Call of Chicago: Dracula Dossier Designer’s Notes

A-HEM ... oh all right, co-designer's notes
A-HEM … oh all right, co-designer’s notes



It all started in 2011, even before Night’s Black Agents was published. Or perhaps it all started in 1890, when Bram Stoker began outlining the tale of “Count Wampyr” of Styria after a nightmare caused by eating “a surfeit of dressed crab,” according to his son. But I’m going to start it in 1956, when Rear Admiral Frederick R. Furth, Chief of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), received a package containing a paperback copy of The Case For the U.F.O., by Morris Jessup. This particular copy bore three sets of annotations in three different colors of ink; the annotations implied a great deal of insider knowledge about UFOs, aliens, and extraterrestrial propulsion. (Or they implied a great deal of time on someone’s hands. You make the call.) Best of all, they contradicted each other, crossing out each other’s notes and leaving the ultimate meaning of any of it a bigger mystery than when it began. This was Nabokov come down to the grimy trailer parks of Saucerland! Captain Sidney Sherby of the ONR was interested enough to hire Varo Manufacturing, a sometime military contractor, to create a few stenciled copies of the “Annotated Edition” for him and his fellow UFO buffs in the military. This “Varo Edition” became something of a legend in UFOlogical circles, especially once it got out that Sherby was involved in satellite launches. For a while (before the Internet, anyhow) you couldn’t even find the 1970s reprint of the “Varo Edition” for love or money. It was a thing of some small obsession for my bibliophilic, UFO-loving 1970s self, my own personal Necronomicon in a way.

So naturally, when Simon asked me — either in the spring of 2011 while I was stopping off at Pelgrane House on my way to Gothcon in Sweden, or at the annual Pelgrane Summit at Dragonmeet that November — what I thought might be a good prestige release for Night’s Black Agents, I said “the Varo Edition, only with Dracula, as the handout for an Armitage Files-style improv campaign.” I wanted it to be an improv, sandbox campaign because the possibility of disagreement, of that cloud of story, would be better than any “real truth” I could come up with.

During that talk, or in the month or so leading up to it, I had already come up with the notion that the three annotators would represent three different generations of MI6 analysts, all confounded by Dracula and Dracula. And once I had three generations, they kind of had to be WWII, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. I’d already noticed the two devastating Romanian earthquakes in 1940 and 1977 that clearly set up the more specific dates, especially when I recalled that Stoker had cut the destruction of Castle Dracula by earthquake and volcano out of the novel at literally the last minute. Then I found two historical earthquakes in Transylvania almost exactly a year apart, in 1893 and 1894. That gave me the year of the novel’s true setting. Why are MI6 annotating Dracula? Because it’s actually an after-action report of an 1894 espionage operation gone wrong. That’s why Stoker cut so much out of the novel — he was redacting sources and methods.

Simon listened to all of the above, spilled out during a long walk around Clapham on some errand or other, and then quite rightly insisted from the first that we present the entire century-plus spectrum of action as a possible campaign frame in the book. Then he sent me off to finish Night’s Black Agents so I could write the thing.

There is that point in every project when, as Tim Powers says, you’re no longer researching a game (or novel, in his case) but uncovering the real secret history of the world. For me, that moment struck early, when I discovered that the Foreign Office had asked Bram Stoker to improve the propaganda value of his brother George Stoker’s book. (I don’t remember exactly where I discovered it; it might have been in Bram Stoker and Russophobia. I read a lot about the Stokers in 2012. And 2013.) And what was George Stoker’s book? With the Unspeakables, a memoir of George’s medical service in the Russo-Turkish War. In the Balkans. Suddenly the whole framework of what became “Operation Edom” was clear to me: Arminius Vámbery, who Stoker knew (and refers to obliquely in the novel) was also an English spy, and also in the Balkans in 1877. So was the geologist Andrew F. Crosse, who wrote a Transylvanian travelogue in 1878. They found vampires, connected them with earthquakes, sent them to British intelligence.

I know it will amaze you to learn this, but it’s darn hard to find anything more than a page or two on Victorian-era British intelligence, before the official founding of the SIS (a.k.a. MI6) in 1909. No matter how much you read. Fortunately, that gave me plenty of room to slot in Operation Edom. When I did find that two of Naval Intelligence’s directors died or suddenly resigned within a year of 1894 … well, there’s more secret history uncovered. It kept on going like that. The Romanian Iron Guard did, in fact, have a secret occult core that met in covens of 13. A league of brilliant scientific researchers did in fact meet in secret in a hotel that Stoker just happens to highlight in the novel, only to disband in … 1893. Actually, Gareth found that one. His constant Skype IRCs to me on the theme of “Omigod it’s all true” were one of my greatest delights during the whole project.

And we needed some delights. I lifted much of the basic framework — how to present multiple possibilities for a single encounter — from Robin’s Armitage Files, although I had to change things up a bit, as there might be two secret allegiances at play, not just one Mythos taint. I had to decide the basic framework of the campaign: the Default Dracula, the Default Dossier, the Default Edom, and so forth. Then set up the questions deliberately left open: Who was Dracula? What is Edom up to? How badly has Dracula penetrated MI6 and Britain in general? Do vampires work like Van Helsing said they did? (Gareth again hugely improved the campaign by coming up with the “telluric vampire” build that restored some of the mystery of Night’s Black Agents’ modular vampires.) After about 110,000 words give or take, Gareth and I had enough of a backdrop that we could open it up to other writers. And thanks to a mind-tumbling Kickstarter campaign more than superbly field-marshaled by Cat, we got 16 more writers. Many of whom caught me by surprise with their own evidences of secret history — I still cherish Phil Vecchione and Chris Sniezak pointing out that President Benjamin Harrison was mysteriously out of public view in 1892, when Quincey Morris was battling “vampires” in the Pampas and during the exact period (November) that the so-called “American Vampire” was being transferred to the National Asylum, and you’ve got to read the book (DH, p. 63) to find out the crazy spin they put on that one. Between their contributions, last-minute things I made Gareth do, and last-minute things Cat made me do, we wound up with 249,938 words of Director’s Handbook (Cat very intelligently changed the name from my confusing alpha version, Director’s Dossier) all on the broad theme “the Varo Edition, only with Dracula.” Except we weren’t done yet. We hadn’t unredacted Dracula.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Gareth and I had very carefully decided what would go into the unredactions. Gareth made two, or was it three, different calendars working out our shifted dates, as Stoker had inconsiderately not timed his volcano to the historical earthquake in Romania in 1894 (31 August). We filled those calendars with the crucial events we needed to highlight: Dracula’s Satanic cult (thanks to Hans de Roos translating the Icelandic edition of Dracula and giving us way more meat to chew on), and the missing characters like Kate Reed and the psychic Alfred Singleton, and Quincey Morris’ scouting trip to Transylvania that Stoker had in his initial Notes but redacted. We sent Harker into Transylvania on St. Andrew’s Eve, the other vampires-and-blue-fires night in Romanian lore, not St. George’s Eve. It looked like a lot. But oh the exultation when we discovered that our shifted new earthquake-compatible dates put Lucy Westenra’s death on the night of Friday the 13th! And oh the desperation when we discovered we had to match literary style with … well, with one of the seminal novels of the entire horror genre. Dracula the novel, and “Dracula’s Guest,” which I returned to its true place in the middle of the novel, total about 160,000 words. Bram, as I liked to say, had gotten his word count in well before deadline. I know Gareth did a great job, and I think I did pretty well if I say so myself, and no I will not tell you which parts are his and which parts are mine because I called dibs on being the Henry Irving of this project long ago. In 2011, in fact, if not in the 1970s.

Gareth and I wound up expanding — er, unredacting — Dracula by about 25%. Our Dracula Unredacted is almost 200,000 words long, not counting 10,000 words of annotations. In three colors of ink. Just like the Varo Edition. Only with Dracula.

And now you can pre-order it, and see almost a half-million words, over 800 pages, and many many colors of ink in The Dracula Dossier for yourself.

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