The Express Diaries, the fourth novel from UK writer Nick Marsh, features a highly unusual gestation, certainly one of the strangest that I’ve seen: the book is an authorized, although not official, novelization of a campaign for the horror roleplaying game The Call of Cthulhu — specifically, an out-of-print campaign, originally published in 1991, called Horror on the Orient Express. Further, the book is the first title from a new press, Innsmouth House Press, an offshoot of the Lovecraftian game fan-site yog-sothoth.com, and its publication was funded by a kickstarter.com campaign. Got all that?
Backstory aside, The Express Diaries is set in 1925 and is told in more-or-less epistolary fashion, via the journal entries of the various characters. Representative of its RPG roots, it also includes images of several “artifacts” of the story, such as train tickets, flyers, and newspaper clippings. Indeed, the entire tale is presented as sort of a 1920s version of the “found footage” approach that’s been such a popular motif for horror films in the last decade. As the Editor’s Note states:
The tale that is told within these pages did not give up its secrets lightly. The story of how the disparate parts were pieced together is one almost as fascinating as the story itself. From humble beginnings – the chance discovery of the journal of a Mrs Violet Davenport – it took almost a decade before my colleagues and I were able to unlock the final piece of the mystery, and view the story as a whole.
It’s an offbeat and engaging approach… at least initially. But eventually the style wears a bit thin, and ultimately creates a sense of “distance” between the reader and the story that is not conducive to suspension of disbelief.
The main cast of characters features retired Colonel Neville Goodenough, the group’s matriarch Mrs. Betty Sunderland, her secretary Grace, and her niece Violet. Betty attends a lecture by her friend, Professor Julius Smith, regarding an ancient statue called the Sedefkar Simulacrum, which he is in pursuit of. Shortly thereafter, Smith is critically burned in a fire, but before dying he reveals that others with evil intent are also after the statue, which has been broken into several pieces but which, if recombined, will bring great power to its owner. At Betty’s urging, the group takes up Smith’s quest, embarking on a journey that takes them across Europe via the famed Orient Express.
The narrative is initially related in such a genteel fashion that it’s truly shocking when violence intrudes and characters suddenly die. In fact, even hough the story may ultimately go where the reader expects, the journey to get there is paved with more than a few surprises. It’s also notable that Marsh frequently interjects subtle humor — for example, when juxtaposing Mrs. Sunderland’s journal entries, which make vague allusions to the medicinal nature of her late-night libations, with others’ entries, which openly complain about her drinking problem.
As is hopefully obvious from the above description, there are some wonderful aspects to this book, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, due to the journal-based approach, which left me feeling a level removed from the story, as well as an remarkably over-the-top and ill-advised late scene in which our intrepid investigators manage to re-board the train while it’s traveling at high speed.
Postscript: Taking a page from Innsmouth House Press’ book, Chaosium — the publisher of the Call of Cthulhu game and the Horror on the Orient Express campaign — has announced a kickstarter.com project of their own, to “raise the money required to reprint and revise the iconic boxed set, originally published in 1991.”