I had brought out the potsherd, and had it in the wooden stand on the table before me. I was copying the hieroglyphics, which are unusual, and had my reading-lamp burning only, the rest of the room being consequently in shadow. I was sitting with my back to the windows, facing the door, so no one could possibly have entered the room unseen by me. It was as I bent down to scrutinise a badly defaced character that I felt a queer sensation stealing over me, as though some one were standing close behind my chair, watching me!”

“Very common,” explained Lesty; “merely nerves.”

“Yes, I know; but not what followed. The sensation became so pronounced, that I stood up. No one was in the room. I determined to take a stroll, concluding that the fresh air would clear these uncanny cobwebs out of my brain. Accordingly, I extinguished the lamp and went out. I was just putting my cap on, when something prompted me to return and lock up the potsherd.”

He fixed his eyes upon us with an expression of doubt.

“There was some one, or something, in the room!”

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The Dream Detective: Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room

First Episode

CASE OF THE TRAGEDIES IN THE GREEK ROOM

I

When did Moris Klaw first appear in London? It is a question which I am asked sometimes and to which I reply: To the best of my knowledge, shortly before the commencement of the strange happenings at the Menzies Museum.

What I know of him I have gathered from various sources; and in these papers, which represent an attempt to justify the methods of one frequently accused of being an insane theorist, I propose to recount all the facts which have come to my knowledge. In some few of the cases I was personally though slightly concerned; but regard me merely as the historian and on no account as the principal or even minor character in the story. My friendship with Martin Coram led, then, to my first meeting with Moris Klaw—a meeting which resulted in my becoming his biographer, inadequate though my information unfortunately remains.

It was some three months after the appointment of Coram to the curatorship of the Menzies Museum that the first of a series of singular occurrences took place there.

This occurrence befell one night in August, and the matter was brought to my ears by Coram himself on the following morning. I had, in fact, just taken my seat at the breakfast table, when he walked in unexpectedly and sank into an armchair. His dark, cleanshaven face looked more gaunt than usual and I saw, as he lighted the cigarette which I proffered, that his hand shook nervously.

“There’s trouble at the Museum!” he said abruptly. “I want you to run around.”

I looked at him for a moment without replying, and, knowing the responsibility of his position, feared that he referred to a theft from the collection.
“Something gone?” I asked.

“No; worse!” was his reply.

“What do you mean, Coram?”

He threw the cigarette, unsmoked, into the hearth. “You know Conway?” he said; “Conway, the night attendant. Well—he’s dead!”

I stood up from the table, my breakfast forgotten, and stared incredulously. “Do you mean that he died in the night?” I inquired.

“Yes. Done for, poor devil!”

“What! Murdered?”

“Without a doubt, Searles! He’s had his neck broken!”

I waited for no further explanations, but, hastily dressing, accompanied Coram to the Museum. It consists, I should mention, of four long, rectangular rooms, the windows of two overlooking South Grafton Square, those of the third giving upon the court that leads to the curator’s private entrance, and the fourth adjoining an enclosed garden attached to the building. This fourth room is on the ground floor and is entered through the hall from the Square, the other three, containing the principal and more valuable exhibits, are upon the first floor and are reached by a flight of stairs from the hall. The remainder of the building is occupied by an office and the curator’s private apartments, and is completely shut off from that portion open to the public, the only communicating door—an iron one—being kept locked.

The room described in the catalogue as the “Greek Room” proved to be the scene of the tragedy. This room is one of the two overlooking the Square and contains some of the finest items of the collection. The Museum is not open to the public until ten o’clock, and I found, upon arriving there, that the only occupants of the Greek Room were the commissionaire on duty, two constables, a plain-clothes officer and an inspector—that is, if I except the body of poor Conway.

He had not been touched, but lay as he was found by Beale, the commissionaire who took charge of the upper rooms during the day, and, indeed, it was patent that he was beyond medical aid. In fact, the position of his body was so extraordinary as almost to defy description.

There are three windows in the Greek Room, with wall-cases between, and, in the gap corresponding to the east window and just by the door opening into the next room, is a chair for the attendant. Conway lay downward on the polished floor with his limbs partly under this chair and his clenched fists thrust straight out before him. His head, turned partially to one side, was doubled underneath his breast in a most dreadful manner, indisputably pointing to a broken neck, and his commissionaire’s cap lay some distance away, under a table supporting a heavy case of vases.

So much was revealed at a glance, and I immediately turned blankly to Coram.

“What do you make of it?” he said.

I shook my head in silence. I could scarce grasp the reality of the thing; indeed, I was still staring at the huddled figure when the doctor arrived. At his request we laid the dead man flat upon the floor, to facilitate an examination, and we then saw that he was greatly cut and bruised about the head and face, and that his features were distorted in a most extraordinary manner, almost as though he had been suffocated.

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The Dream Detective: Introduction

The Dream-Detective by Sax Rohmer

Published by Jerrods, London 1920

CONTENTS

1. THE TRAGEDIES IN THE GREEK ROOM
2. THE POTSHERD OF ANUBIS
3. THE CRUSADER’S AXE
4. THE IVORY STATUE
5. THE BLUE RAJAH
6. THE WHISPERING POPLARS
7. THE HEADLESS MUMMIES
8. THE HAUNTING OF GRANGE
9. THE VEIL OF ISIS

Beginning tonight, and for the following nine weeks, Sax Rohmer’s The Dream-Detective will be republished here. To my knowledge, this is the first time these out of copyright stories have been made available on the internet. Written between 1913-1914, revised and collected in book form in 1920, these stories follow the exploits of Moris Klaw, antiquarian and occult detective, as well as his accomplished daughter Isis, and their various hangers-on and haliographers.

Briefly, my own involvement begins in the attic of my “Aunt Ginny’s” house. (Virginia McElwee, then gold cane holder for oldest resident of Union, ME, passed in 1999. The house is now occupied by my cousin, but for some reason houses in small towns are known by the name of their former occupant.) I recovered the volume herein from a box of badly water-damaged books destined for the library book sale–or, more likely, the dump. It’s in (most of) two pieces, in terrible shape. Unable to lay them flat on a scanner, a year or so ago while researching a short film, I undertook the process of photographing the pages with my phone, feeding the photos into Google Docs for OCR, and reassembling the text. A first editing pass with extensive retyping took a few months, on-and-off. For the next several weeks, watch this space as I complete a more detailed edit, story by story. Once the volume is complete, a printable PDF will also be released.

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Published Works by Robert Aickman

I’ve compiled a grid of all of Robert Aickman’s works, published both living and posthumously, and in which volumes they may be found.

View the PDF (144k) (Updated November 2017)

Rapidly falling out of memory, Robert Aickman (1914-1981) was a World Fantasy Award-winning writer representing a distinct third branch of horror–neither the Poe-descended grotesque nor Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, but a more psychological, inward version of the weird. Peter Straub wrote: “From the first I understood that he was a deeply original artist. This in no way implies that I understood Aickman immediately, because I didn’t. Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke–I had blinked, and missed it all.”

Based on the above survey, I’ve ordered for myself good-condition used copies of The Unsettled Dust, Cold Hand in Mine and The Wine Dark Sea for about $50 total. These seem to represent a strong sampling of his work, with little overlap, and their print runs are recent enough to be available. Most of Aickman’s older collections have long since fallen out of print, and been culled from libraries. The Boston Public Library’s Copley Square branch offers only a single copy of Night Voices for circulation, available at the delivery desk. His stories have been anthologized in numerous collections, mostly out of print. CBC radio did a respectable half-hour dramatisation of “Ringing the Changes,” which is available on YouTube. Ideal would of course be to obtain the two volume Collected Strange Stories, but with only a 500-copy limited run in 1999, one would need to be somewhat more obsessive and far wealthier than me–to the tune of $500 plus–to secure one.

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30+ Cornstarch Fireballs

1080p (vertical) shot of 1 teaspoon of cornstarch blown into the air near a flame source about 30x. Filmed at 120fps, playback at 30fps. As much fun as you’ll have doing this yourself, these pyro elements are released into the public domain for any and all usage, commercial or otherwise.

These elements were created for Troy Minkowsky’s “The Garden 1910” a Rhino Crate production currently in post.

Download Clip in MP4

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To the extent possible under law, Matthew I. Rasmussen has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to 30+ Cornstarch Fireballs. This work is published from: United States.

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Myst V and the Way Forward

Issue 165, for the week of 2/19/2006.

Literally three steps in, I’m defeated by a low gate. I’m looking down at it. I could step over it. Still I’m trapped.

I have chosen to begin this essay with a digression.

You know those programs that change the screen resolution when they go to full-screen, and then tell the other applications that they’ve done it? It’s a kind of a slapdash Mac port thing. You quit, and every window on the screen has been squished down to an absurdly wee size and moved to the top left corner of the screen. Myst V is like that.

Ultimately, that’s not the point of this essay, though.

As with Myst [I], the exploded box of which hangs on my wall for inspiration and which I can still play under Classic, the default navigation system of Myst V becomes bothersome after a few minutes. You’re rarely quite looking where you want to be, and yet with the Obsidian/Burn:Cycle-style smoothly eased tracking shots between nodes replacing Myst’s hard cuts and simple transitions, you often find yourself looking at the interesting object during movement, only to have your camera jerked away from it as the move completes. Nodes that would appear to give access to nearby areas are often a few feet from the ones that actually do. Myst V, of course, adds two additional movement styles, a free movement mode that doesn’t appear to support game pads, and a “Classic Plus” which slaves the view rotation to the mouse cursor — something not to be attempted without a truly boss frame rate and/or a love of vertigo.

Still, we haven’t reached our ultimate point.

The engine underlying Myst V is unique to the in-storyline Myst franchise. Instead of prerendered stills (Myst, Riven) or prerendered VR panoramas (Myst III, Myst IV), the game is rendered in realtime 3D. The appeal of this method for the developers is obvious. Rather than setting up shots, rendering, tweaking, rerendering, overlaying animations, and then having to move to a wholly separate software system to construct the game play, development goes straight from modeling to game engine in one step, assisted by a glut of available off the shelf software. Besides that, it just feels more modern — an unremarked upon motivation among middle-aged tech developers like the Miller brothers.

The trouble is, it’s not better. Compare the following screen shots:

Even with the best video card, which you don’t have, and all the light baking and optimization tricks in the book, the graphical quality of a frame rendered in one 30th of a second is never going to achieve the richness of a frame rendered over half an hour. The underlying models and textures must be smaller. The lighting system must be simpler. Even with a compressed color palette and knife-sharp shadows (not entirely undesirable for direct sunlight), not to mention eight years between them, the Riven screenshot is more realistic than that of Myst V. The objects are more complex and more numerous, the textures are high enough quality to be invisible, and everything that should cast a shadow does.

Of course, the quality of a still image isn’t the end of realism, which is where we uncover one of the most compelling reasons for the move to realtime 3D: Myst V moves. Look at the water in the game’s reversed wood between the worlds starting point, and even on low texture quality you’ll see ripples. Moving ripples. No more strange, frozen glass oceans. Stand still when you arrive on the beach. The clouds move slowly through the sky. The waves roll in and fall away. Birds flit through the sky (though most seem to be part of the static landscape). The sense of immersion is heightened, until, of course, you start wishing your video card could smooth those jaggies without the frame rate tanking, you notice that the smoothness of objects’ faces becomes angular at their edges, and you’re just plain stopped while floating along like Professor Xavier by a tumble of small, ordinarily fun to climb rocks.

It’s still not our point, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s best to make an insurmountable obstacle insurmountable. Personally, I can also climb a ladder with one hand, wade, and swim — not that it matters.

We do in fact have a point, and we’re getting dangerously close to it.

Myst V, while perhaps as good a puzzle game as its predecessors, has abandoned its roots. This, in itself, would not be a bad thing if the result were actually worth the change.

Let’s review what Myst V has gained:

  • Unlimited panning. Can also be achieved in prerendered graphics using VR panoramas, as with Obsidian, Myst III, Myst IV.
  • Animated tracking shots between nodes. Unnecessary. Our brains understand a “cut” — it’s that blink we do every time we look from one object to another. The novelty wears off quickly, as game play is slowed by it.
  • Free movement. Draws attention to the character’s limitations. Movement is still on a rail, we’re simply allowed to deviate slightly from it. Not essential to this genre.
  • Dynamic lighting effects. Underutilized. Aside from the hard shadows cast by moving objects, most of Myst V’s lighting appears to be painted on.
  • Hardware acceleration. Modern video cards can do a lot.

Now let’s review what Myst V has lost:

  • Prerendered graphics. Visually superior to realtime 3D graphics in richness and complexity.
  • Video. Those motion-captured 3D people with actors’ faces look pretty creepy, and the cloth keeps intersecting the legs.

Myst V is the last Myst game, but it need not be the death knell of the genre. There is room to move forward with the graphical adventure, while learning from the mistakes of Myst V. Realtime 3D graphics simply aren’t good enough. Is there a better way? I would suggest that there is.

First, though, review this QuickTime VR panorama of a node in Myst V. The panning doesn’t quite feel right. I suspect that there are two reasons for this, one trivial and the other quite complex.

Regarding the simpler problem, real life lenses are rarely perfectly round. They tend to flatten in the middle, creating lower distortion near the center of the image and higher distortion toward the edges. We’ve come to expect this. VR panoramas, which typically distort and display a portion of a single 360 degree image, are, I suspect, correcting for an idealized lens. Distortion is lowest at the center and increases toward the edges at a rate that is mathematically “right,” but less complex than that of a typical lens. If I’m right, this should be easy enough to overcome by tweaking the lens correction algorithms.

The second problem is more complex, and it has to do with the way cameras are actually manipulated. Photographing panoramas requires the purchase or construction of a custom camera mount which places the lens directly in the center of rotation. This is unusual. Usually, the camera is mounted at its base, placing the lens above and in front of its center of rotation. Panning thus introduces a small movement to the camera’s view position in addition to its orientation. Your eyes are likewise mounted above and in front of their center of rotation. The effect is most noticeable when objects are close-up. Close one eye and hold a pen up in front of you. Turn your head left and right. You can see different things behind the pen based on where your head is turned. You expect to. It’s part of your sense of depth, and it’s something that VR panoramas completely fail to reproduce.

Here we have arrived at our point.

I propose that a slightly novel game engine can overcome the limitations of both VR panoramas and realtime 3D in the graphical adventure genre. We can regain the detail of prerendered scenery and filmed actors without sacrificing the ability to animate portions or all of a given scene. If we accept the primacy of the node to the genre, discarding arguably unnecessary tracking shot transitions and “free” movement modes, we can consider a new style of node construction I unceremoniously dub the Dented Ball.

The Dented Ball is a real ball, or rather a very close approximation made up of several hundred triangles. Inside it lies a virtual camera, slightly above and forward of center. On the inside of the ball is mapped a high resolution image of a prerendered scene. Looking outward, the virtual camera records a portion of the scene, corrects for lens effects, and sends the resultant view to the player. This ball is our basic game node.

The scenery images, not to mention the tiny amount of data needed to construct this particular ball’s geometry, are loaded from the game DVD while the player is at a nearby node. Priority is given to the nodes directly connected to the previously occupied node, with priority further given to those portions of the landscape that the player would see first upon stepping into a given node from the previous. Nodes far behind are discarded, and reloaded only when the player nears them again. The goal is to minimize or eliminate waiting time between nodes.

Animation such as waves, birds, and even people may be added to the scene by mapping movie clips, rather than still images, to a portion or all of the inside of the Dented Ball. Modern video compression algorithms nearly half the amount of data that must be pulled off the game DVD to equal the image quality of a standard movie DVD, and modern computer DVD drives are capable of reading data much faster than is necessary to play movies compressed the old fashioned way. By feeding movie clips into the priority system above, waiting time between nodes can still be kept to a minimum. In addition, a standardized set of tools for fading, overlaying and cutting between still images should be integrated to allow for such simple effects as lightning flashes and the slow dimming of the sun as it goes behind a cloud, without requiring a large and unwieldy video clip.

In an ideal scene, there are no objects near the camera. (This is of course unlikely.) The edges of the ball on which the scene is painted are too far away from the viewer for the slight position offset of the camera to be noticeable. This would be a scene of the player floating high in the air — on the whole not very useful.

Nearby objects are the reason we call this the Dented Ball. Imagine that the player is standing near the corner of a wall. Panning right, more of the right side of the wall becomes visible, panning left, the opposite. In order to simulate this effect, the ball itself has been dented inward, toward the camera, so that its edge matches up with the wall’s corner in the prerendered scene. From the outside, the ball would appear to have a large dent in it, hence our name for it. Because the camera offset is most noticeable when objects are close, gradually falling off to imperceptibility as objects move farther away, the actual dent of a perfectly right-angled wall in the ball would not have straight edges, but would in fact taper out at an increasingly gentle angle before plunging smoothly back into the outside surface of the ball.

Despite our name though, dents aren’t the only method we’ll need to produce proper foreground/background separation while panning. (We should just go ahead and call this separation “parallax effects.”) Reference the pen with one eye closed again. It, like a blade of grass, glasses on a nearby table, and any number of other real world objects exhibit a complete separation from their background. In such cases we’ll need to slice the ball into concentric layers, like an onion, and map a series of cutout portions of the scene onto each. There will be times when we’ll need to combine slices with dents. Depth maps, grayscale images representing simply how far any point in a given image is from the camera, can be rendered from any 3D animation package, and can be used to assist an automated workflow for making these dent and layering decisions.

The Dented Ball allows us to create a richer visual experience, both static and in motion, than any previously conceived graphic adventure engine. By repurposing modern video cards to draw concentric near-3D nodes, we find a new way to leverage the technologies users and game developers already possess. We unify the rich legacy of graphic adventure games like Myst V while discarding our detrimental modern preoccupations. In doing so, we glimpse a third path though the complexities of contemporary game design and begin once again simply to explore.

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