Tuesday 29 May 2012

Tales of Blood and Glory: Eaters of the Dead

I haven't had much time for gaming lately, but I have had some time for reading.  The latest book I read is Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead.  I read some of Crichton's books back in High-School, starting with the then popular Jurassic Park, but it was my first time reading this Viking-themed title.

Framing Mechanism

The book begins with an interesting framing mechanism: that of a scholarly translation of the 10th century manuscript of Ahmad ibm Fadlan's account of his travels. As it turns out, there really is such a manuscript, and it includes one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the Vikings. Crichton's book follows the actual manuscript for the first three chapters, at which point Ibn Fadlan is then kidnapped by the Vikings and the real story begins.


I really didn't know what to expect from this book, but I quickly began to notice familiarities.  I've never read Beowulf, but I've familiar enough with the legend that it immediately came to mind when I read names like Buliwyf, the Wendel, the Wendel's Mother, and the Glowworm Dragon.  As Crichton explains in the note at the end of the book, "Eaters of the Dead was Conceived on a Dare" to show that modern audiences would find the Beowulf story exciting, if not the original telling. In my estimation he succeeds quite well at this goal.


The story blends adventure with horror, a tough feat to do. The Vikings are no typical helpless horror victims.  Their valor and skill in battle is made abundantly clear. So the reader is left open-mouthed to learn of the paralyzing fear they have of the Mists and the monsters they supposedly bring.

And Crichton does a good job of only revealing facts about the Mist Monsters one step at a time. The first encounter with the monsters is a good example of this: the battle is chaotic and Ibn Fadlan doesn't get a good look at the hairy beasts in the dark and in the mist. When he awakens, after being hit in the head, the narrator finds that the monsters have withdrawn, but left no bodies.  The only remnant of the struggle is a couple dead vikings and a severed arm, covered with knotted muscles and monstrously thick hair.

Now You Killed It

The story ends with Ibn Fadlan shaken by the unnatural terrors he has met in the cold North. It would have been nice if the book ended here. Instead, the framing device returns, and we have the notes of a fake academic speculating whether the Wendel might have been Neanderthals or even a primitive tribe of Homo-Sapiens. But the reader is still left with a bit of doubt, as the theory still doesn't explain their association with the mist, the oracular words and magic weapons of the Dwarves, or the snake-covered Mother of the Wendel.  But then comes the final Note by the Author, where he states clearly that no, the Wendel were Neanderthals.

Lovecraft complains about the horror stories of "Mrs. Ann Radcliffe...who set new and higher standards in the domain of macabre and fear-inspiring atmosphere" that she has a "custom of destroying her own phantoms at the last through labored mechanical explanations".  After reading "Eaters of the Dead" I now know firsthand why this bothered him.  After so artfully building up the weird horrors and connecting them to our reality via the text of Ibn Fadlan, Crichton kills his creation stating that they were just Neanderthals, now long extinct.


As a DM I think I have a lot to learn from Eaters of the Dead.  With PCs often armed for WWIII, it can be difficult creating an atmosphere of fear. Eaters of the dead manages this well and many of it's techniques are applicable to gaming.  In particular:
  • terrified NPCs
  • hard to get a good look at the monsters
  • victories are hard-won
  • victories are partial--most of the monsters escape to fight another day

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