Note: This story was written in collaboration with Scott Malthouse’s English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games. It was previously published serially on BoardGameGeek. Skip down to “How Does This All Work, Anyway?” to learn more about how the prompts and mechanics from English Eerie were used to build this narrative.
Content Warning: This story contains mature themes and explicit references to sex, violence, drug use, sexual violence, and occult rituals.
English Eerie: Detox
Part One: Initiation
A Moleskine notebook found in the vicinity of the Yorkshire Dales
(The first few pages are filled with arbitrarily jotted notes. There are many phone numbers, most of them alongside names and sketches of young women; the owner of the notebook is clearly a skilled artist. Some of the names have little notes in parentheses, things like “Business 101; smells like licorice”; “met at Raj’s; likes Vindaloo”; and “don’t waste your time; doesn’t text back.” There are also some numbers and addresses for carry-out places around London. Other pages have sketches of business logos and marketing slogans. In the corner of one page is a mathematical formula, circled several times in different colors of highlighter, with the subscript “standard deviations; LEARN IT” underlined seven times. The formal journaling begins on page eight.)
Two hours without phone or laptop and I’m already bored out of my skull. I’m haunted by the idea that I left some background process running and I’m going to come back in three weeks to a completely drained battery. Gemma says to let it go; that’s the whole point of the retreat, to let go of the modern conveniences that are secretly binding us and hindering our spiritual progress. But all I can think about is my computer in that dark storage locker at King’s Cross and that little orange “standby” light blinking.
I am woefully unprepared for this trip. We brought a pack of cards, and we’ve already played every game of Old Maid we’ll ever want to. I bought a book at the train station, but after I opened it, I realized I’ve read it before. They changed the cover to a bunch of BBC actors, the cheeky bastards. I guess the series is coming soon. I would study, but all of my notes are in the cloud, and all of my textbooks are in the flash drive plugged into my rapidly draining computer. Besides, the point of this spring is to forget about Uni for a few months.
When Gemma suggested we take a semester off to live out our dreams while we’re still young, this isn’t what I envisioned. I thought we’d be backpacking across Europe or going on holiday somewhere warm and tropical. But of course this digital detox camp is just the sort of thing Gemma would dream up. Last semester she was talking about Reiki and crystal vibrations; before that, she was advocating a “karmic” lifestyle free of meat, eggs, leather, wool, and honey. This isn’t the first time I’ve been dragged along with one of her mad schemes, and it’s not likely to be the last.
Gemma said that journaling would help pass the time. She has an answer for everything, that girl. But I guess she was right, because they’ve just announced our stop. Three weeks of “device-free living,” here we come.
The brochure for this place—paper, of course—promised that it was “off the beaten path, far from harmful sources of cellular radiation and chakra-unbalancing electromagnetic fields.” I was envisioning a repurposed castle or abbey, maybe fifteen minutes from the Forbidden Corner or the Cat Pottery. If anything, the brochure was an understatement. The “camp” turned out to be a nothing more than a large, canvas tent in the absolute middle of nowhere. We were greeted on our arrival by “Guru George”—no surname, as he’s trying to “cast off material and temporal ties”—and his protege, a guy named Brianna Gable (apparently, he hasn’t yet reached the level of spiritual awakening required to get rid of his last name). They both reek of bullshit and patchouli, but Gemma seems smitten with them, especially George.
The only other “camper” is a thirty-something named Zak Salt. He’s built like a bricklayer and has holes all over his face where literally hundreds of lobe, tragus, auricle, bridge, septum, and eyebrow piercings recently hung. A large tattoo of a laughing skull setting fire to a Union Jack colors his neck, and he keeps reaching back to rub it self-consciously.
No sooner had we set our bags down next to our sleeping rolls—or they might be yoga mats—than Guru George announced that it was time for our first “betterment exercise.” He deferred to Brianna to explain the details:
“The principle is simple,” the smug bastard explained. “A spirit that is attuned to the resonant frequencies of Gaia cannot be led astray. By leaving the pollutions of the modern world behind and coming here, you have taken an important first step toward establishing a personal relationship with Mother Gaia.” He looked meaningfully at Gemma, and I’m sure he was thinking of establishing a different kind of personal relationship, the knobhead. I’ll have to keep an eye on her; of course, that’s part of the reason I decided to come. These spiritual guru types are notorious perverts.
The speech went on like that for a while, filled with pseudo-mystical nonsense. The heart of the matter was that Guru George and his little acolyte were going to blindfold us and lead us out into the woods, and we were supposed to find our way back to the camp. A hearty dinner—probably quinoa and kale—would await those “attuned” enough to make it back. Those who couldn’t, it was implied, were still too “toxified” by electronic garbage and would “cleanse” under the stars. I rolled my eyes and smiled when I caught Zak doing the same, but Gemma ate it up.
One by one, we were blindfolded and escorted out in separate directions. Eventually, it was my turn. Brianna wasn’t particularly helpful, and I tripped over roots or cut myself on brambles at least a dozen times. I tried to count the number of steps or listen for clues, like the babbling of a brook, but Guru Jr. kept up this obnoxious chant the entire time that made it impossible to concentrate. It might have been Welsh or Gaelic, and it sounded something like “Hex curt lawnmower barn cart Sainsbury’s” or something like that. It got louder and quieter at unexpected moments, but it was mostly the same short phrase repeated over and over.
Eventually, we came to a stop, and so did the chanting. I was about to ask Brianna whether he’d gotten lost when I realized that he had probably already left. I undid my blindfold and, sure enough, he was nowhere to be seen.
“This shouldn’t be too hard,” I muttered by way of a pep talk. “You’re attuned with Mother Earth and all that.” I snorted. “Spiritual balance? Pffh. Loads of it.” I looked around me, but the silent trees didn’t seem to share my confidence.
“Right, there was something about moss only growing on the north side of the tree,” I thought out loud. “Unless that was lichens.” Or was it the south side? Not that it mattered, since I didn’t know whether camp was to the north, south, east, or west, and all the trees were bare. There were some mushrooms, but I’m pretty sure those will grow anywhere.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” I declared wisely, picking a direction at random and setting out. “Buddha. Or Confucius.”
After walking for about ten minutes, I decided that my first instinct might not be the best after all, so I turned around and walked ten minutes in the other direction. I thought I heard a babbling brook, so I walked toward that for a little while, until I remember that I hadn’t actually heard any babbling brooks on the way here, so I walked away from it again. I saw a tree with mushrooms. But were they the same mushrooms?
After an hour of this, I had to accept the probability that I would be sleeping under the stars tonight. I’m writing this while there’s still daylight, mostly so I can say: stupid Gemma and your stupid spiritual retreat. I just felt a pang of hunger. That’s okay; there’s half a sandwich in my bag…back at camp…far away from wherever I am.
Stupid, beautiful Gemma.
Around seven in the evening—but who knows without a phone to check—it started to rain. Where’s a weather app when you need it? Just a light drizzle, but suddenly, the sleeping spot I’d staked out—a nice, open, mossy clearing—was looking a lot less inviting. Under a tree seemed like a better option, until you realize that the branches and leaves do is funnel the rain into a solid sheet, like the lee of a building. I’ve seen enough episodes of I’m a Celeb to know I needed to find a nice, dry cave, so I set out in search of cave-like geography.
As it turns out, navigating a damp forest is even less fun than navigating a dry one. I wasn’t feeling any more in-tune with Mother Gaia; in fact, I was starting to think of her as a right bitch. I did my bit, and what did I get in return? Wet. I wonder if umbrellas also unbalance your chakras.
After a half hour of wandering through the woods, I stumbled upon a small wooden building, something between a pagoda and a groundskeeper’s shack. “Thank you, Mother Gaia,” I said, hurrying inside. The door was unlocked and mostly off its hinges. Inside, there were no electric lights—of course—and I didn’t trust the furniture to hold my weight, but at least it was dry. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness.
When they did, I was a little surprised by what I saw. Based on the state of the exterior, I’d figured the place abandoned. But as I looked around, now, it was surprisingly free of dust. Most of the furniture was in a state of disrepair and had been pushed against the walls, clearing a large space in the center of the room for a curious little shrine. It looked like it was made of sticks and clay, mostly, like those little wicker dolls you sometimes see at Midsummer festivals. But little prisms, crystals, and bits of shiny metal hung from the shrine at odd intervals, catching and reflecting the fading light.
The shrine was vacant except for an old, leather-bound book. It was in shadow, so I picked it up and brought it near the doorway to examine it further. Picked out on the cover in faded, brown ink was a title: The Bringing of Rains. There was no author listed, no copyright, no dedication. This was an old book, then, or at least one you wouldn’t find in stores. I flipped through a few pages, thinking it had to be better than that nonsense with the BBC actors, but this book was filled with even more nonsense: page after page of inscrutable symbols, looking something like ancient emojis, and columns of ticks and dashes. Some kind of ancient accounts book, then; probably keeping track of some farmer’s sheep or something.
I had barely turned four pages in the book when I heard the most beautiful sound I’ve heard in my life: Gemma’s voice calling my name through the forest. I quickly put the book back into its place on the shrine and hurried out into the woods to greet her.
My excitement turned sour when I saw that Gemma was walking side-by-side with Guru George. I was vindicated to see that he was holding an umbrella. As it turns out, I’m the only one who didn’t find his way back to camp, and when it started to rain, Guru George organized a search party. “You are extremely lucky to have come to this retreat when you did,” he told me. “Your soul is fatally toxified. This can manifest in all sorts of nasty ways: cancers, financial trouble, sexual dysfunction….” I rolled my eyes at Gemma, but the look on her face was one of genuine concern. “We’ll have a lot of work to do with you,” Guru George concluded. “You were right to bring him along,” he told Gemma, patting her hand in what I hoped was a paternal gesture.
When we made it back to camp, I was told I would be participating in a “cleanse diet” until the toxins had been flushed from my body. Dinner was cold millet soup and some kind of boiled root tea. Hungry as I was, I accepted it gracefully, if not gratefully. I shouldn’t have; as soon as I finished my cuppa, a deep, warning rumble started up in my intestines. “That’ll be the toxins leaving your body,” Brianna explained. “There’s a hole a few meters from camp. You’ll have to find some dry leaves, though.” I swear the bastard was suppressing a laugh.
I spent the entire night hovering over that godforsaken hole. Maybe Acolyte Brianna is right about toxins leaving my body. They’d have to, wouldn’t they; everything else did, flowing in a messy, turbulent stream out my arse. After the third explosion, I stopped bothering to wipe, letting the drizzle of rain do what it could. It felt as though my guts had been turned inside out. The worst part was being so close to the tent, seeing the warm lights of lanterns, hearing the singing and laughter. No, the worst part was the thought that they could hear me. Occasionally, someone else would venture out back to use the hole, and I’d have to scurry into a dark corner like a shite-stained crab. I’m pretty sure I lost about half my mass that night alone.
At one point, after it sounded like everybody had gone to bed, Acolyte Brianna came out. At first, I assumed he was there for the hole, so I crawled off and hid behind a bush. But then he started calling my name, quietly so as not to wake the other “campers.” He was holding something behind his back. I didn’t respond; the last thing I wanted to do at the moment was suffer another one of that arsehole’s patronizing lectures. I stayed as still as I could manage, hoping the smell wouldn’t give me away, but I guess the reek from the hole did a fine job of masking that. I assumed Brianna would give up after that, but he started poking around in the bushes, still calling my name very quietly. What a creep.
I was saved at the last moment by the sound of heavy footsteps. Brianna uttered a very un-enlightened curse—does he kiss his Earth Mother with that mouth?—and disappeared into the woods in the opposite direction. As he was leaving, I got my first clear view of the object he held behind his back: a very large and very sharp machete.
A few seconds later, Zak the punk came crashing obliviously through the bushes, clutching his stomach. He didn’t quite make it to the hole; propping himself up with one large, tattooed hand, he vomited noisily all over the trunk of a nearby tree. The puke was black and smelled like death; more toxins, I guess. This was followed by a few minutes of dry heaves, and then Zak stumbled back to camp. I didn’t see Brianna again until morning.
Eventually, my intestinal spasms calmed enough for me to clean myself off and venture into the tent. By this point, the eastern horizon had already turned a sort of grey, as it does a little before dawn. Gemma and Zak were still asleep, but Guru George and Acolyte Brianna were already awake, sitting close by each other in one corner of the tent and speaking to each other in low, serious voices. They didn’t notice me come in at first, and that was just as well as far as I was concerned; I was terrified of George offering me more tea. I slunk into my bedroll like a whipped dog and tried to sleep.
How Does This All Work, Anyway?
This story is an example of something I’m calling “ludic writing”—an approach to writing that uses games as a seed in the same way the Oulipians used mathematical and orthographic constraints. More examples can be found in my Ludic Writing series on Entropy, of which the best and most developed is Bartlett’s Memory, a twelve-part series that uses the weird horror writing of Matthew M. Bartlett (Gateways to Abomination, Creeping Waves) and Yves Tourigny‘s card game Arkham Noir: Collector Case #1—The Real Leeds (which is itself inspired by Bartlett’s fiction) as a springboard for a weird horror mystery noir in three acts. Each of the story “beats” is inspired by the title, artwork, and mechanical effects of a card from Arkham Noir: The Real Leeds, in the exact order in which they entered play in an actual play of the game.
Though I did, as far as I know, coin the term, I didn’t invent the idea of ludic writing. In fact, constrained writing in a similar vein has existed for, I’m sure, centuries; Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual is structured based on the Knight’s Tour of a chessboard, among many other constraints, while Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass models its characters and setting after a game of chess (not to mention the personified playing cards in the first book). And some indie roleplaying games like English Eerie and Malthouse’s earlier work, Quill, are written with the express purpose of generating such writing:
The aim of English Eerie is to tell your own tale of rural horror through entries in your journal. . . . There are several scenarios at the end of this book that offer you an inspirational framework to build a terrifying tale.
“Detox” is one of those scenarios, and as a personal constraint, I tried to follow the scenario as closely as possible—hewing closely to Malthouse’s suggestions for hazards, obstacles, and clues—while making it my own through creative interpretation. So, for example, when the scenario says “a mad ram attempts to gore you,” my story takes that somewhat innocuous situation and reinterprets it in a way that is, I hope, truly horrifying. (It’s one of my favorite moments in the story, and won’t happen until near the end.) After a short description of the mechanics driving English Eerie, I’ll include the verbatim prompts used for each entry so you can judge the degree to which I managed to make them my own.
A note for readers unfamiliar with English Eerie: while the scenarios do provide suggestions for these story elements, they aren’t given in any particular order, so I was free to pick the one that felt most appropriate or interesting for the story at that point. In addition to these suggestions, the scenarios in English Eerie give brief sketches of the setting and cast of secondary characters (though the player is free to add their own).
I already wrote a brief review and synopsis of English Eerie on Entropy to accompany an earlier piece of ludic writing inspired by the scenario “The River,” but here’s a quick rundown of the mechanics:
At the start of the “game,” your narrator has a small pool of Spirit and Resolve points. Spirit is like HP in a more traditional RPG: it’s lost when failing a roll, and ending the story with positive Spirit yields a happier ending, while fully depleting the narrator’s Spirit leads to a gloomier, more macabre ending. Resolve is a secondary resource that can be spent to boost rolls before they happen. The narrator in this story began with 7 Spirit and 3 Resolve.
The gameplay and story are driven by draws from a specially constructed deck that is built and semi-randomized before play. The deck uses standard playing cards, but only certain values. A card is drawn at the start of each “turn”; the suit and (sometimes) value of the card determines the focus of the succeeding journal entry. Here’s a breakdown:
Spades: The narrator finds a minor clue (value is unimportant).
Clubs: A secondary character creates an obstacle for the narrator. The player rolls 1d10 against the card’s value to see whether the narrator can succeed at overcoming the obstacle.
Hearts: A secondary character suffers harm (value is unimportant). This is the only suit that the English Eerie scenarios don’t offer explicit suggestions for resolving, making it especially tricky when drawn multiple times in a row or at a seemingly calm point in the story.
Diamonds: The setting or environment creates an obstacle for the narrator, which is resolved as described in Clubs.
Queen: The deck contains three Queens, or Grey Ladies. These represent major turning points in the story. In addition to their narrative effects, drawing a Grey Lady causes the narrator to lose a Spirit or Resolve and increases the Tension of the story, making all future rolls more difficult. Drawing the final Grey Lady ends the story, for better or worse.
Here are the card draws and suggestions that inspired the journal entries in this segment of the story:
Entry 1: This was written to establish the characters and setting; there was no associated card draw.
Entry 2: Environmental Obstacle—lost in the woods (failed). [Note: this wasn’t one of the scenario suggestions, but it fit the tone of the story.]
Entry 3: Minor Clue—a book called The Bringing of Rains written in what appears to be code.
Entry 4: Minor Clue—a machete.
The narrator ended this segment with 6 Spirit and 3 Resolve.