Hi Everyone! No new research this week and no new story next week! Do to some personal events and some general burn out, the Undead Author Society is taking a couple weeks hiatus! See you all around the Holidays!
This Week’s Prompt: 100. Subterranean region beneath placid New England village, inhabited by (living or extinct) creatures of prehistoric antiquity and strangeness.
The Prior Research:In The Depths of the Earth
Tonight was the big night. After breaking curfew three times, tonight we’d finally have a go at the underground. I’d packed everything I’d need in my backpack: some saved up rations, a metal water bottle, a knife and another set of clothes. I’d stuffed some other stuff in my jacket—flashlight, health mask, keys and phone if I ever decided to come back. Which, I wouldn’t. But just in case something went more wrong then we expected.
Officially there’s no one out after lock down. Well, no one who’s not supposed to be. The streets go quiet, the only noise the gently roar of the Atlantic. The whirr of a patrol car or cycle. The occasional shout of someone else getting caught out and scattering. Sometimes a gunshot.
Everyone around town knew one way below. Our parents showed us when we were kids, or our friends showed us if we were new in town. The caves ran through the entirety of the underground, layers and layers of curved stone.
“They haven’t found this one yet—probably will soon though.” Jake had told me. “It’s now or never if we wanna make a run for it.”
They started just putting patrols outside the big one in the center of town. Then there were outposts watching all of them, especially on the coast. Big tunnels into and out of town were a hazard, a security concern. We were still allowed in, and they ignored the smaller ones. We could visit the old skeletal halls, the looming caverns where my parents said spirits walked.
Then, a month in, they covered it with concrete. There was a riot, there was a lot of noise—and a lot of gunshots. Even today, I can hear them pounding from the other side. Less now than before.
And then they started just dynamiting the rest. I watched one, as the carved statues crumbled down over the entrance.
Of course, tunnels under the town are a hazard. Spies could get in through them, or even enemy combatants. An entire fifth column could be built down there. And folks could get out.
This one was near the edge of town, a twenty minutes’ walk from the old railroad tracks. There was a big tree nearby, and the roots had covered most of it. It was…it wasn’t actually that big. Maybe four feet tall, and it down to three feet tall pretty quick. It was only three feet wide.
“Your sure this leads to the exit?” I said, gulping and looking down into the darkness. “Like, this actually connects with the rest?”
“Yeah.” Jake said, checking his own pack. “I did a test run—didn’t get all the way to the end, but hit tunnels I recognized. We’ll be fine.”
There isn’t much wind coming out of the tunnel—but there is some. I breath in, breath out, and look up at the searchlights.
I have to bend my back pretty low to get anywhere—its cramped, and cold, and wet. Its miserable for a bit, before at last the cave opens up. I’d say how long, but I wasn’t counting steps. And time seems strange down there anyway. I don’t breathe easily till we get to the deep cave.
The deep caves are the ones with the strange stones—they look like those terrible lizard things I see in text books. Not exactly like that, but long fingers in the stone. Small carvings rising from the ground Rib cages just poking out of the wall. And of course, this is where they are. We called them the friendly folk. They have their own name, but its—well, its not easy to say right, so they settled with friendly folk.
I’d grown up right next to them—but still seeing one out of now where in a dark cave was terrifying. Long limbs holding onto the wall, and its paper white face with red eyes smiled at me. It clicked and drummed its fingers. It thought all the ways in were closed.
“Not all of them.” I said, shaking my head. It clicked again, its fingers playing on the stone like drums. Sealing the doors was a breach of old laws.
“It—I mean, it doesn’t really matter if it’s legal does it?” Jake said shrugging. “They don’t care, they’ll drop a landmine down here if they get the chance. We need to get out while we can.”
“They’ll bury us all.” I said, shaking my head. “Look, we—we’re just looking to pass through, get out, before it gets too bad.”
It held out a hand, bending it’s face into a smile. I sighed and handed over one of those assembling cubes puzzles. They get bored in the dark, and puzzles that are more…kinetic are easier when you don’t have light.
It let out a high pitched giggle and drew an arrow on the wall, hovering just above the stone. Directions. Faintly glowing fungi grew from the wall—a glimmering trail out to the sea. Once we got to the beach, we could find a ship.
“You think they’ll demolish all this?” I asked, walking side by side now that the cave allowed it, careful to have the lights on the floor and ceiling. “I mean, these caves have been here longer than we have.”
“Probably not.” Jake said, frowning. “Probably expensive right? Loading up that much dynamite to smash out the foundations of an entire town.”
“Right, probably.” I said, turning to look at one of the more elaborate drawings on the wall. Friendly folk had drawn it. You could tell, with the bumps and rivets—no light meant most of the meaning was in the feeling. You could see additions from later visitors. Fudgier lines from thicker fingers, but more color shining in the light. It was a wonderful sunset. Running a hand along it, you could almost feel the warmth on the water.
“Bet they just concrete over all of it, and call that that.” Jake said, nodding. “And when the war’s done, everyone will take sledgehammers to it, break it open, and it’ll be like nothing ever happened.”
“What if they win the war?”
Then there was a boom. Then a crash of stones crumbling. The world shook.
We started running. Another boom shook and this time some stones fell down. I caught myself mid trip, as the small dark place began falling in.
“Not much farther!” I heard Jake shout. He wasn’t that far ahead, but he wasn’t slowing down—I needed to catch up. I needed to keep going, as I pulled myself and ran. I could smell the sea, and saw Jake round a corner—and then the ground shook again. The boom was ahead of me.
There were more lights. I heard Jake shout, and held myself against the wall. There weren’t any gun shots. But Jake didn’t come back around. I turned my flashlight off. Sirens. Another loud boom from behind. I turned into the echoing dark—where could I run now? I stepped back towards the boom. Where could I—
And then I saw those old pallid faces, leaning from the cave. Long fingers parting the stone of the wall—a third path I ran down. As they closed it behind me, I heard the thud of boots running by.
I started to breath again in the dark. The boots passed, again and again. I could see them, huddled around. Pale faces of the friendly folk, looking up at me. Not smiling, not angry. Blank and waiting. Their fingers were curled, clutching objects. One crawled along the edge, holding that old puzzle box. And held out its free hand.
I shook my head. I had nothing to give.
It drummed on the cave and chirped like a bird. It wasn’t asking for something. It was offering. Something it wanted me to take away from here, before the thunder got any closer.
“Take where?” I asked, looking around. Anywhere, it said. Anywhere but here.
“If you can get me out of here, I can get it out.”
It presented a stone box, maybe six inches long and four inches wide. When I took it, I felt the waves and faces carved on its exterior. Friendly faces. The friendly folk rushed around, and deeper and deeper down we went. I’d never seen these caves. They were blur of moss and mold, green and red things, pale things hanging from the ceiling, laughing noises.
They took me down further and further.
Until, I heard the sound of the ocean’s tide, coming in. The dull roar of the waves.
The harbor stretched out for ages—a small boat sat there, piled high with boxes. No sails, but a number of little fins along the bottom. As I got aboard, the crowd retreated. They left little gifts, and shoved it off.
And that’s when the shock started to fade, as I drifted out to sea, colorful mosaics on the cave walls illuminated by my flashlight. Eventually the tide and fins would take me to open see, with a gift from the friendly folk—and who knows where to. Just not here.
100 stories. 100 research articles. I feel like I should have something more to say than that. I’m just boggled at the amount of work this website represents—over four years of work and 320,000 words. Thanks to everyone who has read this blog, retweeted it, and even supported our patreon! This project isn’t even half way done (that’s still a few months away), and yet it’s already grown so much. And I even wrote a story I’m kinda proud of for the occasion! I think with some of these prompts, just starting with the supernatural makes the consequences of the story more impactful—sort of the reverse of the cat story, that I also really enjoyed.
To another 100 posts and another 4 years!
And if you do want to support the site, for more content (3000~ words a month of stories or research, at least! Plus new RPG content as it’s done!) check out our Patreon! $1 dollar for new stories, $5 for new research, and at $10 you get to add a bit to the regularly stories here!
This Week’s Prompt: 100. Subterranean region beneath placid New England village, inhabited by (living or extinct) creatures of prehistoric antiquity and strangeness.
The Resulting Story:
The underground and underworld are topics of human imagination for as long as humans have been around. It’s of little surprise, since the world below is an almost alien notion—neither plants nor sun seem to be there, but at the same time things spring from it. In this case, Mr. Lovecraft wants to point to prehumen or at least prehistoric. And for that, we have a startling amount to find in folklore. We discussed some of this before—but most of this is new.
We can start of course with the creations of the worlds before this one. One Othama story tells of worlds buried in layers beneath this one. The first one, inhabited by the first race of humans, never suffered age or sickness. However, without these, the immortals grew too numerous and devoured everything, before turning to cannibalism. They were wiped out, and the sky collapsed on them, forming the next world. Here age was introduced, but it grew quicker with each generation—and so they were wiped out. The next age smoking tobacco spread down the generations too fast—and so they too were buried. Before the forth and current world was made, the gods noticed that the world was slightly off balance—each collapsed sky had tilted farther and farther up in the east. After raising the west to balance it, they placed the current race of humans.
The Dine have a slightly different story, presenting a layered world but not layered creations. Instead, humanity ascends through each world after being driven out of the one before it. Battles often follow, although one document suggests the third world was abandoned after Coyote kidnapped two of Water Buffalo’s children. The fourth world was found too barren for habitation, and the final ascent was into this world, the fifth world.
The Zuni have another tale of underground peoples in the same area. Here these people are not quiet dead, but not quiet alive. They live opposite lives of humans—food is toxic too them, but they can live on vapors and steam. They are ‘incomplete’, and able to shift their shape. One story tells how two heroic twins heard the wailing and war calls of these people, and went down to learn of their nature. The twins used magic to travel down into the underworld, entering a dark lake with their shields on backwards.
They discovered what we have already revealed—but also that the unmade men cannot be hurt by strong blows and weapons, but only by soft and normally delicate things like grass. The wind of straw becomes a wind of arrows below, and the touch of a jay bird landing on them is like lightening. The twins try and teach their own ways to make them stronger, but are disdained as eaters of refuse and monsters by the people there.
Further south, we find the Maya. We have here a number of chthonic and underground realms. In the Popul Vuh, the world below is Xibalba, the land of the dead. Here we find the houses of bats and obsidian, rivers of pus and scorpions. We also find in more modern times the Earthlords. These spirits are rich but flighty, and live far away from any towns. They dress as colonial Spaniards and ride horses—and with their immense wealth comes the power to be both cruel and kind without worry.
Among the Ainu, there are conflicting descriptions of the underground. At least one version claims that the bottom of the underworld, seven layers down, is where great thunder gods battle. When one die, they are restored to the heavenly abodes and shoot back down to their place of war, forming lighting bolts. These battling gods fight over fields of paradise, far enough away that they will not destroy the world.
Other accounts suggest that the world is like a coin—on this side, we live. On the other side, the gods and others live in a paradisaical existence or demons live a hellish one. Both trample down the ground, keeping it even.
Among the Tonga, the underworld contains Maui Atalanga’s garden, where his mischievous son Maui Kijikiji discovered fire. Fire was held by Maui Kijikiji’s grandfather, who loaned his grandson some of it—only for him to repeatedly put it out. At last, he gave him the hole log in frustration, which Kijikiji tried to smuggle out. Atalanga caught him, and forced him to return it—but didn’t notice that some of Kijikiji’s loincloth had caught on fire. There also grows a nonu tree, who’s leaves restore the dead. In Maori stories, Maui (and my source indicates only one Maui) is a descendant of the inhabitants of the underworld, and steals fire from the below as well, and discover his heritage like Maui Kijikiji by following his father and finding a secret road to the below. He stole fire more properly, with no father trying to stop him as directly.
There is a mountain in Basque country that has a darker below, it’s entire interior full of Satanic worshipers. Strange songs are sung and resound out, smoke rises from burnt offerings. I discussed the fullness of the origin of these omens on patreon, but at least in part the regular witches sabbath begins here, and it appears the mountain is named after these gatherings (Aqualarre–a mountain I can’t find on the world maps).
Welsh mountains and mines are said to be inhabited by coblynbeau. The cobyln is a knocker or thumper in the mine. They stand about a foot and a half tall in miners clothes, and attend to a variety of activities in a mine with no clear purpose. If irritated they will throw stones at miners. At least one account reports that they are busy in their own, spectral coal mines and thus are only seen when they are on holiday.
Their German cousins, however, are less friendly. The German miner will hear three distinct knocks to mark his doom from the knockers, and smaller knocks for lesser evils. These are a tad taller as well, and will even go to unwork the miners efforts. Some even report that these kobolds will place wicked metal in the ores if insulted, seeking to poison miners who have displeased them. On other times, they will work to ensure a miner with their favor strikes a particularly rich vein of metal—more aid then the average cobyln.
In Ulster, fairies can be found in clefts and caverns—and speaking with them can have dire consequences of deafness or loss of speech. Demolishing one fortress that the faeries dwelled in lead to the death of every laborer, and a number of caverns beneath the fortress had a tendency to swallow up cattle plowing nearby. These caverns could even be hidden from mortal eyes, and held prisoners within, and some were laid on their side so movement required going down a central hole. Some of these are built by a group known as the Danes—however, these appear distinct from the real Danes, as they were wiped out in a massacre by the current population of Ireland in most accounts. They had sandy hair, long limbs, and large feet. They are joined by the Pechts, who could slip through a keyhole. The pechts dress in grey cloths or skins, and will work the field—however, if they are paid in food they will grow offended and flee. The pechts are said to be particularly numerous, capable of standing in a single line and passing dirt from one end of Ireland to the other without moving a foot. These two are sometimes conflated with fairies, a group we could write on for ages.
The underground in Arabia has such strange wonders as well—massive caverns guarded by automatons and talisman gates. Buried in the earth in one story is a crown that made one the king of all of India, realms of riches. Maps to these places, and information on how to navigate their terrors, were the starts of many an expedition.
In the pulps and works around H.P. Lovecraft, of course, there are other underground and subterranean locales. There was the world of Vril, a land where men and women turned hidden and occult powers of life for their own uses. There was the Hollow Earth, where perhaps ancient species and people survived—a notion that perhaps owes some of its origins to the disgust at notions of extinction, and partly to the lack of exploration of the depths. The idea that dinosaurs were not wiped out by the Creator but persisted in some yet unseen place was strong for a long time. Mr. Lovecraft put a number of caverns beneath the world, from ones used for Satanic rites to ones in the distant Antarctic to systems beneath castles that hide ancestral fears.
These stories present us a swath of dangers in the underworld, even if uninhabited. And we have yet to the touch on the clearest meaning, that both terms of antiquity and prehistory suggest—that the depths of the world are old and historically heavy. They are places full of potential riches lost to time and things time has swallowed up. From lost creations of cannibals, to the origins of flame, to things made of smoke instead of flesh…I wonder what we will find, when we descend below?
Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. E.P. Dutton 1919.
Batchelor, John. The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901
O’Bryan, Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians. Smithsonian Institute, 1955
Collcott,E. E. “Legends from Tonga. The Maui.” Folklore Vol 32, No. 1, March 31 1921.
Cushing, Frank Hamilton. “A Zuni Folk-Tale of the Underworld”. The Journal of American Folklore Vol 5., No. 16, American Folklore Society Jan-March 1892.
Jackson, Georgina F. Shropeshire Folklore: A Sheaf of Cleanings. 1883
Popul Vuh: Sacred Book of The Quiche Maya. Translated by: Allen J. Christenson. University of Oklahoma, 2007.
Watanabe, John. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist. Vol 17. No 1. Feb 1990.
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This Week’s Prompt: 99. Salem story—the cottage of an aged witch—wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.
The Prior Research:Salem
I’d been house hunting for the last four days, when Alex finally agreed to take me to the house on 35th and Main. He grumbled and sighed the entire drive, before we pulled up to the slightly overrun yard. It was a nice, two story house—clean windows, nice door, fresh wallpaper.
“It’s just a bit pricey, you know, and there are better places.” He said, sighing as we walked through the house. “I mean, and you know, it’s got a history.”
“And that’s why we’ve got to check it out!” I said. The house was the exact same, top to bottom—okay, not quiet the same. The kitchen down stairs was the exact shape of the guest room right above it, the bedroom and living room perfectly mirrored each other.
“I mean, it’s not like this is the same house they hanged her in.” I said, flicking a light switch on.
“No…Okay, no it’s not.” Alex admitted. “Got rebuilt a few times after fires and the like. Last time was back in the 70s I think. Some freak earthquake or something broke the foundation and they had to fix it. And then there was a wave of renovations.”
I walked through the halls. I wonder how much of this place had actually stayed the same after three centuries—were the rooms always like this? Did they shift and change? The attic upstairs was entirely empty except some boxes—what had they once held? Was the living room the same one where they tried her, searched her entire body for where the creatures of the night drank blood?
“I think it’s the one.” I said, smiling as we left.
“Of course you do.” Alex sighed. “Of course the witch house halfway out of town is the perfect one—no, can’t be any of the ones down town or near a train station, nope, crazy house.”
“So it really is the same, top to bottom?” Cheryl asked. She was at the desk across from me, peering over the screen.
“Doesn’t that get…confusing?” She said, clattering away at the keyboard.
“Not as bad as you’d think—I mean, I’ve gotten mixed up once or twice when putting stuff away.” I said with a shrug. “You know, I’ll come home, get ready for shower and whoops! Walked into the walk in closet, bathrooms on the other floor.”
“Wow. I mean, that’s not too bad.”
“No, like—unless it’s late at night, it’s pretty easy to navigate around. When I’m like half asleep, it gets worse.” If I’m drunk it is an actual nightmare. I once spent an hour racing up and down the stairs, trying to figure out which one had the living room and which one had the bedroom, before just sleeping on the couch.
“Seen any…” Cheryl, pausing mid type. “You know. Last people that had the house left after a month.”
“No, nothing.” I said, clattering along. “I mean, I might ask someone to look at the walls.”
“What, blood leaking from them already?” Cheryl said with a nervous laugh. I didn’t mention that the walls had made a clicking sound at night—not loud enough to wake me up, but enough to keep me awake. Everything was so quiet out there.
It wasn’t much of a conversation, really. I had a few like that, people surprised I was living in the old haunted house. Which—okay, yeah, a few people it turns out had gone missing in the place. But like, of the past owners—I checked, out of curiousity—none of them ‘mysteriously’ vanished, and even the ones that had a bad time were like, fifty to sixty years apart. The stories get wilder around the 1700s—everyone’s grandma has a story about my old house it seems.
It was kinda thrilling to live somewhere famous. I even gave tours to a few friends—some of them joked about breaking into it when they were teens. Looked different, back then. Run down, but same double floors.
“Yeah, its always been like that.” Jermey said, pointing at the ceiling as we walked down the stairs. “I mean, you know, when I was here it was like. Graffiti’d up and shag carpeted.”
“Yeah, it was gross as hell. But the same, top to bottom. Weird that they didn’t like—like the bathrooms weren’t.” He said looking it over. “I mean, they kinda are—we figured that since they were on top of each other, we’d drop stuff down one pipe and it’d go down the other but nope. Just pissed off the handy man.”
“Thought it was abandoned?” I asked, frowning.
“I mean, no one lived here. But I remember once we got wasted and tore up one of the walls—freaked out, thinking we’d get caught.” He said, gesturing. “But it was all put together in like. A day. Someone had to do it. Never heard of ghosts patching up brickwork.”
I did get used to the noise after a while. The little creaks and dings and shifting of moving papers stopped bothering me. I dreamed about getting lost in repeating hallways more than once. I know I came home drunk and went to bed in my room, and woke up in the living room at least once.
I kinda got used to just staring ahead and counting whenever I saw someone on the sidewalk, a shape I couldn’t quite make out until the last moment. Once or twice, I caught someone following me—or well. I thought they were following me. They just lived nearby and I hadn’t seen them yet. No one was following me.
At least—well there was one time. I woke up in the middle of the night in the bedroom down stairs. I walked around, trying to get my bearings again, and looked out the window—and I thought I saw Cheryl. She was just walking…to the bus station, which was weird because I swear she lived on the other side of town. No reason for her to be around her.
“Oh, just went home and binged some shows.” She said when I asked what she’d been up to last night. “How about you?”
“Not much. Read a book.” I muttered. I mean, it wasn’t a lie. I’d been reading some documents. The crew that came over couldn’t find anything causing the clicking sound, probably something the construction crew before left in there. So I went digging for the construction crew for the current house—and couldn’t find one.
I couldn’t find the last one either. Not like, a shell company or anything, but like—there’s a newspaper article from 1970 about a fire destroying the house. It’s listed for sale in 1972. That’s the house I’m in. But no one built the house. The listing is in a newspaper, it doesn’t mention the company. And I don’t even know how to start finding that in a public record.
“I think it was built by OMN?” Alex said. I hadn’t given him a ring in a while. “Can’t really…huh. Can’t find a specific record, but they did a lot of construction back then. Hey, don’t worry about it too much. It’s probably just settling or something—get an exterminator if your worried its rats in the walls I guess?”
Or move out of the creepy house, like I said to was the unspoken bit there. But whatever. I couldn’t leave—unless I found another buyer, I didn’t have the cash for that. So exterminator it was.
“And he found nothing.” I muttered. I could feel the bags under my eyes, even if they weren’t there yet.
“Well, that’s good right?” Jeremey said, printing another few copies of…something. I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.
“I just…It’s been getting louder I think. More frequent for sure. He heard it, said there’s no animal he’d heard make that sound—left out some traps.” I waved it away. Just when I got used to the little noises, this one comes in insistent.
“I mean—maybe a plumber or something? Might be something rattling in the pipes.” Jermey said, tapping the papers. “Loose coin or something.”
“I don’t…maybe?” I said throwing my hands up. “I’ve got to figure out what it is—I swear, I’d never have bought the place if I’d known it was this much of a pain. Supposedly haunted historical house is one thing, this is…This is just maddening.”
I just didn’t sleep that night. It was the first night I stayed awake all night—cup of coffee and ears listening for any sounds. I’d just, I’d catch this thing.
The ticking started earlier than I remember it starting before. One of the old paintings ticked up a few inches. As I watched, the face on the old woman’s painting peeled off. A small plate there, of some fibrous material, rotated.
I got up slowly…and the floor swam beneath me. I fell back down. The room rotated. The walls fell away, a labyrinth of crystal and glass shimmering in the moonlight. My bed fell through the liquid floor. I screamed and waited for a crash.
I looked up at the old house—shimmering like moonlight on the water. New stars shone down through the transparent roof. When I got up this time, I was on solid ground. I saw hundreds of miles beneath the house—hundreds of fractal rooms. Perfectly shaped, all with glowing like stars. Except one—down at the very bottom, there was something…something dull. Some small blob, a hundred feet away. The ticking was coming from down in the depths, and I was sure it was from that strange shape.
There was a shout form the window. Looking up, I saw such…wonderful places. I saw hills of sunlight, I saw sable sands with red rivers. I saw moons, I saw worlds outside. I saw them tearing and bending and wonder turned to horror. The ticking turned to skipping—the house…whatever it was, something was wrong. I looked down again, at the shape sitting their listless.
It was like a bug trapped in amber. A small shape but I saw the whole house struggling to break free of it. It shook and seemed to crack. The floor gave in beneath me, and I went tumbling down. Before I could get up, it cracked and fell again.
Bruised and exhausted, I fell. I fell through house after house. I fell down centuries, down to the very bottom. I looked up, struggling a bit to catch my breath. The light was dim down here—I could barely see my fingers.
I looked up and saw her. Hanging there—not really her. Not her body, that was long gone. Her shadow? Something that was there but wasn’t. It wasn’t really there. It was there though. It was…the house was broken. It yearned up.
But she was there. Her body was there, jammed in the gears and light. She was glowing like a dim moon, soft and cold. The windows down here were all black seas and forgotten woods. The house shook and quaked. It glowed and ticked.
I next remember waking up in the hospital. The doctor said there’d been an accident—freak fire while I was asleep. Most of the house was burned down—not all of it, but most. The fire department was just glad to have contained it—there were lots of old homes down there. It could have spread uphill, caught some of the others.
It was really lucky it just burned mine. I guess.
Just like that earthquake back in the 70s, I guess. Or the flash flood that tore out the foundations in 1922. It’s a very lucky house, in a way.
I’m still unhappy with this story. I liked the idea of the house as some sort of mechanism, which was stuck trying to complete its task by the crime committed in the past. But I couldn’t find a strong A-plot to go in with, and interweave with, the haunted house. I think there might be some burn out on houses for now–and looking a head, we’ll be away from them for at least a few weeks! Thank you for your patience.
This Week’s Prompt: 99. Salem story—the cottage of an aged witch—wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.
The Forthcoming Story:
This prompt continues our haunted and disturbed houses of New England—a tour that has gone on for almost a month now. Here, however, Mr. Lovecraft has grounded us in a very particular historical tragedy—the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The story of the Witch Trials is an infamous one, but one where the details are sometimes lost. So I will describe the chronology in brief here.
At the center of the witchcraft outbreak are two girls, Elizabeth and Abigail Parris, daughters of Reverend Samuel Parris, and their mixed race servant Tituba. According to documents, Elizabeth and Abigail learned tricks from Tituba during the winther of 1691-1692. Other girls are documented as possibly being there. A time after this, it is reported that the children began acting strangely—they spoke in tongues, crawled into holes and walls, and others acted foolishly. The local doctor could not identify the cause of this behavior, and proclaimed them bewitched. This of course attracted local interest, including a gathering of Ministers to determine who had bewitched them. Tituba and her husband offered their skills at finding witches—but were accused of witchcraft themselves by the children. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn were also accused. All were found guilty, and executed. Shortly after there were waves of witchcraft accusations in the area around Salem—A total of 151 people were accused, most but not all women. At least 20 were executed. Most of towns accused one to three individuals, and often only held one trial that year. Most of the accused follow expected trends—they were usually of low means, mobile, old and asocial. Those of greater means were rumored witches or accused before hand, and often new arrivals. After 1692, the hunt ended as the commission founded was dissolved. Numerous suggestions have been made for why—the targeting of less stereotypical
Recurring incidents associated with witchcraft and the trials are appariations terrorizing their victims, often to compel them to sign a book; the pricking or draining of blood; the appearance of people far from home; and the unheard speech of witches, often taken as cursing. This is not particularly new for witchcraft. In fact, one of the reasons Salem has attracted attention is not do to it’s bloodiness—it is far from the largest witch hunt—nor its symptoms—witchcraft symptoms, being based on witch hunting guides often enough, are very similar. The only new notable symptoms is the betwitched cannot say the name of God, nor read the Puritan catechism, but can read it and say the Quaker and Catholic ones. Which indicates a curious and genuinely frightening notion for a community so defined by its religious convictions—that some force has compelled them into the hands of the enemy. But that is for the end.
No, the primary point of interest with Salem is that it is very late in the history of witch hunting, and in a community that was not prone to it. Popular imagery of the story has suggest the Puritan Witchhunter as the most common participant in these massacres, but historically that does not bare out entirely well. The sum of Salem is a strange aberration in time and space, fitting into a common narrative of history during it’s era and until to this day—that as one moves farther in space, one moves backwards in time. So far from the continent, it is no wonder such barbarism occurred.
Certainly, the witch hunts have a character about them that lend themselves well to horror stories—they are a gothic horror for New England, remembered well by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. Here the witchcraft trials serve as a strange, spectral ghost that haunts the landscape and the characters. From the echoes of the accusations in the Scarlet Letter to the haunted images and manuscripts in The Devil in the Manuscript and Edward Randolph’s Portrait. Given his admiration for Mr. Hawthorn, such an interest is not surprising for Lovecraft.
They are also a frequent stand in for the notion of a paranoid and superstitious community turning on its own—Arthur Miller’s The Crucible used the trials as an allegory for the MacArthur era of anti-communist witch hunts, for instance. Again, Mr. Lovecraft’s own lurking fear of tradition—his fear that the so called enlightened era of humanity was a mere moment, and soon darkness would descend in its old way—makes the connection rather clear. It is at times the use of authority to establish itself over the mob and quell progress—a line with more than some truth—and other times presented as the mob calling for blood and at best moderated by the priesthood.
Beyond these older sources, other media has of course taken on the notions of the witch trial in the new world—if not Salem itself, then certainly it’s presence. The Blair Witch, for instance, is also accused by children of her nefarious acts and haunts a nearby woods. The online series Catghost enters into these notions of magic and witchcraft—and even goes so far as Lovecraft’s witch house, crediting to the witches there some true knowledge of the universe beyond mortal ken. VVitch is a more direct example, featuring a Puritan family and being within a century of the witch hunts themselves.
What then should be done? The prompt presents us with a rough timeline of events: A witch trial, followed by the search of her house, in which terrible things are found. This is a profoundly bad outline—there is no clear surprise, except to subvert the modern expectation that the victim is innocent. I do not believe we are in need of a story where the witch was really a witch. Alternatively, perhaps this is meant as a less direct version, akin to Dreams in the Witch House. Here, it becomes something again like a haunted house. And certaintly, there is a tradition of ghostly witches and associations between witches and necromancers. Here the history of the house comes to grossly manifest into the new inhabitants lives. And something could be done with that sort of horror.
One author suggested that the witch trials, and Salem itself, stand for the intervention of a spiritual evil in a material world. They are the imposition and manifestation of a very non-‘whig’ or modern sort of horror. They are the ancestral sin of the region—one of many perhaps. This then becomes a collapse of history in two ways. First, the most literal—the victims of the past refuse to stay dead and quiet literally disturb the modern world. Secondly, the means of this disturbance is not in the methods the modern world would permit—it is not an avenging family member descended of the witches, it is not some structural or biological secret lost from beyond the grave, it is instead a horror like those older horrors. It is a specter, a phantom, a shadow that lives.
If we wanted to go in a different direction then a simple Lovecraft haunted house, where ancestral guilt and fears stalk a new victim, we could play with the notions of memory and history that crop up in researching Salem. A major difficulty for those investigating Salem is the lack of proper documentation at times. Not all court documents are preserved, not all the accused have court documents, and so on. Things have simply been lost, some recovered in poems and stories, but most abandoned. Things that perhaps should not have been forgotten, for forgotten things still remain.
How would you approach a horror story about a witch’s cottage? Was she holding back something in the basement, now unleashed by foolish clergy men? Was there no horror before, but the tragedy has invited it in?
Latner, Richard. “The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chornology and Collective Violence in 1692”, Journal of Social History. Vol. 42, No. 1, Fall 2008. Oxford Universtiy Press.
Nevins, Winfield S. Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692: Together with some account of other witchcraft trials in New England and elsewhere. North Shore Publishing, 1892.
Stock, R.D.. “Salem Witchcraft and Spiritual Evil: A Century of Non-Whig Revisionism.” Christianity and Literature Vol 42 No. 1, Autumn 1992. Sage Publications Inc.
This Week’s Prompt:98. Hideous old house on steep city hillside—Bowen St.—beckons in the night—black windows—horror unnam’d—cold touch and voice—the welcome of the dead.
The Prior Research:Rhode Island Ghosts
Bowen Street was a bit nicer than I rememberd. The old pot hole was fixed—the bigger one, not the little ones—and the fences weren’t as rusty. Uncle Rodney had been a bit of a nutter towards the end. There were three locks, and a keypad. I remember when I was fifteen him showing off his security room—I’m still not sure if it’s legal to have that many security cameras peering out in all directions from your house. I’m sure it isn’t healthy to stare at monitors all night.
It was a stroke that got him.
Opening up the house, even with the keys and the passcodes, felt like breaking into some giant vault. There was a layer of dust covering everything inisde, and that was before I started going through the locked doors. Most of them were double locked, and the windows had bars on the inside. I don’t know what Uncle Rodney was worried about—he was just generally nervous it seemed—but he had made one amazing cage.
It really shouldn’t go to waste, I thought. It was his life’s work. And I admit, I didn’t feel like sleeping any time soon. The layers of dust made the air heavy, and I didn’t have time to clean. One night, with some beers, seeing what the old man was looking at all night. I’ll toss it out tomorrow, I thought.
The house clicked to life at eight o’clock exactly. Camera’s whirred to life, screens flickered, lights shone down. And that was the visible parts. Webs of motion sensors were spontaneously woven over the yard, and I’m pretty sure the fence gained life electric. And I sat, drinking from a can, watching the screens. Trying to figure out what had made Uncle Rodney so afraid.
There was a bobcat that walked across the street, right up to the gate. I held my breath as it looked at the fence. It reached out a paw—I stared intently as it considered the jump.
And then, suddenly, it ran off. Scapered back where it came. I glanced across the screens, following the little angry furball until it got to a side walk and went down the street.
I mean, at that point, I kinda thought it lived across the street. There was another house there, although I didn’t give it much attention before. I mean, it was barely a house.
The roof was intact, and the doors, and the—I frowned as I looked at the windows. I guess the lights were off? They were completely dark—actually, zooming closer, it looked like the blinds were closed? No, not even that. They were tinted black. I sat back a bit. Was this whole neighborhood paranoid? I zoomed the camera back out, taking in the crumbling wreck. The porch had fallen in, the door looked worn and someone had stolen the door knocker, and–
There was beeping on one of the motion sensors. I frowned, and looked over at the other camera. My heart stopped for a moment as I saw a pale shape—some kid in a grey hoodie or with a blanket around their back—squeezing at the gate. I couldn’t quite make out what he was…I mean the gate was high voltage, maybe he had wire cutters or something.
I had dialed two digits before he was gone. I looked up as the phone rang, and saw him slip across and into the old house, turning back for only a second. I thought he looked into the camera.
“Mr. Barthet?” The voice came through on the other end after a minute of silence. “I don’t know how often we have to answer these calls before it becomes a crime, Mr. Barthet.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked, blinking. “This is the first time I’ve called.”
“Don’t tell me your memory’s going to, Rodney.” The officer sighed. “So what was it this time? Some rave across the street that no one else can here?”
“I’m—I’m not Rodney.” I said slowly. “My names Roger Barthet.”
There was a long pause.
“Oh. Well. I’m sorry for your loss Roger.” The voice said slowly. “Uh, well, alright—Your uncle had a habit of reporting on the old house. Don’t lose to much sleep over it. The place is condemned, should be bulldozed any day now. No one living there but some rats.”
“But I saw–”
“Probably some teen hiding there for a few days or something, you know how kids are.” the officer continued. “If he mucked up your fence too much, that might be something, but, well, we aren’t going out in the middle of the night to chase a kid down in a ghost house.”
And that was it. He told me to get some sleep, see if I felt better in the morning. I sighed, hung up, and went to bed. It rained that night, helped me sleep some.
Not that I woke up feeling any better. If anything, it felt like someone had reached down my throat and dropped a bunch of needles in my stomach. I kinda staggered around most of the day. Took a walk down to the river, did some exploring.
The house across the street was definitely abandoned looking. I mean, the porch was rotting and missing all its paint—it had turned a weird grey brown of dead trees. A bunch of small live ones were growing in the yard. The old fence was pointy and green-black—I can’t quite tell with those old iron fences that have like, the tips you know?–and broken in a few places. The only really intact bits were the windows, which during the day seemed all the more strange. Seriously, why does an abandoned building have tinted windows?
I couldn’t get it out of my head, walking down the riverside. Someone definitely still used that house for…for something, I don’t know what. Maybe it was just a teen sex and drugs den or something. No wonder Uncle Rodney had cameras pointed at, must have been convinced they were going to try and rush his place in the night. I’m surprised I didn’t find a bigger gun-locker in the house. Yeah, I still hadn’t figured out how to get rid of that, I’m pretty sure Rhode Island’s strict about that sort of thing.
I didn’t go to bed that night. I stayed tuned in—the guy I called over said it’d be costly pulling out the all the wires, and he needed to check the house more, so I had a few more days. And I knew what I saw. If I could just see it again—If I could catch that kid—I think it was a kid. That thing in the night, I’d be able to sleep. I spent the afternoon after the work practicing the shutter function on the camera—a quick photo with a click. And so I waited. And waited. I waited as cars passed by, as drunk teenagers stumbled across the side walk, I wait until three in the morning, eyes fixed to the screens, staring out in all directions from this house.
I was almost falling asleep, despite the caffeinated heartbeat. And then I saw it. My finger moved before I did, clicking rapidly on camera six, the one facing the house. There it was—some pale ship leaning against the black windows.
It was pointing at the camera.
No. It was pointing at me. It held up a finger, a thin spidery finger, and curled it back and forth. Closer it said. Closer.
The police weren’t pleased to hear from me again. I swear I heard them mutter something about running in the family. But I know what I saw. And I brought the photos. Didn’t do a ton of good—they looked like photoshop or something. I don’t know. But they agreed, at least, to send someone over. Show me around the other house. Show me no one lived there.
“See, doors not even locked.” Officer Jones said, pushing the rotten wooden door open with one hand. “No one leaves doors open down here. Alright, lets look around, see if there’s any sign of a squatter.”
I grumbled at that—that wasn’t a squatter last night. But whatever. They didn’t believe me, that’s fine. They’d see. He clicked his flashlight on—the house was dark with the tinted windows, but not as empty dark as it was at night.
“Now, we’ll go quick. This place isn’t exactly hospitable.”
The wallpaper was peeling. There was almost half an inch of dust on the entire floor—hell, the carpet on the second floor seemed to be more dust then carpet. There weren’t any dishes, and only a few bits of silver ware. Most were to busted to be used. The walls upstairs had several gouges– “Twenty years ago someone looted all the copper they could,” Officer Jones explained—and most of the light bulbs had been smashed on the ground. There was a bathtub, stained and moldy. A bed. A few picture frames, although there had been more before. You could still see the marks on the wall were they used to be.
There was a chair by the window, where the figure had stood. I walked right up to the tinted window and squinted out—my house was nothing but a shadow from here, an inky blob you could barely call a home.
“Right, see? Nothing’s here.” Officer Jones said, gesturing around. “Nothing but cold damp floor boards, and broken things.”
I frowned and looked around. There was nothing but some broken things, some mold, and some dust. Why wasn’t there more? An old house like this, why not—why wasn’t there any graffiti? Why was no one living in this abandoned but…but stable house? Why hadn’t they for…who knows how long? What was keeping them out?
“Right. Nothing.” I said, as we walked out. What was beckoning me to stay, even in daylight hours?
I stared out the window. No need for cameras this time. I could see that blasted house. I had seen something before. I know it, I know the cameras don’t lie. I’d locked all the doors, I turned on all the sensors. I had a hundred eyes wide open to see it again.
It was so small—behind the tinted windows, a breeze. It pushed gently against the door, pushing it open and outward. I stood and watched as the door opened, the trees rustled. It didn’t speak—it didn’t even seem..there. But the door slammed against the house wall. No breeze moved anywhere else. It slammed again. And I felt it’s eyes staring up into mine.
The police didn’t even give me a minute to explain. There was shouting, and a frustrated “then just stay inside!”. But I couldn’t. There was something there. Something in the house, that was watching me, that wanted something from me—or was offering something. I couldn’t tell. So I went out, into the night. I crossed the street, and went through the door.
This story is a bit rushed, but I like the pacing and I think the general idea of security and observation leading to paranoia. That both houses are in a way haunted. That’s all for this Halloween–apologies for the delay, but things have been hectic.
Next week, we visit another very famous New England town. See you then!
This Week’s Prompt: 98. Hideous old house on steep city hillside—Bowen St.—beckons in the night—black windows—horror unnam’d—cold touch and voice—the welcome of the dead.
The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING
This prompt was tricky—the experience of research in this case was very similar to a much earlier attempt to track down a specific name. A brief internet survey for a haunted Bowen Street turned up a restaurant in Texas—here we have a rather polite ghost, who turns the lights off at around midnight when she wishes to be alone. Fittingly, the article doesn’t record any particularly nasty acts of violence or misery inflicted upon Mrs. Bowen or her family. The timeline isn’t quite right either, so I began my search elsewhere.
There is another Bowen Street, that seemed more likely—Bowen Street, Providence Rhode Island. As the home I first consulted my existing material on Rhode Island—which included a number of haunted places that I will go over in a moment—but found nothing on Bowen Street. Internet searches again revealed nothing on the street, except a ghost tour and a number of apartments. I did, however, find another haunted building and the Lovecraft story that this prompt is based on. And that is the ominously named Shunned House, on the Benefit Street.
The plot of the Shunned House is a plot based on obsession with a strange and unfortunate house. The narrator and his uncle attempt to discern the nature of the century old curse, bringing with them some exceptional weaponry and scientific equipment. When they spend the night there, however, they are visited by strange lights, ghastly faces, masses of mold, and other bizarre sights. I will not spoil the final twist of the story, but it is an unusual ghost story in that it lacks the blood, pale visions.
It is possible that our prompt instead served as the basis of The Unnameable or The House in the Mist. Either way, we are back among the lands of the dead, and the Shunned House begins us in a rather strange position. We can find one of the historic sources of the Shunned House with the Stephen Harris House. The House was constructed over the graveyard of French Huguenots in the eighteenth century, a sure recipe for a haunting.
The actual Shunned House—the Stephen Harris House in reality—has a similar origin. It is built atop a Hugenot graveyard. A wealthy merchant, Stephen Harris, and his wife built the house, and afterwards became horribly cursed. Ships began to sink, children died, and other tragedies. The legend goes on to say that Mrs. Harris eventually went mad, no doubt in part with grief. Most famously, when she was confined to the attic, she was heard shrieking in French—a language she didn’t know. The house stayed in the family, falling into decay and decrepitude as the house failed to sell. By the 1920s, the street had become a slum with the haunted and crumbling house on the hill.
This is of course not the only haunted house in Rhode Island. As I’ve alluded to before, all places are haunted in the end. One along the ghost regards a Mr. Jackson. He was traveling with one Captain William Carter in the winter 1741, intending to take some furs to Boston. The captain murdered Mr. Jackson for his furs, and stuffed his body beneath the ice at Pettaquamscutt Cove. The body was eventually discovered by an eel fisher, and the good captain was brought to trial for it.
However, Mr. Jackson was not at rest. Nearby indigenous settlements were so harassed by the ghost, the village was moved to avoid him. The roads nearby then reported Mr. Jackson’s presence up until the mid 1930s—well into Lovecraft’s day.
More haunted locales, however, are also common. There is the story of the Ramtail Factory. A dispute between the owners and the night watchmen over pay resulted in the night watchmen threatening that to get the keys, they would have to take them from a dead man. Shortly after, the owners found the factory locked—and breaking in, found the watchman dead inside, hanging from the pull rope of the bell. The bell rang out every night at midnight from that day forward. Removing the rope would not stop it—and removing the bell lead to stranger mischief, such as running the factory at full speed or turning the mill stone backwards against the water.
A house in Wickford, built by one Richard Smith in 1639 was reportedly more haunted then could be believed. Smith’s Castle, as it is sometimes known, has a long history. Among these many ghosts were a group of indigenous people—the exact nation is not recorded—who had been captured by the settlers. In a fit of drunken cruelty, one of the settlers cut the head off a captive, sending it tumbling into a clock. Another was tarred and feathered before dying. The house had further misfortune, being the site of a suicide later on and a number of other tragedies—a mass grave for forty soldiers is nearby, and one of the owners was beheaded and placed on a pike after King Phillips War.
A strange marker of the dead, attributed to indigenous people, are scrub pines. Each scrub pine that rises, according to local folklore, represents an unnecessary death. One farmer swore to remove each and every one of these pines that grew up in his field every year—and was warned against it by the living. Pushing on, despite the miraculous growth of some pines over night, the farmer met his end when one of the pines collapsed and fell on him.
A number of places in Providence have specific hauntings, but I’ve yet to locate sources for all of them in folklore—the best list I found was here. As always, a haunted place is often the site of violence or death. Murders, abuse, and others result in restless dead seeking redress. Cruelty calls to the dead. In our prompt we have a second layer of the dead—one that separates it from a number of these stories. For, from Mr. Jackson to the night watchmen, most ghosts want their domain vacated. They drive people out. But here we have the dead beckoning inward. The dead welcoming, if invisible. The dead are calling.
And nameless—and I think this is key as well to the horror at play here. Most ghost stories remember the name of the ghost. Names are sometimes repeated, represented, or changed but almost all are remembered. The dead here are not only nameless but numerous—perhaps recalling the Huguenots at the Shunned House, who are known as a mass but forgotten as individuals. If anything, the strange beckoning dark reminds me of another house. A house…well. I have spoken on that house.
I think for this story, weaving the weighted, overgrown and ancient house with the image of new life from the scrub pines might be the most fascinating route. The manifestation of ghosts and others in new life and new knowledge is a form of a horror we haven’t done yet—at least not exactly. Plant life in particular—or in the case of the Shunned House, fungus—has a clear connection to the dead. The underworld is often connected with cycles of seasons and other patterns. Persephone and Hades, as an archetypal story, connects food and vegetation with the land of the dead as does the Maya Hero Twin story.
The other bit of lore I find fascinating about the Shunned House, connecting it to a similar collapsed manor story we wrote, is the notion that the haunted house is trapped here, in this family. The curse cannot be gotten rid of, because no one will buy the land and there is nowhere else to go. Roots laid too deep to be entirely removed from the family line.
What haunted houses have you heard of or visited? What ghostly shapes have you seen, beckoning from the windows?
Bourgaize, Eidola Jean. Supernatural Folklore of Rhode Island. University of Rhode Island, 1956.
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