Unexplained Mysteries And How To Build Them

About this time last year, I wrote an article here on Grailrunner suggesting some books that pragmatically answer some great unexplained mysteries:

  1. What is the buried treasure at Oak Island, impossibly protected by ingenious traps and evading 200 years of treasure hunters?
  2. What really happened to the Mary Celeste, the ghost ship whose crew and passengers vanished into thin air?
  3. How did the ancient Egyptians really build the pyramids with technology available to them, sturdy enough to still be standing today?
  4. What was the identity of serial killer, Jack The Ripper?

You can read the article here. Some really great books I recommend in there.

Back in 2017, I completed a study of myth development about things like those in that list above, and suggested five principles that kick into gear when there are viable kernels on which to build and the timing is right. Read that one here.

The principles of mystery development:

  • The story needs a new or interesting hook to rise to critical mass in the first place
  • Often, the story suits or in some way encapsulates its era, or symbolizes a way of life (like Jack the Ripper’s foggy London)
  • Confirmation bias is the first sign of critical mass – contrary evidence starts getting ignored
  • Major players involved in the story’s propagation have agendas (like selling books or their story to news outlets, career advancement)
  • Details begin to accumulate and attach, which aren’t true but fit well with the original kernel

The unsexy truth that I found in those rabbit holes is that much of what we may consider today the great unexplained mysteries of history often have super mundane, everyday, plain-jane answers that aren’t as thrilling as just keeping the mystery itself. We would actually prefer to be fascinated and fooled than be reminded that people are fallible and sometimes irrational, that we have cognitive blind spots that make us miss things, and that there isn’t as much magic in the world as we’d like.

James Randi said once that “Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re gonna fool you, and then they do it.”

So anyway, I thought today I’d tell you who killed JFK, whether there’s a grand conspiracy to start World War Three, whether there’s any truth behind the mysterious Philadelphia Experiment, and what’s really behind the Bermuda Triangle.

Hang on…

  1. Who killed JFK?

So I’m reading the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination Of John F. Kennedy. Every page of it. And when it’s particularly interesting, I’m reading the transcripts of the interviews. Every word of them.

There’s very likely no chance you’ve watched as many documentaries as I have about this assassination. I’m voracious about that, for whatever reason. And for years I’ve been entirely convinced that’s it’s ridiculous to believe anything other than a widespread conspiracy involving at least an unholy entanglement of the CIA and mafia, likely at the lower operational levels rather than a coup led from the top. I couldn’t necessarily buy that what Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex” decided to revolt and take out Kennedy to protect the world from communism in misguided patriotism, but I could possibly chew and swallow that operatives who blurred lines between organized crime and field agents might have taken things into their own hands, gone too far, and any signs of a coverup were after the fact, to disguise and clean up a big, wild mess that was never intended.

That doesn’t sound too hard to believe, in my opinion. And over the years as I read things like Legacy Of Ashes about the ruined legacy of the CIA and the wild mustangs doing what they do in government agencies, it made more sense to me that this sort of scenario was possible. And I still suppose it is possible.

But one thing has struck me like a ton of bricks in reading the actual words of the Warren Commission Report for myself is how unforgivably dishonest those documentaries often are. I’ll be all pissed off when I hear about some black-bordered advertisement in the Dallas newspaper that morning sounding threatening to the President, and how mysterious it was, only to find the Warren Commission knew exactly who placed the ad, why, why the border was black, whose name was on the ad and why, and even what they paid for it. You can read in detail how pissed off Jack Ruby was about that very ad, about there being a Jewish sounding name on it, and see his own words on what was going through his mind. It wasn’t mysterious at all; he totally explained why he was angry and it’s corroborated by other people.

I was baffled at why I’ve never been told there were multiple people who testified in detail that they saw Oswald in the window, which way he was looking, the expression on his face, and even one guy at a lower window who got cement dust in his hair after the shots were fired. All corroborated, and delineated in detail word for word with who said these things.

My point here is if you’re into this particular mystery, you’re being lied to and manipulated more than you might think by people trying to sell you books or films. Big time. Maybe Oswald did it after all, as boring and unbelievable as that may be.

2. Was there a conspiracy for 3 world wars?

Google “3 world wars” and see what you find about an explosive letter Freemason Albert Pike wrote to Giuseppe Mazzini in 1871 regarding a conspiracy involving three world wars that were planned in an attempt to take over the world. The letter was reportedly on display in the British Museum Library in London until 1977 though they “mysteriously” deny its existence now.

The first war was to topple the Czars and create a communist state. The second war was to leverage that to balance the Christian world while Palestinian conflicts are generated to set the stage for more unrest. The third war will be to ensure the Arab World and the Israeli state destroy each other and to exhaust the world while chaos agents are unleashed to smash it all down. Then the real power figures behind all this will step in and run the world.

Several years ago, I read a scathing article that absolutely dismantles this whole narrative and all the nonsense inside it. Go read this one. Obviously there could be a huge global plot involving the Bilderberg conferences and the Council On Foreign Relations and whatnot, but to me the much more obvious answer here is people like to be shocked. And this is shocking.

Another lesson in this example is just how lazy people can get in quoting things without doing their own research. That’s plastered all over this one too. If you want to see the sort of thing I mean, take a look at a book called The Last Twelve Verses of the Gospel According to S. Mark by John Burgon. It’s really illuminating to see an utter annihilation of sloppy journalism like that, and it’s a lesson particularly suited for the times in which we live.

3. Was the Philadelphia Experiment real?

The story goes that a destroyer escort named the USS Eldridge vanished in a flash of light in October 1943 from the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia as part of some misguided and disastrous experiments by the Navy to render ships invisible. Incredible details have been tied to the tale, with an eyewitness named Carl Allen ‘reluctantly’ offering exactly what he saw, and describing the terrible fusions of tortured sailors reappearing half-buried in the ship’s very steel.

Nonsense. Total nonsense. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole to go down though, and endlessly fascinating if you only pursue the conspiracy links and believe what you’re told. Lots of salacious details about Einstein’s mystery work that made the experiment possible, and musings about the teleportation that happened and what came of the doomed sailors. At least a couple of movies too.

Then read “Anatomy Of A Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later” in the Journal Of Scientific Exploration, Vol 8, No. 1, pages 47-71 from 1994. No link on this one – I have a hard copy only, but it’s available behind some paywalls. You can see the gist of it here though. Nothing sexy happened at all – just a nutjob spilling weird stories that sounded fascinating and that could sell books, and people did. One twist here is some corroboration that’s often offered with this tale being that two officers at the Office Of Naval Research had copies made of the annotated book where the tale generated. Conspiracists will offer that these officers wouldn’t go to the expense of copying this book if it was nothing but a lunatic spouting nonsense.

But I was a Naval officer, and I love reading stuff like that.

4. Is the Bermuda Triangle real?

For me, the issue of the Bermuda Triangle falls squarely into this pattern I’m describing of a viable kernel of truth at the right time upon which sexy, exciting fables start to mount and pick up steam. It fits the five principles I mentioned earlier quite well, and it hinges on what happened to Flight 19.

Flight 19 was a 1945 training mission comprised of five Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared off the coast of Florida, at the cost of 27 lives in total (including the PBM Mariner launched to search for the bombers that’s believed to have gone down in flames). This was the tragedy that started the myth in earnest, and it’s the one that formed the original kernel upon which other disasters or incidents (like Kenneth Arnold’s reported UFO’s in 1947 and Charles Mantell’s crash in 1948) were combined into what we know today as a place of UFO’s, mysterious vortices, or rogue waves that maliciously and enigmatically cause unexplained disappearances. If we figure out what happened to Flight 19, then the kernel goes away and it’s much harder to see a definitive pattern tied to this triangle apart from incidents anywhere else on the sea.

So what happened to Flight 19?

I imagine any conspiracist describing Flight 19 to us would emphasize how the instructor had a premonition of some kind that day, because he tried to avoid the training mission entirely. His request for another instructor to take the flight was denied. They might also emphasize how all the compasses of all the planes failed to work, and even the timepieces weren’t functioning. They’ll tell you the sea didn’t even look right. Then everyone just disappeared off the face of the earth and were never heard from again.

But read The Real Story Of Flight 19 by Steve MacGregor and see if there’s a more likely scenario of human failure and fallibility. Consider the possibility that the instructor didn’t have a premonition, but wasn’t feeling well.

I won’t steal any of MacGregor’s thunder and spell out his reasoning, but it’s a story of a mishap on a bad day and not one of aliens. And that’s illustrative of my entire point here with the kernels of truth being targets for agendas and those fascinated with being titillated.

If you’d like a more thorough analysis of Flight 19, with some insights on the likely people dynamics, maybe what the pilots were thinking at the time, which is fascinating to me, take a look at Quasar’s They Flew Into Oblivion. It’s another great read.


But we want sexy, so we find it. Even where it isn’t.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to talk about today. What do you think about some of these mysteries – did I cover your favorite? Apologies if I dumped cold water on something that inspires you. Wasn’t my intention at all.

And I’ll keep watching those JFK documentaries anyway.

Till next time,

A Terrifying New Threat Enters The Salt Mystic Universe!

Occasionally as we build out the Salt Mystic universe, some spooky new threats pop into existence that surprise even us. Right now, I’m 23k words into a standalone novel set in this world that will shake it like an earthquake, introducing new weaponry and technology, several exciting new locations, and a host of new terrors!

Enter the Day Giant.

If you’re new here, let me back up a bit. The Salt Mystic setting is an experiment in immersive storytelling that fuses art, fiction, and games into a unique and thrilling experience. Right now, it’s a novel that introduces the main narrative, a terrain-based trading card wargame that expands and breathes life into that narrative, a growing line of branded merchandise (including our first art print!) and freely downloadable illustrated flash fiction called Lore Cards.

Click the wings to learn more:

We’ve been hard at work dropping new Lore Cards over the past few weeks, so make sure you stop by every once in a while to see what’s new. The Story Arcade is what we call the repository of cards, and it’s a place to get inspired for your own games of Salt Mystic or to fuel elements in the Roleplaying Game system of your choice.

Click the medallion to see all the current Lore Cards:

Although Salt Mystic is at heart a western-inspired science fiction setting, with a theme of exploring lost and hidden worlds, I feel like no adventure stories are complete without a terror that sticks in your mind and creeps around there. In the Work In Progress novel, to be called Mazewater: Master Of Airships, you’ll be introduced to a scrappy, gangly fellow named Lamberghast Mazewater, who faces such a threat with a quivering voice, a shaking hand, and armed with only his big heart. More to come on that as it develops.

The artwork

The art for the new Lore Card was produced combining elements from two AI art generators, then painting over them and completing the composition and adjustments in Photoshop. This approach is a real game changer for small indie publishing companies like us! Sometimes, the image comes first and then the story. It was the reverse this time – I knew the giant’s general appearance and that I wanted a gunslinger facing off with him. That’s all I knew though.

The giant: It took many, many iterations with Codeway’s Wonder app using text prompts like “enormous thin giant in rags with oxygen mask and exoskeleton” till I got something vaguely like what I had in my head. The color was wrong, as was the perspective, the tone, and it had bits and bobs all over it that were unwanted. I cut it out, trimmed the odd bits, then altered the perspective so his top half was smaller.

The canyon: The canyon was another round of iterations, in both Stable Diffusion and Wonder, till I got a mashup composition of rocks and lighting that generally gave me something to trigger the eyes to see the giant as huge. I wanted light coming from behind it, so I juiced that with a Color Dodge and soft brush.

The gunslinger: The gunslinger was a third round of iterations, in Wonder. The text prompts were things like “fantasy gunfighter in long coat holding his arm out”. This one had bits and bobs coming off it as well, and the coloring was terrible. He also had weird holes and discolorations all over him, which I had to correct.

The weapon: The ball lightning carbine is a long-standing custom item I use all the time. I built and textured it in Blender. This time, I cut out parts of it to show it partially concealed by his sleeve and brightened the barrel’s tip (with the Dodge tool) to show it glowing from the heat inside the barrel.

There’s a company called Nucly that offers various overlays for Photoshop – I included a ‘god ray’ overlay and morphed it to emit from the gunslinger’s weapon. That looked cool already, but something unanticipated happened once I started making adjustments.

The lighting: I superimposed a grunge texture over the entire image in Screen mode, which roughed up the look of it in a way I really liked. However, I noticed the Color Dodge blur coming from behind the giant as well as the charge firing out his weapon reacted with the grunge overlay for even cooler lighting effects than I’d planned. I really liked how that turned out, honestly.

Color grading: I tried various warming and cooling filters over the entire image, and tried adjusting its color grading to various images whose color schemes I liked. This warming filter (an evening sun shade of orange) won me over because of what it did to the canyon rock.

Here’s the final image, which will also eventually appear (in altered form) on an upcoming Volume Two game card next year (click on the image to see the Lore Card and read the associated story):

I hope you like the art and the story, guys. Let me know what you think! Till next time,

Announcing: Exclusive Fantasy Art Print From Grailrunner Publishing!

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

That’s our tagline, right? What it means in practice is that Grailrunners are constantly on the prowl for innovative ways to deliver bold, unique ideas in storytelling. We publish games, novels, and free flash fiction to make that happen. Our Salt Mystic setting is an exploration of immersive storytelling that amazes me sometimes in what comes of it.

But art though…nothing inspires like art.

It can be a dopamine shot straight to your cortex, in a glance sending a dreamer off into countless scenes of wonder and palaces of memory. An elementary school teacher of mine once hung a poster of a sailing ship with balloons for sails on the wall, and I remember to this day decades later the feeling of staring at it and marveling over the implications. Who was on that ship? Where were they going? Do they clash with cannon fire in the clouds? That’s powerful stuff, and I remember that picture as clearly now as ever.

One of the original aspirations we had here at Grailrunner was to be able to deliver fantasy and science fiction artwork tied to the fictional settings we’re building. It’s a big deal, and core to who we want to be. Custom art is expensive though, and you have to grow your business to a point where revenue can cover commission fees. Just putting the Sourcebook And Core Rules together last year drove home for me at least just how many art pieces and illustrations are needed to convey the big, wild setting we’re building here. It’s supposed to be boldly different, so you have to show that. You need cool pictures!

Developing my own art to support this has been (and remains) a powerful journey of transformation. Occasionally when I feel like smashing the screen because an art piece I’m working on looks like trash no matter what I try with it, I’ll scroll back through my Artstation profile to see at least some level of improvement! (It comforts me to mock my younger self). Still, that’s what the Salt Mystic world is to me – a beautiful collision of ideas and stories, myth and imagery – growing into a place as real as the park down the street.

Which brings us to an exciting announcement, and hopefully only first in a series:

Grailrunner Publishing introduces the first art print set in our proprietary and exclusive Salt Mystic universe!

A dream on invisible sails…

By Brian Bennudriti

A vortex glider gently cruises high in the clouds above an ancient city in the provinces. No wings. No engines. As silent as the wind itself, riding a web of invisible vortices, the vortex glider is a majestic and gorgeous sight sure to catch the eyes of any dreamer who spots them.

Available in two formats:

18″ x 24″ poster

8″ x 10″ or 16″ x 20″ canvas

Vortex engines are an important technology in the Salt Mystic setting, enabling everything from vehicles that crawl up vertical walls to half-mile high sea vessels balanced on whirlwinds, from massive airships as big as a small town to artificial guided tornadoes.

Our next Salt Mystic novel and game volume will include a wily character named Mazewater and his fantastic innovation in vortex technology: using programmable matter and ionizing fields to generate thousands of vortices, combined to pull and push gliders through the air like dragonflies.

This image depicts such a glider, its long slender spikes of computronium and morphium framing gossamer sails. Far below, a watch tower stands guard over the sleepy, ancient border town in the valley.

While there is an important connection to the growing narrative of the happenings in the western provinces of the Salt Mystic’s world, it’s also just a beautiful image that I find relaxing to look at. And even though the warm lights emanating from the vessel’s side were a bit of an afterthought for me, they honestly make the mood for me now. It just makes me want to climb inside and see what it’s like to fly that thing.

Why hang a generic photo of flowers or a cartoonish painting of Paris when you can celebrate your inner nerd with a unique conversation starter like this?

And that’s what I wanted to let you know about today. It’s pretty thrilling, if I’m being honest, and a mind-blowing realization of something we’ve dreamed about since we started putting this Grailrunner thing together. I’m hoping you love it and have a vision for fantasy and science fiction themed art being as viable as dogs playing poker for your living room or wherever you goof off.

Let us know what you think, and what sorts of prints you might be interested in seeing here. And till next time,

Let’s Talk About Dueling With Ball Lightning

Writers are weird little machines, man. When our brains should be resting or thinking about bills or whether the lawn needs mowing, they often run off the rails behind the scenes trying to answer questions: questions like what would it be like to duel someone with ball lightning.

All the way back in the nineties when I first started conjuring images that would become Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe, certain concepts came out of the dreamspace whole, all on their own and fully formed (all page references relate to the Salt Mystic Sourcebook And Core Rules):

  1. A mountainside carved with the statue of a bearded man, whose outstretched hand cradled a mighty waterfall (page 46)
  2. A vehicle with articulated legs and a swivel chair that climbs vertical walls (page 40)
  3. A ramming war vehicle that moves in all four directions (page 41)
  4. People who are modified for perfect memories and powers of observation with forehead tattoos (page 28)

But one of my favorite images was two dudes dressed like cowboys in long coats, staring each other down with a weird weapon strapped to their arms like shields. I knew from the beginning the weapon fired ball lightning because I was fascinated by ball lightning, ever since it was featured in an old episode of Arthur Clarke’s Mysterious World. (Great show). I also knew the weapon doubled as a shield, meaning you could block incoming fire. That meant a trade-off – when you’re blocking, you’re not firing. When you’re firing, you’re exposed. I liked that. I called it the ‘ball lightning carbine’.

It was a vague, exciting idea till I got to write the first action scene using the ball lightning carbine in the 2015 novel, Tearing Down The Statues. It’s in Chapter 4, called “A Cannon Off The Rails”. I remember the thrill of writing it, because of a particular line of dialogue I worried over including:

Several gunfighters had surrounded a dangerous character named Cyprian, which I signaled with all my might to be a terrible idea. That was entirely my point, that this was their very bad idea.

“You want to see something amazing?”

That’s what Cyprian said, grinning, with his head lowered in the shadows, right before he turned into an avenging fury and wreaked all manner of havoc on those poor guys. I mean, I chuckled after getting that chapter wrapped up. It had been a long time since the picture drifted in like soap bubble, so it was fun to see it in words at least.

The carbine duel became for me a primary mechanic for action in the setting, as well as for the cards in the Salt Mystic tabletop game. In fact, I’m going with it for our primary (hopefully iconic) aesthetic for the random adventurer out poking in the wilds through abandoned oriel gates or mad War Marshals who’ve seen terrible things.

What’s got me thinking about this is I had a fascinating conversation recently with a tornado that looks like a human being who calls himself Doc Brock on this very topic. Incidentally, I interviewed him back in 2020 – you should go read that. Although he’s the designer and creator of a fighting game (Future Fighter), he’s also a musician and pathologist. Most importantly for our topic today, he’s studied martial arts for over 35 years and has a process-oriented mind to break down a topic he’s asked about.

I wanted to know what he’d do with a carbine strapped to his arm.

“When you’re talking about million degree plasma, it takes martial arts out of the equation”, Brock explained. “The main consideration is to avoid getting hit. If you get hit at all, the fight is over.” (I’m paraphrasing his comments).

This was interesting to me because I was thinking about Kung Fu movies, where the guys are sizing each other up considering different fighting styles before rushing in to whirl about like mad in a complicated, blurry flash. In my mind, you could either hang back and focus on accuracy (like they say Wyatt Earp used to do, steady and aiming and using the opponent’s panic to your advantage) or rush in close and combine gunfire with hand-to-hand combat moves (like smashing a dude’s face with the carbine itself).

“You’d have to consider your opponent’s size and weight. A bigger guy, say 6 feet, 250 pounds, can’t move around quickly and is a big target. With him, you might try and lead him in the direction you want him to go. Maybe a shot to one side to get him to move into the line of your next shot. Either way, always aim for the chest though. Always.”

He agreed that it’s a terrible idea for someone in a carbine duel to drop to the ground for any reason, “It takes an incredible amount of time and energy in a fight to get off the ground, and when you’re down there, you’re completely vulnerable. That’s something you should never do.”

After asking me how long the charge lasts on the carbine, he made another strategic point, “It seems to me the key is to drain your opponent’s weapon. Once they’re out of ammo, this fight is over. No one is surviving a shot from one of these.”

And that comment caught my attention, because I honestly hadn’t given a lot of thought to how many shots one of these could get off (I said roughly 30 to avoid sounding like a writer who hasn’t considered his own creations). It struck me that some carbines (like Cyprian in the novel and Waymaker, a card in the Salt Mystic game) have modified carbines with dual breakers that fire twice. That creates some new tension and a trade-off, now that it’s clear such a modification would drain the charge twice as quickly. I liked the story possibilities there!

“What’s the range on these plasma balls?”

And he got me again, because the only thing that came into my head was “2 inches”, that being the scale distance range in the tabletop game.

Which led us to talking about wiffle balls.

I suggested to Brock that the only reason these spheres have velocity is due to the electromagnetic rails inside the housing which capture the ball lightning once it’s generated by the breaker and slings it outward when the palm trigger is clutched. I used the analogy of a wiffle ball, those plastic, perforated balls that go quickly about six feet when you throw them before the air catches them and they slow to a crawl and drop.

My thought was the ball lightning would move at a blinding speed for a few feet, then slow and eventually just hover like soap bubbles should they fail to strike a target.

“That paints a whole different battlefield if they hover like that. I can imagine a mine field around these guys as they fight.”

And that’s a picture somebody needs to write or paint. I mean, that’s awesome. I may take that one on at some point.

Overall, it was really fascinating to chat with somebody willing to break down what a carbine duel would look like, what a person trained in martial arts would think about facing somebody packing one of these. I wish I’d taken better notes – he was full of suggestions, even directing me to a particular episode of a TV show called Farscape with a similar weapon (cool, but ugh since I thought this was unique).

It also makes much more sense now why so many of these guys are wearing the long cowboy coats – it’s disorienting in the panicked gunfight how large someone is and where their body actually is.

Anyway, what do you think a carbine duel would look like? What approach would you take if there’s a guy staring you down and packing one of these? I’d like to know…

But till next time,