Scenario Seeds From The Pool

What follows was my attempt to bring some thought structure to the Daphne du Maurier short story “The Pool” that I covered in Episode 185. Most of this is something close to stream of consciousness, and for that I’m sorry. But I cleaned it up a tiny bit, and 4,800 words is a lot of work for no one to ever see. So here it is!

A Brief Synopsis

A pair of young children, Deborah and Roger, visit their grandparent’s home in Cornwall each summer. When they arrive Deborah is decidedly odd, she makes lays out in the grass prostrating herself before the chaos of nature while reciting bits of the Catechism she learned in church. While putting off her little brother she makes her way back to a small pond in the back of the property. Here she makes sigils in the sand and offers herself up for atonement before the pond. Then she sacrifices a small pencil worn down to the eraser that she had kept with her the entire previous year by tossing it into the pond and making bows before it.

Eventually her brother comes and convinces her to play cricket and we see more of her imagination at work during the game. That night she sneaks out of the house and goes to sleep down by the pool (a pool is a Cornish word for any standing body of fresh water) making her way through the woods where the trees and briars became a gauntlet she had to run to show she had no fear. She reaches the pool because the woods had accepted her, “and the pool was the final resting-place, the doorway, the key.”

She swears not to fall asleep, the trees now guardians and the pool “primeval water, the first, the last.” She is standing at a wicker gate and a woman is there with an outstretched hand demanding tickets. The woman tells her they saw her coming and to pass through, the gate turns into a turnstile and she passes through. Other people begin to pass by faceless, lost in shadow. She wonders if she has finally made it to the bottom of the pool, and the woman tells her essentially, “Who knows, there’s a lot of ways here.”

When Deborah asks why she was able to come now and not earlier when she was there in the afternoon, the woman answers.

“It’s a trick … You seize the moment in time. We were here this afternoon. We’re always here. Our life goes on around you, but nobody knows it. The trick’s easier by night, that’s all… this isn’t a dream. And it isn’t death, either. It’s the secret world.”

Things begin to make more sense to her then, the realizes that she isn’t who she is, but “only the task given” and then she looks down to see herself at age two, teary-eyed after the death of her mother.

“You are not lost,” she tells herself, “… You don’t have to go on crying.” and her past self melts into the pool, “absorbed into the water and the sky.” The joy of that floods through her and the woman holds her back as she tries to push into the water. Then the darkness swallows her and the pain of loss and life brings the tears again.

She wakes up shouting “No!” to find that one hand had fallen into the pool and was wet and cold. And the fear takes hold and she runs back to the safety of the house back through the trees which are no longer guardians.

The next day Deborah is in a foul mood and worries that she has lost the key and the magic that went with it. She hopes that the pool will let her in once again. And prays at the pool that it come again that night.

That night is a great storm with lightning and wind, and when Deborah looks from her bedroom window, she sees the woman with the turnstile in the lawn below. Afraid that she will loose the chance again, she bolts from the house waking her grandfather’s dog and rushes into the back lawn. The woman once again allows her pass through without a ticket, and she runs through the woods. The trees transformed into titans that threw their heads back and laughed at the lightning in the night sky.

She arrived at the pool to find the woman in the center with her turnstile set up once more. The lily pads have turned into hands with their palms up and bubbles “sucked at the surface, streaming and multiplying as the torrents fell.” Deborah thinks she has to pay the woman again, and questions the fairness of this while other spirits and shades pass through ahead of her.

When she realizes that she never paid at all, she moves forward filled with power and acceptance and runs into the pool. Her feet tangles with the lily pads and sinks into the mud and weeds. The woman disappears and Deborah screams to not be left behind, as she continues into the pool with its nasty stagnant water choking her out.

At the end of the story we find Deborah laying in bed while her brother talks to her. He tells us that their grandfather si thinking of filling in the pool, or making a fence around it so no one might wander into it accidentally. The housekeeper then comes in and shoos him away and asks Deborah is she is OK or in any pain. Here we learn that she had her first period, while Deborah thinks, “It won’t come back… I’ve lost the key.”

A Lovecraftian Reading of du Maurier’s “The Pool”

Daphne Du Maurier’s short story “The Pool” is, on the surface, a tale of the loss of childhood, but it is told through the lens of quiet horror and with such a plaintive voice that it is possible to look past it.

The story is about a girl named Deborah who along with her brother, Roger, is spending the summer holidays at her grandparents country house somewhere in the countryside of southern England1. This is a summer routine for the pair of children and for Deborah at least, has become ritualized. I wholly understand the idea that this is a coming of age story where children’s dreams, and the burgeoning insanity that comes with the flood of hormones experienced at puberty might cause fanciful delusions. But what if the dreams and visions are not something more?What if those things she saw there were not the imaginings of a young girl’s furtive imagination, and were instead a true glimpse into the other world of chaos and spirits.

Deborah arrives at the house and immediately you feel something is off with her. She is seeing things differently than her younger brother, she is more dour and dark. When she first arrives she kneels and then lays in the grass

” … full length on the lawn, and stretched her hands out on either side like Jesus on the cross, only face downwards, and murmured over and over again the words she had memorized from Confirmation preparation. ‘A full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice … a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice … satisfaction, and oblation, for the sins of the whole world.’ “

This is not how a typical child would think when first getting to their grandparent’s house. And that fact is brought even more fully into view by the seemingly well-adjusted, and thoroughly young boy, Roger, who is more intent on building forts and playing cricket than any level of existential sacrifice. But Deborah has a way of internalizing her still lingering childhood games and making them dark.

Take for instance the first game of cricket that the two children play together. Deborah asks Roger “Who shall I be?” And when Roger responds with “India,” Deborah imagines herself as part tiger and part sacred cow, and not the international cricket team that he no doubt meant. And she extends the fancy to include her watching grandfather as an Indian god that must be paid his tribute, in this case an apple as cricket ball.


But the real meat of these delusions come when she goes to the pool2. The pool is a little pond that is set off to the back of the property past a deep wood and orchard. Lily pads bob atop the surface and moss grows about the edges. The far side has an old dead tree of indeterminate breed that hovers above the pool and is later referenced as being Christ-like. The young girl makes ablutions to the pool touching her forehead three times at its bank. Then she recites a short prayer at the water’s edge because it is holy ground and she requires atonement. “Mother of all things wild, do with me what you will.” But the pool apparently demands sacrifice as well, so she throws in a small pencil that she has kept close to her for the previous year while at school that she refers to as her “luck.”

OK. The levels of mysticism happening here is staggering. Even for a rather odd preteen girl this is odd on a whole other level. The girl makes ablutions, a decidedly Eastern show of reverence more common in Buddhism and Hinduism than Christianity. And coupled with her previous religious imagery, stealing bits of her Confirmation for a prayer and the repeated Christ references, this is strange. Stranger still is the prayer offered up, not to God or Jesus, but to the “Mother of all things wild.”

But is this ritual all hyperbole? Is this nothing more than the fancy of an intelligent bored mind? Or is there something else going on here? Why should the pool have become her focal point in this ritual ideation? How did this obviously important minor locale in her grandparent’s garden come to hold so much sway over her thoughts and actions? To these questions and others we may never have answers.

That night Deborah sneaks out the house and goes to sleep down by the water’s edge. And as she falls asleep she sees spirits racing past her through the forest, all of them converging on the pool. It has the feel of chaos unleashed, these diaphanous almost human shapes racing past her like wind in order to go through a wicket gate, which changes to a turnstile, with a woman demanding tickets. Deborah here realizes that this might be the “bottom of the pool” which she has given a hefty dose of reverence.

When Deborah asks why she was able to come now and not earlier when she was there in the afternoon, the woman answers.

“It’s a trick … You seize the moment in time. We were here this afternoon. We’re always here. Our life goes on around you, but nobody knows it. The trick’s easier by night, that’s all… this isn’t a dream. And it isn’t death, either. It’s the secret world.”

Leaving aside the obvious correlations to the theory first espoused by Erwin Schrödinger3, the ‘secret world’ here is a close approximation for one of the descriptions of the Brittonic Otherworld(1). The number and haphazard use of myths and belief systems is something you would expect to find in the mind of a child, that would believe almost anything that is set before them, and is willing to attach belief to anything that might provide an easy answer.

The woman at the gate and the “secret world” is very reminiscent of Umr at-Tawil guarding the Gateway of Dreams in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” by H.P. Lovecraft. Is “The Pool” a Mythos story as written? Decidedly not. But with some analysis things are least not all post-Edwardian teen-aged angst. There is another world here for sure. Whether it is in her mind as a form of delusion, or is there in actuality is irrelevant for us right now, because both would make this Lovecraftian.

The feeling of the visions coupled with the strangeness of Deborah makes this story shine. Deborah, we learn, has lost her mother at an early age during the childbirth of her brother, Roger. And she holds no small grudge against him because of that. That could answer some of the tension felt towards him, but not all. I think it is more likely that she loves her brother, or at least one part of her does. While another part of her self detests the child that he is because it recognizes that her own childhood is coming to an end. She is projecting her own self-loathing onto her brother.

To bring this to a Lovecraftian worldview once again, I would posit that the pool is either a gateway into the Dreamlands, or an ancient resting place of some old deity. Something not far removed from the chaos of the world that shadows and spirits would rush to. Perhaps this entity, as I’m not sure how to classify it as of yet, would perform not unlike a vacuum. When it is present or activated, spirits and ghosts swarm into it.

Imagine the life of a spirit or ghost for a moment through the lens of pop-culture. They walk unfettered by the material world but are fettered by the actions of their previous lives and are forced to witness the material lives around them, but are forever unable to take part in them. They are stuck forever in Limbo, neither fully dead nor fully alive. Now imagine that a thing exists that willfully ingests those spirits. They are drawn to it like moths to a flame, for it can give them the one thing that is denied to them, an end.

The shadows and spirits that rush towards the turnstile in the story are not rushing to some carnival as Deborah at first imagines. But instead are rushing to their own much longed after final deaths. They provide the woman at the gate with a ticket giving their consent and proving that their final death is of their own free will.

There is another view, however. Perhaps the woman at the gates is a psychopomp leading the dead to their final resting place. Their coins exchanged for tickets. And to keep with the obvious Indian theme that crops up throughout the story, perhaps the woman at the gate is an aspect of Shiva as Tarakeshwara4. If this is true then the pool can only be one thing, death. Or more likely, the land of the dead, or perhaps some sort of annihilating force that will shatter spirits and shades without thought or action. But in either case, it is an End.

This works us back to the end of the story, when the great storm comes in the night and Deborah sees the woman and the turnstile outside her window waving to her. Is this the psychopomp5 calling to the dead, beckoning her to an end to the life she knew? Or is this the Pied Piper calling to that child within herself that is about to die?

Deborah runs from the house into the storm. The woman lets her pass through the turnstile without a ticket (does the woman know even now that Deborah will be rejected or is she just as blind to the failure to come?) and she rushes with the spirits and shades as one to the pool. There the woman has once again set up the turnstile in the center of the pond, and Deborah is caught off-guard wondering if they have to pay twice, while the spirits have already passed by while she hesitates. When she finally goes forth into the pool, the magic is gone. The lilys that had been hands grasping at those entering revert back to their normal horticultural selves, the secret world descends to the depths without her. And the old tree stands at the back like a crucifix watching in silent judgment.

Deborah realizing that she has lost “the key” tries after them, and the water that swallows her is wholly mundane, dark and murky.

Was the vision of the ‘secret world’ just a ploy to have her sacrifice herself in the pool? Or was there an actual ‘secret world’ that Deborah was denied entry to?

Let’s assume that the former, the ‘secret world’ as lure, in our little exercise. It explains why the lure, and why she was chosen and not her brother.

The lure was created and manufactured by the being in the pool to capture the souls of those virgins in the area. The flowing spirits and shades were either a construct to strengthen the lie, or more probably, a side effect. Meaning that the spirits were actually there and rushing to their final death through this portal, but the pool really wanted a living sacrifice. And it wants a sacrifice of a particular type, a young virgin that is marked by tragedy. The pensive, brooding, and sometimes violent Deborah that lost her mother at a young age fits that bill.

If The Pool wants a living sacrifice, then why was she spared? What happened that allowed her to survive the encounter alive with her soul, although changed, intact? The answer to that could be as simply mundane as explained in the story. Her grandfather saw her go into the pool, and rescued her. The pool is unable to affect the minds of those older humans, and may have existed in concert with them for centuries only occasionally taking a soul with its ruse. Perhaps it was a payment it saw itself owed by the humans of the area? “I take away all the ghosts and spirits of this county, so I must be paid for my services.”

This doesn’t sound so unbelievable. And so Deborah was saved by the very people that she yearned not to be a part of at the beginning of the tale. Her soul now doubly marked by the death of her mother and the (assumed) suicide attempt brought on by her first menstruation. Those traumas protecting her from the guile and magic of the pool in the future. Perhaps the unseen influence of the pool would extend even to subtlety change the grandfather’s mind on filling it in, thereby ensuring its own survival and allowing it to wait in quiet solitude until another virgin arrived.

Now let imagine The Pool as gateway. Much of the above could still apply, but the reasoning would shift. So if it is indeed a gateway, then the Woman at the Turnstiles is still a psychopomp ferrying the souls to their final deaths in oblivion. But it performs differently for living spirits than it does for the dead. For a living spirit, The Pool is a gateway to the beyond. It is just a happy accident that it obliterates spirits in the process.

The reason why she wasn’t allowed through could be two-fold in this scenario. First, she could have simply been saved by her Grandfather as explained above. Second, she could have been denied entry because she didn’t pay with a ticket. This second option would lead us to believe that the Woman at the Turnstile aside from being a psychopomp and a gatekeeper, is also a bit of a trickster. This seems to hold true with Nyarlathotep’s willingness to mess with humans on a grand scale.

Either of these seems like a valid option for what we would want to get out of this short story. Now let’s move on to actually making some of this usable at the table.

Making this a Scenario

Admittedly, there is likely more effort involved in making this into a scenario than it would take a different type of story. A more traditional and modern weird fiction or horror story would have been fine, but I took this as a challenge to change a story I have loved into a CoC scenario.

The House and Grounds

As a location we have an old country estate in the south of England, most likely in Cornwall1. We can imagine that the estate is still maintained, but showing its age. There is still a full-time servant that is employed, Agnes, and a gardener that maintains the grounds. The house is two stories, with a generous porch at the rear. There is a summerhouse on the grounds in the back that also butts up against a wooded area that is part of the property. The wooded area is filled with alleys that lead around in a grand loop of the property that can take roughly half an hour to traverse. At the back of this are is where the pool lies.

The Pool

The Pool itself would have to be some bound elder thing, or at least a form of stationary avatar. Perhaps it is just a portal to Azathoth, that occasionally eats a human virgin every thousand years or so?

In terms of a game, I think either of these would work although I am leaning towards the idea of the portal to somewhere else. That gives many more options for a canny GM to tap into. The GM could alter the premise and make it a guarded portal to another location, one where they have a thriving business selling young human virgins. Or it could lead to the Dreamlands where an old witch is pulling in unruly children.

The Woman at the Turnstile

The other issue here is the Woman. Is she a pyschopomp? A separate harvester for the children, or merely an extension of The Pool itself, thought made manifest?

Again in terms of this being a game, I would recommend for the later. This gives the players another thing to investigate in their route to the “other place” that The Pool might take them. And as a psychopomp, she is easily replaced with an avatar of Nyarlathotep.

If the woman is an avatar of Nyarly and The Pool is a portal as described above, then it would need to be a pretty low-level one, as it will need to be the climax of the scenario.

The Hook

The investigators could be contacted by the grandparents of Deborah after exhausting all other means of investigation. They are looking for their granddaughter who disappeared in the middle of the night, running out into a violent summer storm. Her footprints clearly led to the pool in the back of the garden, but there they stop. Fearing she had drowned herself, the pool was searched but a body wasn’t found.

They did find an odd assortment of detritus at the bottom of the pool nearest the house, however. A pencil worn down to the eraser, a miniature jug, a small China pig, and a crested button showing the school crest of Deborah’s school.

Of course as you can tell the easiest thing to do is to make it as if Deborah succeeded, or The Pool succeeded in our case, and have her absent from the story. Perhaps she is already dead, or perhaps she has been sold into slavery in the Middle East or Leng. But it would be better to have her missing in some far off locale that the Investigators can get to through The Pool as gate, then attempting to rescue the girl from some unknown horrors on the other side.

The Evidence

Here is a list of items that the investigators should be able to find about the house, family, myths and pool.

The House

  • Owned by the same family since its construction in the early Edwardian period.
  • Current residents have lived here for over 50 years.
  • House is owned by the maternal grandparents of the missing girl Deborah.

The Family

  • House is owned by the maternal grandparents of the missing girl Deborah.
  • Deborah’s mother died in childbirth nine years prior with the boy Roger.
  • The children only spend their summers at the house in Cornwall. The rest of their time is split between holidays at their father’s house in London, and their boarding school6.

The Myths & History

  • A child has disappeared in the area of The Pool for as long as recorded history, roughly once a century. In more recent times, the disappearances are explained away as tragedy, but the deaths are too far apart for any sort of sane pattern to emerge.
  • The disappearances happen on the nights of summer storms that follow heat waves.
  • Deborah’s journal has sigils and signs that would reference back to occult, and then to mythos writings.
  • The partial sigil that is cut into the mud at the shore of the pool is identical to the one in Debroah’s journal, and eerily similar to one found in the previously mentioned mythos text.
  • some oral histories of the area reference an ancient set on monolith stones in a ring that surrounded The Pool, these have long since disappeared.
  • The standing stones marked a gateway to another realm, the pool itself.
    • There is a long history in Celtic mythology of the Otherworld a place that the Celtic gods lived. Most likely the dead lived there as well.7
    • The Otherworld can be reached in a number of ways, but submerging through water was one of them.8

The Ambiance

This might be the most important part of this scenario. The thing about “The Pool” that makes it so eerie is the strangeness of the main character and how she views things in her normal world. Some of that is going to have to brought up to the forefront in the scenario if you want to capture the same feelings that du Maurier does in the source material.

Some of this is going to be achieved when the investigators interview the family, especially the brother. They will learn that Deborah started talking to herself a few years ago and was prone to lapses of melancholy and oddness. When pushed perhaps Roger would recite one of her little prayers that he overheard her speaking?

More along the lines of an actual Call of Cthulhu investigation is that she leave behind a journal that spells it all out. The secret world, the strange glyphs that she makes on the sand. The process of ablutions that she would do before the pool, all of it.

Then when the investigators go to investigate The Pool again they notice the dead tree at the back looming over them like a crucifix. They feel the blades of grass rippling in the wind, each its own person asking to be touched, and yet dreading to be trod on. They see the sunlight cut through the trees creating an arc of light not unlike that seen in a cathedral, the morning light beaming through stained glass. Really sell it. But don’t let them into this until they have read the journal.

The Close

The end of the scenario would either be the investigators finally convincing the grandparents to fill in the pool, or seeing the investigators travel through The Pool as portal to the other place. From there any scenario based at the location would be able to start as normal.

In this manner this makes for a good introductory scenario perhaps, or maybe even one that could be played between longer scenarios as a simple tie from one place to the next.

If you went for a missing, and not dead Deborah, then she could be waiting on the other side waiting to be rescued. This could, likewise, be tied with another rescue type scenario only changing the missing person out for Deborah.

Hopefully, this has gone to provide a litany of examples that the GM could use to mine this story for some scenario seeds. It should also serve as an example that not only Weird Fiction and Horror tales can be used as a template for Lovecraftian scenarios.

Notes and Citations

  1. This is because du Maurier lived and wrote about Cronwall famously until her death in 1989.  ↩
  2. A pool in the Cornish context is anything from a small pond to a large lake, any still body of fresh water is referred to as a pool.  ↩
  3. Erwin Schrödinger is the father of quantum mechanics and his calculations are what first alluded to the possibility of a separate equally real concurrent universe. Oddly enough he was interested in Vedic Hinduism that also seems appropriate at some level that we won’t cross into here.  ↩
  4. Shiva as Tarakeshwara acts as a psychopomp to deliver the soul to the freedom of rebirth.  ↩
  5. I really like psychopomps for what it is worth.  ↩
  6. Might I suggest Dover College in the southeast of England, giving the children, and family a large swathe of coverage area and isolating them even more from the family they have.  ↩
  7. “They often reach it by entering ancient burial mounds or caves, or by going under water or across the western sea. Sometimes, the Otherworld is said to exist alongside our own located beyond the edge of the earth and intrudes into our world; signaled by phenomena such as magic mist, sudden changes in the weather, or the appearance of divine beings or unusual animals. An otherworldly woman may invite the hero into the Otherworld by offering an apple or a silver apple branch, or a ball of thread to follow as it unwinds.”
  8. Wikipedia, “Celtic Otherworld”r
  9.   ↩
  10. Funny how things will line up if you do enough research on the matter. This also lets us use The Dreamlands as the likely destination of our Pool, which would satisfy those Keepers that enjoy having things line up with known mythology.  ↩

  1. CoC:The Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game, or CoC for short, created by Chaosium in 1982 and centered around the Lovecraftian Mythos.  ↩

  1. MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press, 1998. pp.21, 205, 270, 322–3, 346, 359–60. ISBN 0–19–280120–1.  ↩
  2. “pond” by PHOTOPHANATIC1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 
  3. “Main Turnstiles” by Wyrmworld is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

1 thought on “Scenario Seeds From The Pool

Comments are closed.

Scroll Up