One of the things that Geoff and I have tried to do in writing the Convicts & Cthulhu sourcebook is to make sure that the historical detail included for the setting is more than just the facts and figures. It’s easy enough for Keepers to look up mountains of that kind of information themselves using Wikipedia or many other online sources. And while that stuff is interesting and helpful, it doesn’t do much to give you a sense of what life was really like in the historical setting. Finding and capturing that kind of detail is much harder.
A source that I have found especially rich for the Australian convict era has been the sometimes lurid folk tales and folk songs that were created by the convicts of the day and passed down the generations (verbally at first, then published in the late 19th Century). I happened upon one great example late in the writing of Convicts & Cthulhu — the Ballad of Jim Jones at Botany Bay. It’s lyrics offer an insight into the harshness and dangers of the convict life, as well as the uncertainty of being sent half-way round the world to the infamous prison colony. All of that stuff is what makes this era such a great one for Call of Cthulhu (in my humble opinion, of course :)).
Ironically, it was only after reading this folk song lyric that I realised that not only did I own a recording of it (by Bob Dylan in 1992) but I had also recently heard it in a major film … Quentin Tarantino’s sort-of-Western crime thingamy “The Hateful Eight.”
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that at a pivotal point in the plot (just before all Hell breaks loose) Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character — a captured criminal — sings a haunting song (and plays it on an antique guitar). Although it’s hard to make out the words … that’s “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” (even though the film has nothing to do whatsoever with Australian convicts; you’re welcome to speculate for yourself why it was included).
[Trivia Note: this scene was also famous because due to a miscommunication on set it also ended with Kurt Russell destroying an antique 1870s guitar on loan from the museum of manufacturer Martin. Ooops!]