Long Pig

This Weeks’ Prompt: 112. Man lives near graveyard—how does he live? Eats no food. 

The Following Story: FORTHCOMING

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Cannibalism. The answer is cannibalism. I mean, I suppose we could look into more esoteric explanations, about smuggling food in or feeding off vapors. We might even indulge in the idea that the man who lives near the graveyard is not a man at all—he is some spectre or spirit that is never seen eating because he does not eat. He is something numinous and otherworldly and frankly the simplest answer seems most fitting her. Cannibalism.

Cannibalism has a long history in folklore—I’ve discussed some of the creatures that live near or in graveyards to feed on the bodies interred within here, and the aswang here, and the witches sabbath here, and the nightmare here. I decided to go a bit further afield this time, to see what I could find that involved cannibalism, so today will be a survey of a number of stories and characters associated with cannibalism.

 One story that stuck out was from Swedish Finland, and recounted the fate of a poor girl who was lured into a cave or grotto by a band of robbers. The exact number of robbers varies from telling to telling, but she was married to all of them and forced to cook, clean, and bed them for nine years. Each year she gave birth to a child, and each year, the bandit king cooked and ate the child’s heart. After nine years, they came to trust the girl and sent her on some errand—however, she escaped and told the towns people, who had assumed she was dead.  They went and arrested the murderous robbers, and buried them alive in a nearby wall. The spot is marked with painted hearts, one for each child eaten. Many of the stories mention that the cannibalism was preformed to gain immortality or devilish powers, such as flight.

Ghoul 3

Among the Xam people of South Africa, we have other stories of cannibalistic monsters. One was ||khwai-hem, translated as “All Devouring”. The creature’s appetite was enormous, devouring sheep, then trees, then objects and finally people with a great firey tongue. It was so large it’s shadow resembled a cloud, and was so bloated it’s stomach reached to the ground. It was invited by one of the chief gods to take part in the bounty that resulted from the liberation of livestock. Another such creature from the Xam is the !nu!numma-!kwitƏn, a beast of prey who ate crying children.  While monstrous in appearance, these creatures were not human and thus not “cannibals” in the technical sense. However, their attributes—and the attributes of their more normal relatives, the lion and hyena—were attributed to European settlers by the Xam people during the colonization of West Africa. 

In Russia there are of course the famous cannibals, revenants and vampires. Often the result of sinful corpses buried in the earth, they are restless and may hunger for unwholesome meals. Interestingly, the dead being hungry is not limited to the monstrous—wholesome and clean dead may still be hungry and thirsty for their last forty days on earth. But the unclean dead long for terrible things—flesh, blood, clothes of children. Their monstrous forms can include long tongues that reach to the crown of the head, iron or steel teeth, and large heads. They might sharpen their teeth with a whetstone or grind them together rasping as they hunt their prey, and they caused poor weather near their remains. They in some ways resemble of course the nearby Balkan and Romanian vampires which we covered before–both in the possession of iron teeth and in the draining of vital energy and fluids from not only people but the landscape.  

Then there is of course the Arabic ghoul or ghul, a creature that may be a demon, a male genie, an enchantress,or any of the above depending on the tale. The creature lives in deserts, with cloven hoves and an ugly appereance, and seeks to lure travelers away from the road to murder and eat them. Sometimes this ghoul feared iron, and often needed to be dispatched with a sword to be done in. Many could shapeshift, and some had even more incredible powers—one common one was that a ghoul must be killed with one blow by a sword. Two and the ghoul would survive until one thousand more had been delivered. 

Ghoul 4

A Palestinian folktale has a young farm boy guarding his father’s flock after several sheep have gone missing. When on watch, he catches a ghoul stealing the sheep, and taking them to a nearby well. When he descends the well, he finds many beautiful women and swears at once to save them—striking the ghoul dead and ignoring its please for a second strike. Here the ghoul, like the weather stealing vampire, drains vitality from a region and stores it up elsewhere (see our writings on similar creatures on our Patreon here). Another tale tells how a group of women accepted milk offered by a ghoul, against their friends wishes—alas it was poisoned, and they all perished. 

 However, not every ghoul fed on human flesh. Some provide guidance for humans during their life to achieve their own ends, while others married and lived happily with mortals until they grew homesick. In this way they resemble vampire’s we have discussed earlier—and in fact, some blurring of the two is to be expected. One of the common traits associated with ghouls, that they dig up and devour corpses in graveyards (which I reported above) appears to be mostly an invention of the French translator of Arabian Nights and explains the confusion. Another paper places the confusion in Persia, where the ghoul is the shapeless monster of ruins who feeds on the dead, and is repelled with the name of the prophet–the closeness of this to the notions of the vampire makes me wonder which writer is confused.  The Persian ghoul faces and is defeated by the great heroes of the land, such as Rostam, a hero I must cover in detail some day.

By chance, this week I was reading on Tanith Lee’s Tales from a Flat Earth: Night’s Sorceries, which features  a city of such ghoulish delights. The city’s origins begin with the scheming of cruel vampire lovers in long forgotten tombs, cannibals that fed on the blood of the living and marrow of the dead. They are creatures that think themselves immortal from their cannibalism, and have gained superhuman strength and invulnerability to blades and fire from their feasting. Only their shadow remains vulnerable.  Their children possess even greater strength, and cunning power over the dead. I won’t spoil what becomes of this city of portioners, but it is a fate that is common to those who can only devour.

Ghoul2

Mr. Lovecraft himself presented ghouls in graveyards in a number of stories–most particularly, Pickman’s Model and Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Here we encounter ghouls as graveyard living creatures, very solid in nature, relatives of human kind. Relative enough that they are capable of changeling plots, and traveling between the Dreamlands and the waking world. They are canines as well, recalling the Bendanti who traveled to do battle with the devil as werewolves. 

That sort of grand pulp nightmare is a bit beyond the scope of this story, however. This reads more as a local oddity. In fact, such oddities do appear in British folklore and beyond murderous food stuffs. Dickens gives us reports of men being quietly murdered and baked into sausage, and another of Captain Murderer who resembles in no small part Bluebeard’s more cannibal forms, killing and devouring his wives. Cannibalism and those who feed on the dead are fine nightmarish creatures for a small story I think. We could approach this as an investigative and overly curious lead learning the truth of an otherwise normal but eccentric seeming neighbor. Or we can take the opposite approach than the sedate state suggested, and present the man in the cemetery as a proper ghoul–perhaps hunting for the last heart he needs to attain mystic powers.

Part of the nature of the ghoul, what makes the cannibalistic creature terrifying, is not just that it turns men into meat, flesh into food, but also that it is the spectre of death itself. Rare are ghouls who lurk in safe places–the haunt of caves where the underworld is close by, the graveyard full of corpses, the butcher shop where meat is ever present–all these are the calling cards of the ghoul. The man who tends to the graveyard, the undertaker, is something like this–a man who is familiar with the dead, yet is among the living. I think that familiarity breeds suspicion and distrust, something that might lead to uncomfortable questions if the man is in fact innocent for our tale.

How about you–what strange and terrible tales of cannibals have you heard?

 

Bibliography

Al-Rawi, Ahmed K. “The Arabic Ghoul and Its Western Transformation.” Folklore, vol. 120, no. 3, 2009, pp. 291–306. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40646532. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Lindow, John. “Kidnapping, Infanticide, Cannibalism: A Legend from Swedish Finland.” Western Folklore, vol. 57, no. 2/3, 1998, pp. 103–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500215. Accessed 27 May 2020.

McGranaghan, Mark. “’He Who Is a Devourer of Things’: Monstrosity and the Construction of Difference in |Xam Bushman Oral Literature.” Folklore, vol. 125, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43297730. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Urban Legends in The Pickwick Papers.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 96, no. 382, 1983, pp. 462–470. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/540985. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs Concerning the Unclean Dead and Drought, Within the Context of the Agricultural Year.” Folklore, vol. 122, no. 2, 2011, pp. 155–175. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41306584. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Bath Bombs and Abandoned Houses

This Week’s Prompt: 111. Ancient ruin in Alabama swamp—voodoo.

The Prior Research: Ruins in Alabama

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The forest was fog filled when we snuck past the security guard. I could see my breath in the moonlight as we went down the park paths. Marjane was leading the way, holding her hand up every now and then to signal a stop. We held fast and listened for a sound on the wet autumn grass. Once or twice we saw a patrol car, a tired volunteer in a golf cart with the headlights on. I clutched the bundle in my pocket—the first bit of magic I’d ever done, to not get noticed if I didn’t want to.

There were paths to where we were going. Nice and clear paved roads most of the way. But those were where security patrols were expecting people, we figured.  We had made charms to keep ourselves hidden, and mapped out a path of least resistance to get deeper into the old park.

*

“Are you sure you need to do this?” George asked Marjane, looking over the map I’d printed.  The baths were marked with a red pen, and we’d tied string to some pins. “Like, doing some palm readings and stuff isn’t exactly…this.”

“I’m sure. Who knows when we’ll have a chance to try this again?” Marjane said, biting the middle knuckle of her index finger in thought. “We’ve got to do it under the full moon, I’m sure of it.”

“It’s just…this is trespassing, on like. A place with actual security. Not breaking into an old house for a séance or something.” George said, scratching the back of his head. “Hell, this is vandalism on top of trespassing..”

I looked over the map again, thinking over what Marjane had said. The baths were old, ancient really. Who knew what secrets she’d be able to pick up there? What ghosts she’d be able to speak with? She’d had a knack for that sort of things since we were kids, and was only getting quicker at it.

Old Stephen Baths

The baths are a pair of large, rectangular cuts into the ground lined with stone. I guess they might not be baths—to night they looked kinda like big graves, but they were too clean to be ever used. Freshly dug out of the stone.  The fog was settled over and around them, like a witches cauldron.

My job was the easiest.  Marjane had given me some gems and featers to make my inner spirit sharper—it helped me spot guys waiting to jump in the hallway, or on the walk home. Now it was to help spot security guards. I had a dog whistle—Daniel and Marjane had sharpened hearing that could pick a dog-whistle out of nowhere. And there was my first sack, filled with some special stuff I’d kept hidden all my life. Now they’d keep me hidden, as long as I held them.

I looked over my shoulder as Daniel and Marjane poured out bottles into the baths—bubbling and hissing as they mixed. Marjane had her notebook open, papers stolen from old libraries stuffed in with sketches of what she’d seen in seances and dreams, packed into a leather cover she’d made herself—the old cardboard was long gone by now.

*

The Sycamore house was a lump of rotting wood sitting a mile out of town, sitting on a hill of weeds. It had been condemned by the town for about three years—it took two more for it to get the demolition stamp. Not that they every got around to demolishing it. No one seemed to care about the old house, no one wanted the land just yet—it was in a nice spot, honestly. I’m pretty sure the local realtor just…forgot about it.

Not that everyone forgot about it. I mean, we heard about it from some potheads, and Marjane decided that a house that kept attracting people despite being condemned and dangerous must have some magic in it. She didn’t listen when we pointed out that magic was probably privacy. I don’t…really remember how she talked the four of us into going out to the house that night, when she said the stars were right.  Something about the house of Aquarius.

So we opened the creaking rotten door, and found a room that was mostly lacking in graffiti—well, no. It just had a little less graffiti then the rest of the rooms. And the few patches of clear wall that were there, Marjane carefully drew over with chalk.

“That way, the door we make only lets the right ones in….oh I can’t wait to see what’s in here!” She said, stretching with a flashlight to finish the circle and weird letters around the edge. Or I think they were letters, one looked like a little dude holding a crescent moon. Finally, she got to the center of the room, drew a big circle—a really good, solid big circle.  Ashley put down some candles with George, on little Xs that  Marjane marked.

Old Stephen Woods

The big worry wasn’t noise around the baths. We could be pretty quiet, and Marjane’s whispering incantations hadn’t every really been noticed before. No, the problem was smell. Marjane’s concoctions had this…tang in the air, this sickly sweet smell, like a tootsie roll stuck in your teeth. The incense she burned, the candles, it made this tangible cloud of smells that didn’t belong in an old building, let alone a foggy woods at night.

The moment I got a whiff of it, I glanced back—a colored smoke was coming from the baths, and Marjane was sitting cross legged, holding hands with Ashely and Daniel, chanting their secret words. The smoke was heavier than normal, weighed down by the fog—it looked like a bubble waiting to burst through the surface of the sea, streaks of oily shapes in its substance.

We didn’t know if the security team had dogs that would catch the smell early—but now was my time to stay focused. I found a cool tree to hide behind, gnarled and old. Marjane said you could tell magic things just by looking at them, they felt different if you had refined your gift. And this tree…looked special. Knots placed in a way, I could almost make out a pattern. I sat there and listened to the wind and the patrols—waiting for one to turn this way.

*

The room in the Sycamore house changed when Marjane chanted. It got colder. Damp, heavy hair without any water.  Everything was quiet, oppressively silent. I turned as she spoke, so soft that even in an empty world I couldn’t make out a word.

But there was something there. She’d called someone there, and she was speaking to them. I knew in my bones, in that small room in the Sycamore house—something magic was talking to Marjane. Something that called people to this place.

No one goes to the Sycamore house anymore. If you ask why, they say it just seems dangerous or strange or cursed. I went back once—it doesn’t feel cursed.

It feels empty.

Abandoned House Alabama

The tires skidded down the road. I tilted my head to hear them turn—but they were followed by a crash. And then barking. I grabbed my packet of collected things and hesitantly walked after the noise. Under a flickering streetlight, I saw a tilted golf cart crashed. No dog though…no dog anywhere. There was more barking though—I could hear them, somewhere close. No security guard either.

As the light flickered again, I felt the fog get heavy. My breathing slowed, becoming a regular relaxing rhythm with my slowing heart beat. I heard a distant crack—a loud sound from the baths, as if a great bubble had just burst. I held tightly to my pack in my pocket as I slowly headed over, stifling a yawn.

Halfway back I leaned against a tree—all the running had taken something out of me. I needed to catch my breath, I needed to rest my legs. I somehow fell asleep there.

The sun woke me up…everything felt cold and damn, my jacket covered in dew. I looked around—maybe my magic had worked so well, I thought, they didn’t find me when they left. As my hearing came back, I heard the smouldering and the sirens. It wasn’t until I saw blue and red lights that I realize I had been color blind for a moment—my senses returning as I grip my pouch and crept closer.

And I saw them, still sitting there—holding hands around the bath, police officers looking around, an ambulance pulling up. Their heads were turned up, to look at something floating just above Marjane. Something that must have been horrible, or beautiful, to make their eyes go so wide and turn their skin paper white.


I like this story. It’s small, compared to others, and not as clear…but I had a good time writing it. Not much else to say, except that part of the notion for this story was from late research on the “Indian Baths”–now believed to be made by European settlers–at Old Stephens as an example.  I feel like I left very few traces of “Voodoo” in this story, but that might be for a rewrite with more time and space.

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Ruins in Alabama

This Week’s Prompt: 111. Ancient ruin in Alabama swamp—voodoo.

The Resulting Story:  Bath Bombs and Abandoned Houses

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Here we have a number of topics that I want to try and plumb. We have first an ancient ruin in Alabama—which to me means something made by the First Nations of Alabama, including the Alabama tribe. Then there is the notion of voodoo brought up again—a topic which I will try and discuss where relevant to Alabama, but which I have done considerably more research on in Louisiana. And then we will attempt to synthesize the two forces with other folklore of Alabama, in order to produce a framework for a horror story next week. Needless to say, this may be more grounded then the horror of the Isle of Curses.

My first stop in research, after reframing around Alabama, was a work titled Popular Beliefs and Practices from Alabama. The notion of voodoo put in my mind to go the Supernatural section. I found only had one reference to voodoo by name—that one could chant the word “modi” at a child, to sap their strength—but a number of supposed practices that seemed similar to popular conceptions of voodoo (and perhaps were called such by Mr. Lovecraft—for more of Mr. Lovecraft’s own reasons for invoking voodoo, see my article here).

For instance, to reverse a hex, one might stick pins in an image of the hexer. One can keep the devil at bay by putting on shoes in the right order. Those born with a caul can see what the author calls “hants”, which seem to merely be a local term for ghosts or “haunts”. Or one can lay jars of nails and urine down to prevent hexes, or grains to keep the devil at bay—these last two remind me of many traditional wards against devils, fae, and night hags. Likewise, with horseshoes or wearing clothes inside out. I admit, scattering red ants to keep away witches is a unique and interesting idea.

Horseshoes

The fire place seems to also be a source of witchcraft in the text—letting fires run long help keeps witches away, and if you wish to find the witch, there is a rather simple ritual to work. Remove each brick of the fire place, repeating the names of suspected witches. When you are done, bury water among the ashes and wait. The first of the named who calls you is clearly the witch.  Placing water bottles in the fireplace or green trees on the chimney keep them at bay as well.  The other ritual for removing witches is to take a piece of wood that’s been heated (a fire place connection again) and connect it to a picture of the witch, and then shoot it with a silver bullet.

The section on the magic is arguably more horrific—a number of rituals make use of black cat’s bones, acquired by murdering the cat and boiling it to get access to the bones. In one case, by running the bones through your teeth, you can find a bone to turn invisible. You can also wear these bones, to gain either good fortune or the powers of a magician. By killing a salamander or lizard in a bucket with the image of a person you can give them a rash, and if you manage to bury a snapshot of the person, they will perish. One could take a crow, cut them open, remove their innards, sew them back up to detect a witch. Anyone who, seeing the body on the road, looked at it curiously was a witch.

Curiously, the only animal use that is not abused is if you suckle on a sow—you might learn to see the wind that way. What this means isn’t elaborated on in the notes. I presume to see the wind is to see the world invisible. One creature I found…interesting was a large insect responsible for sleep—by beating its wings, it set out fairies, who in turn beat their small on the brows of those who ought to rest. I wonder if such fae creatures are allergic to coffee…None the less, a giant insect that is responsible for all sleep in the world, living in the woods, is a tad horrific and wonderous.

Moving on from these practices, we can look into stories of the Alabama people. These stories were collected long after contact with the first settlers of course, and bear clear signs of that (references to fire arms and bullets and so on). The nature of the collection means I’m not entirely certain of their veracity. One of the more interesting stories was of the Bear People. A bear stopped a man traveling in the woods, and asked how many people lived in his village. The man told him. The bear said he would kill everyone who lived in the village if they did not put up a white skin, or in one version, move across to the other side of a river. One story suggests the cause of this violence was a man killing a large white bear that was the chief of the bear people—another seems to make it arbitrary. Some people listen to the man, while others do not. The bears come, and murder all who did not listen, despite their fire arms—a veritable horror scene of bears upon bears, cubs and elders.

Bear Wrestling

Another story details the origin of deer. The first dear was a fawn. It was at first guarded by wild cats…but the wild cats ate it. Then it was guarded by a wolf. And the wolf ate it. Then it was guarded by Panther…and the Panther ate it.  And each time it was revived, until finally, it is guarded by “Bird-that-sits-on-deer”, which eats ticks and flies off from the deer every now and then. At last, as the deer grows big, the bird flies off for winter. When it returns, the deer is gone.

The people then gather to find it, and eventually the wise members of the community determine it is in the south. Then they form many ranks to hunt the deer, and summoned it with a cauldron and song. The deer’s approach shook the earth like a railroad. The men stood ready with arrows, with ghosts behind them, and behind them panthers, and behind them wolves, and behind them at last the wild cats. As the great deer approached, the wildcats fled. The arrows and ghosts proved useless, but the panthers and wolves killed it, with the wildcats ripping out its throat.  Each hair that falls from the beast as humans cut it to pieces becomes a deer, and runs off.  The image of this…wave of deer is also almost terrifying. A great progenitor beast that releases miniature versions of its kin out into the world.

There is a large reptile that is worth mentioning—despite the description, the foot note says it appears as a scorpion with a red mouth. The creature lives in a tree, and is disturbed when a group of hunters start a fire in its hollow, looking for a bear. It chases down the hunters, one by one—and one by one, they grow weaker and are devoured. One man survived by diving into the river, where the lizard could not see him. He later returned with some Shawnee to kill the creature—and they made the land boggy to trap it, killed it with axes, and then put tobacco in its mouth to prevent its return.

There are other stories, but the collection seems to dwell on animal fables that are not…relevant in my opinion for horror stories. We also have stories from voodoo—the most interesting to me was the notion of the zombi, as a man robbed of their wits or soul, and forced to preform labor for another. The victims were often believed to be the homeless or those who deviated from society, although research on the matter can quiet obviously be difficult to acquire. Most of my research was also focused on Louisiana not Alabama, and thus the applicability is…questionable. Still, the banality of having a zombi to man your shop was and has been interesting to me. As more than one person has observed, the fear of the zombi in the New World is that even death is not an escape from subjugation, and the notions I found in the article of entire secret plantations of zombis were horrifying.

With that in mind, what can we make of this? What ancient ruin can we find, that has some voodoo connection?

The obvious answer to Lovecraft I suspect would be to invent a city or settlement of the Alabama or other First Nations of the area (I did not have time to dig into each historically, the Alabama had towns as did many other groups in the Southeast). Or to make some almost pre-human settlement, where dark magics were prevalent. But that seems…hm. Uncomfortable to approach. A more recent ruin, like the plantations that were so fearful of voodoo might be better, but runs into the problem that we had earlier from two weeks ago. Perhaps a ruined house that was were adherents of these traditions lived…we might elide the issue of race in this story by making them white but…hm. Well. It is a puzzle, one I’m sure we can solve. I feel this is a story that is easily grounded. One notion I have is to place this story in the civil war, with a ruin found by Union troops in Alabama—but that would require more investigation into that part of the war.

What do you think could be done here?

Bibliography

Swanton, John R. Myths and Tales of Southeastern Indians. Washington, US government print office, 1929.

Browne, Ray B. Popular Beliefs and Practices from Alabama. University of California, Berkley press, 1958

Ackermann, Hans-W.; Gauthier, Jeanine . “The Ways and Nature of the Zombi”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (American Folklore Society, Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494

 

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The Island of Curses

This Week’s Prompt:  110. Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.

The Prior Research: Taboos and Makutu

This story in part brought to you by our patrons on Pateron

The oars of Abasi’s trade ship cut into the wine-red sea, the boat heavy with gold from Egypt, destined for Ionia. It was a pleasant day, the wind at their backs and the sky clear of storms. A short stop in the southern coastal towns of the Hitites would perhaps be doable without losing too much time. Nestor, the quartermaster, was concerned they would be lacking provisions if they did not make the stop. He and Paimu got into a small debate on the matter, when there was a cry from the front of the ship.

No man aboard had seen such a thing. It resembled a great crocodile of the Nile, but with limbs that ended like a monkey’s, with claws that were as long as knives. Its mouth grinned and was wide like a shark, and its tail flicked about like a perverse lion. In a moment, it set upon them—first catching Yohannes between its jaws, then bounding to slash the throat of Menmu. Abasi himself drew his bronze khopesh, that had run red with pirate’s blood, and watched it bend and break on the armored hide. Nestor and Paimu, startled, rushed back as the beast dove, its head shattering the boards.  Nestor took his heavy club, for killing fish when he cast his nets, while Paimu took up an oar.

Both waited, looking over the ship for the beast—and then felt the ship shake. And slowly the water rise. As the two men realized what was happening, the beast remerged—smashing apart the boards beneath them, its claws grabbed their throat. Yet neither perished- the claws held back from slicing their necks. Instead, both felt the chill of the Mediterranean, and faded into unconsciousness.

trireme

*

When the two men came to, they found themselves in a large circular room, with a great hole in the ceiling. Paimu stretched his limbs, and found them sore—and as he started to stand, a sharp pain came from his neck. He traced a small wound on the nape of his neck with his finger. Shallow cuts ran down his spine, Nestor rising to check his own.

“Some sort of…brand perhaps?” Nestor murmured, looking around the room. Huddled masses slept against the walls, some asleep with eyes wide open.

“That doesn’t bode well…there, that man Nestor…does he not look to be from north of the sea?” Paimu muttered, pointing to a pale redheaded man. “And that woman…I have seen her kin in Babylon I think…and some of these people are from even farther shores.”

Nestor, for his part, walked down the step and looked around. There were no chains here, and it struck the Hellene very strange that none should be here. If this was a place of bondage, did they not fear some would try to organize an escape? None the less, his sailor’s eyes were drawn to the sky light. How the owner of this structure had built a perfectly circular roof, with a hole at its center like some sort of wheel escaped him.

The sight of the stars, however, were unfortunately familiar.

“That and this neither…those stars ought not rise until winter.” Nestor pointed upward. “I see the twins far too high in the heavens, even in autumn.”

Paimu heard the sound of steps first. They looked at one another—the two of them had been in such binds before, by pirates and thieves of the sea. Yet, so far from familiar shores, things might not be in their favor. Before the men could seal their fate, a great horn was sounded. And searing pain ran down their limbs, seizing them up in agony. The other prisoners in the room bolted awake, and the doors were thrust open. Each had a long wooden staff, tips lacquered with with strange swirling signs, and armor wrought of a strange dull silver.

They barked orders that neither Paimu nor Nestor understood—but like children, they imitated their fellows, who formed neat lines a followed the two men out of the building. They found themselves now on a path, carefully covered in stones—each seeping and glistening. Great mountains rose about them—or at first they mistook them for mountains. But to their shock, they saw the careful markings of  brick work and mortar. Columns rose of such craft that the tops of the mountains seemed to be floating island. And their summits were not shrouded by great clouds—no by mists that marvelous statues breathed into the sky. Through the mist, gardens could be seen.

Along the slopes, they saw more of those fearsome beasts that had stolen them away, but other wonderous things—men and women with avian aspects, who’s songs intermingled with distant screams. They stayed close at hand as they joined a greater throng, and marched out of the city—past gates with hundred headed guardians and spider sentries hanging from the ceiling, past cyclopean laborers carving great obelisks of stone, past the monolithic inverse mountain that was silent—to vast orchards.

At the entrance, there were piles of workman’s gloves, made of smooth leather, with wards written on their finger tips.  Both Nestor and Paimu followed the lead and donned the gloves, and watched as others all took baskets—and began the work of harvesting the delectable fruits of the trees. The two were cautious moving away from the others—who spoke to each other in a strange tongue, one that they stumbled or mistook, a tongue born of a hundred peoples trapped under one boot.

“Mere slaves…seems a waste to send such beasts to capture men only to work their fields.” Nestor said, the fruit coming free with ease. Paimu shook his head.

“Did you not see the wonders of this city? We are in some enscrolled place, who’s to say the logic of poisoners and their kindred? What if they have some pact that only people of certain nations may work their fields, to hold their power over death and spirits?”

“Perhaps. Still.” Nestor looked over the orchard and pointed lazily outward. “I see the sea. That at least is some comfort, that she is not too far away.”

Paimu followed his gesture but his eyes caught something else. He let out a gasp, and pulled the finger down. For there, they saw one of the other prisoners had stuck his glove on a thorn. As such, he laid a bare hand on the tree—and before their eyes, boils and blood ran up his arm. Shaken from his stupor, the man began to scream and stumbled—laying his bare shoulder against it’s truck. In a moment, his screaming stopped—the twisted and withered remains of his body fell against the roots and began to rot.

The two men were not total strangers to death, but the sight of one so painful and wicked was chilling to them both. Worse still when the scars along the man’s back—ones that no doubt mirrored their own—crawled free, a dripping web of blood and poison. In an instant it pulled low to the ground and then flew off—springing into the air like some horrific hawk or buzzing insect, back to unseen master of the orchard.

“…You are right, Paimu, this is a poisoner’s hold…more than one surely.” Nestor murmured.

“We must be cautious, if we have any hope of seeing Crete again.” Paimu agreed.

“But also, swift—I do not wish to be as dead eyed as the others here.” Nestor said, turning back to removing the fruits. “I do wonder how they taste.”

*

Inverse Mountain

Times came and went, seasons changed—or seemed to, as the great clouds over head shifted and the winds grew colder somewhat, the stars shifting slowly over the deep prison. They learned to speak some of the tongue of their fellows—some were from Athens or the Nile, and spoke some of the trade tongue that Paimu and Nestor knew. They learned that this isle, as far as others knew, was a great hold of hundreds of dread wise men—men who knew the secrets of making death into a metal, of working poison into every shape, of causing boils from afar and command spirits of ruin and power.

None had any hope of escape, only surviving past the coming day. For in a few months, there would be—according to the older prisoners—a great congregation at the upside-down mountain. There, sorcerers and witches from the world over gathered, having expanded the dominion of the island. They would have revelry and preform many offerings to their ancient spirits—the screams and blood of men and women would run deep, the gods of death and curses, the poisonous lizards and bleeding beasts, and other monsters would drink deep.

Paimu and Nestor, having some sense between them, resolved not to merely hope to survive. No, such a day when the bestial celebrants would descend on the many holds of the slaves was a day when they must escape. They learned from others how they might find the docks—for the sorcerers maintained many boats in secret places. Why they had need of such craft, when they might take to the wind, neither Paimu nor Nestor know—perhaps they enjoyed fishing.

Still, not all the knowledge had stayed among the sorcerers. Paimu had watched the guards closely, and listened to their speak. Nestor had paid rapt attention to the drawings on the gloves and arms. They knew little of hidden arts, but they knew enough to imitate them. With stolen rags and careful pricks of blood, they wove their own attempt at charms. Paimu knew some words he had heard priests say before, and they shared those secrets for good measure.

It was late in the day, when the march back to the orchard began, that they made their escape. They broke off from the marching order, past the dogs with serpents for colors and scorpion tongues. Paimu scattered ashes gathered from a dead man, confounding the watch-beasts’ senses. Nestor spoke words of reverence to secret gods he knew from the Myceneans, who wore helms of darkness and hid from men on the pass way. And with crude carved stones they found, ones that had no voices, they broke the locks on the old ships. The ships were strange, long and thinner than their old trading vessels—but the small ones were simple enough that they set sale, kelp sales catching an evening wind as they quietly rowed out.

Hope swelled in their hearts as they saw the light of the moon, shining on the blue waters. Nestor looked up at the familiar stars—there was no way to know how far land was from this blasted and twisted font of poison. But at last, the two sailors were on their old friend and foe the sea, and the strange beasts behind them.

Then smoke issued from their backs—smoke that smelled sweet, yet burned their skin, causing Nestor to fall over and grip his stomach. Paimu turned, and in a moment caught sight of what the smoke had called. When a drop of blood falls in the water, sharks swim across the ocean to the source—so to do the dread creatures of the isle chase those things or persons who try and escape the tight grip of their masters.

Taniwha A

An artist rendition of a taniwha, which looks more lizard like.

Paimu drove his oar into the water, yank the sail that always caught the wind to turn the ship to the side—hoping that the swerve would delay the chase as he ran to the front. Nestor, the old quartermaster, gasped out in pain but pulled himself upright. From the sides of the ship, he cast the nets he found—nets that cut his fingers when he cast them, boils spreading up his arm.  The sail suddenly clattered—the winds having heard some unspoken word, and now drove the ship to the shore, closer to the waiting jaws of the beasts. Paimu saw death before him. Nestor, feeling the end draw near, took hold of Paimu’s shoulder.

“Leave a sculpture of me in Knossos—and do me good with my kin, when you come to them again.”

And with those words, the old Hellene tossed himself from the ship—and as Paimu turned he saw the host of beasts set upon his thrashing form, the body of Nestor becoming a flotsam of pus and blood in glittering jaws. The ship crashed onto the rocky shore, shaking Paimu from his terror. He clambered onto the rocks, the beasts now devouring the boat behind him. Alone, he found his way to the great cliffs, paths marked with inscrutable signs—and there a cavern in which to hide. For Paimu had been told that the sign above the caverns prevented the beasts from entering, so that the stores of the sorcerers were not eaten. Among the strange blind fish, Paimu cowered and hoped this at least was true.

*

The sun rose over the shimmering sea, ships setting sail with unseen crews to harvest the glories of the sea. Guards dragged men and women to harvest from the orchards. Birds with brilliant feathers begin to sing. The smell of smelted iron and burning wood covered over the land. And the sorcerer Tane Baalbadur walked the shore, looking over the crashed and ruined remains of vessels from far off lands. His mount was a great red horse, with legs that bent like a spider and a serpent’s mouth. It hissed as it crawled over the cliffs. Baalbadur listened to its speech with amazement. Surely, the old sorcerer thought, no man had managed to hide in one of the treacherous caves and escape the demons of the sea. But his steed could not lie to him.

Baalbadur’s voice was what Paimu awoke to—the sorcerer in his finery, with a crooked staff of drift wood and many gems hanging from his jaw, staring down at him. The eyes of the sorcerer considered him, exhausted and with the scars on his hands from his flight ashore. Baalbadur clicked his tongue, his pallid fingers examining Paimu’s wrists.

“What we have here I believe,” Baalbadur said, in words that Paimu could not understand. “Is an error in accuquistion.”

Paimu struggled, mind blind by exhaustion and the aches of last night—his mind felt split by a great ax, his heart was pounding still from the terrors of the night. Still, he managed to strike out against the sorcerer, mustering every ounce of strength he had. The blow fell limp on Baalbadur’s shoulder.

“And a crass misunderstanding of our current condition.” The sorcerer continued—his nail jabbing into Paimu’s skin. Paimu felt a rush under his skin, as if his blood was replaced with the very wind. The sorcerer lifted his nail, and Paimu saw a knotted, tumorous mass hanging from it—like a fishing line covered with algae and blood. The burning in his back, from his poisoned brand, stopped.



 

I’m not happy with this story. It is, frankly, incomplete—it ends at what I intended to be the half way point. But after two weeks, the stress of the pandemic, of personal and professional issues, and of completing the story became too much. I’ve cut it off here—perhaps we will return to Paimu’s trials on the isle another time, under a different prompt.

Next time, we will return to Louisiana and discussions of voodoo!

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Taboos and Makutu

This Week’s Prompt: 110. Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.

The Resulting Story: The Island of Curses

 

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For this week’s research, I decided to try and examine things as locally as I could—albeit I misremembered this prompt as specifying Polynesian, when it only says Pacific. Still, a vast region to examine, and one where zooming in on a specific culture can be greatly beneficial. This prompt to me seems clearly one of the many that lead to the Call of Cthulhu—although in this case, the Cyclopean Ruins are the center of the cult, and are there all year round instead of rising and falling into the ocean. To supply some ideas and inspiration on the matter, I decided to look into witchcraft and sorcery of the region.

Witchcraft and sorcery are topics that often have broad similarities across the world, and thus it is in the details that things grow interesting.  In the reports I have, witchcraft is again associated with lower class and elderly, often the feeling of envy. Shamans and traditionally knowledgeable members of the community also faced witchcraft accusations—although colonial authorities justified the criminalization of such acts not because of feared harm of witchcraft itself, but the belief that traditional medicine was leading to neglect and death in the communities who had few alternatives.

The sources I stumbled upon were focused on Maori descriptions of witchcraft, specifically makutu. Makutu is a form of magic that takes many familiar forms—often it is employed by those who have been wronged against others. One thing of particular note is that the practitioners of makutu can pass down these powers to others through objects—and that in some cases, secret societies are rumored to form around these objects and their usage. The topic is not one commonly discussed, by all accounts, meaning my most common sources were either old or very specific.

But more to our interest, is a report by one S. Percy Smith. Here we are told that the origins of witch craft—the various forms of which include death dealing lizards, gods of withering flesh, and more from the power (mana) of Miru. These powers included the ability to send invisible bullets with the tip of the tongue, the power to render objects and water sources taboo, and to render environments taboo. Those who drank from the waters made taboo or trespassed on islands were attacked by horrific sea monsters called taniwha. The natures of these creatures is unclear to me, although a connection to sharks was mentioned in one article. Some witchcraft could be passed on in taboo places, others were unable to be passed one at all.

Taniwha A

An artist rendition of a taniwha, which looks more lizard like.

A separate source claimed that the origin of witchcraft was with a defeated god, Tane, who wished to keep his mother and father close together and the world forever darkness. In order to wreck revenge on the world, he created all the ills of the world—he in a way poisoned it to make it inhospitable to human beings. He taught, as one of these efforts, witchcraft which is among the worst dangers.

Those who practice these spells do so with a proper incantation, and then let an invisible bullet fly from their tongue. Their victims die, sometimes in gruesome shriveling ways as their arms shrink or wither away. Sometimes in more sudden ways, as if quite literally shot. Afterwards, that it was a wise man who did so is apparent, although which isn’t for sometime.

But makutu is not limited to murder or invisible bullets. Envious sorcerers who are rejected by women may drive them mad in response. These women would tear their garments and go naked, able to see the sorcerer’s spirit and describe it to others. Other victims of sorcery could see the sorcerer in wicked dreams, and recognize him. I wonder if this had the effect of spreading dread, or dooming the sorcerer’s endeavors.

Taniwha B

A sculpture of a taniwha, from the side.

Objects could also work sorcery—particularly carved objects of stone or wood. A sorcerer might attack someone with a gift, which if not returned within five years, will cause untold suffering. Objects stolen from a sorcerer likewise attract the ire of a sorcerer, who may send the taniwha to retrieve it and murder the thief.  Carved stones and objects can be rendered taboo—and in some cases, those marker stones from ancient times have truly terrifying creatures guarding them. For this reason, these stones are left unmoved, least the creatures beneath murder those who would move them. Many of ancient places left such terrible wards behind according to an informant, infecting the whole world with wickedness that even plants might bight back against a man who picked them.

Perhaps the most destructive use of this sort of magic is when a sorcerer wants to kill a community. He first must find the ceremonial center of the community. By burying a prepared piece of wood in the ground here where none saw him, a makutu practitioner can murder an entire people if not stopped. Those first affected dream of the cause, and if they alert a healer, the object can be dug up and swallowed.  Those first afflicted will still die, but the community as a whole will live.

Other reports indicate that a star appearing visible during the day has been sent by a sorcerer to curse a victim. Some sorcerers instead dispatch the less visible bird to make their ill will known. In either case, reciting a proper prayer can reverse the harm, sending the doom back to the sorcerer.

Some of these are easily stopped—the use of lizard gods to cause illness, for instance, is relatively easy to end for priests who specialize in such matters. And charms to keep sorcery at bay are common knowledge for many. But others are more direct and harder to stop, moving to quickly to be caught.

Even death may not end these torments. Reports from the 1950s indicate that some practitioners could pass on their skills and talents, or even that such dead practioners still rode the wind. Whether these are exaggerations of practice or not is hard to say—the documentation reminds me of claims of witch practices in the countryside, and the language of the documentation is…of its time.

Location Ryleh

For those wondering where Lovecraft’s pacific island was, here are approximate locations of Ryleh.

So where does that leave us for this prompt? I think there’s something very interesting about the assertion of a house from which all evil things originate—one source even said that the first people to bring these powers into the world sacrificed one of their own to keep the powers permanent—that is considered by all taboo. The idea of ancient stones and places that are filled with something like a poison is fascinating.

The other notion that strikes me is the passing down of powers through generations to endow mastery and greater powers beyond. The writer of that section suggested the stories came from or were related to the old testament stories of Elijah and Elisha—and that may be the case. But for a narrative that traces itself back to a truly ancient time (antediluvian being before the great deluge that wiped the world clean), such notions of continuity are important. Which brings us round to what sort of narrative we are working with here.

We are given here a location more than a narration. The Cthulhu story has this strange island rising, and being stumbled upon by nearby sailors who interrupt the waking creature by ramming it. Yet, I don’t think I want to repeat that particular idea of just ‘stumbling across’ such a hidden and dangerous place. One idea is following someone to their first meeting of a horrific conspiracy—or perhaps being dragged back there, in a case of mistaken (or misplaced) identity by someone fleeing the conspiracy. The idea of vengeance or having wrong the witch or sorcerer in question is a common one that I think could also play into the idea. The question at the root then is what is the horror about: Being inducted into this conspiracy or being the victim of it, when one is dragged to this island of horror where even the trees try to bite at anyone who sets foot on them?

 

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Bibliography

Palmer, G. Blake. “TOHUNGAISM AND MAKUTU: Some Beliefs and Practices of the Present Day Maori”. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 63, No. 2 (June, 1954), pp. 147-163

Voyce, Malcom, “Maori Healers in New Zealand: The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907”. Oceania, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Dec., 1989), pp. 99-123

Smith, S. Percy. “The Evils of Makutu, or Witchcraft.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol 30, No. 119 (1921).  Accessed here: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document//Volume_30_1921/Volume_30%2C_No._119/The_Evils_of_Makutu%2C_or_witchcraft%2C_by_S._Percy_Smith%2C_p_172-184/p1

A Difficult Conversation

This Week’s Prompts:

  1. Educated m***tto seeks to displace personality of white man and occupy his body.
  2. Ancient n***o voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.

There is no Forthcoming story.

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Nothing is more essential to someone than their identity, a sense of self. Second, however, to a sense of self is a sense of community—both in time and in space. From community often but not always comes identity. It is thus no surprise than when understandings of self are threatened, many resort to their understanding of community, imagined or real, temporal or spatial. If these were secure communities, or places that were imagined more than real, there is a strong impulse to ensure they are authentic. That they are unchanged from what was once the font of identity. Sometimes this manifests in a want for fundamental restoration, other times as a culture of purity, other times as seeking real and living members of that community. There is a strong desire to return to apparent roots, even if they are buried deep in the ground and architecture. It is this want that animates the prompts above. It is also that want for community and identity in the face of oppressive adversity that gave Vodou in the Americas its power. It is a want that mobilized nationalizing forces in the Balkans cities, and a want that mobilized African Americans to enter into traditions of West Africa in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. It is a want that leads back to roots, and sometimes growth, sometimes death.

I have dreaded these two prompts since I began this blog. I hoped when I started out that by the time I got to them, I’d have some interesting or compelling piece to write. And what I’ve concluded…well, I’ll save that for the end. Today, lets talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft, folklore, “voodoo” narratives of the 1920s and 1930s, and more. It’s going to be a long ride.

We will start with a discussion of Lovecraft’s relationship with folklore and folk culture. These will be more relevant to his approach to stories, and in particular some…connective tissue I see between Lovecraft and Voodoo that the man himself wouldn’t want acknowledged. And frankly, this is a discussion needed for a blog like mine, where folklore is almost more common than horror these days.

Lovecraft was as much anti-modern as anything else. A member of his local historical preservation society, an avid investigator in architecture when he traveled, fascinated by linguistic changes and traditional forms,  Lovecraft had a love of regional culture and history. Not only was he invested in the preservation of art forms and traditions, he was interested in their evolution over time. He commented critically on many revival efforts that merely brought back architectural features, not expanding on fundamentals. Mr. Lovecraft once criticized this as restoring a land that never was, an idealistic copy instead of a continuation. His interest in folklore often appeared in his stories—by using architectural features or local folklore of places he visited, he felt he helped ground his stories. His interest in a fluid form of storytelling and connectivity is why the Mythos has become a Mythos and not merely a small story off in the corner. This interest in participation in a greater story, a temporally if not spatially, appears as a source of fear and motivation in many of his works.

This interest in regional purity, of course, leads us back to Lovecraft’s racism. It is an uncontroversial and increasingly commonly known fact that Howard was racist, and racist to a degree that was shocking for his time. Howard’s fear, manifest in New York most prominently, was that the mixing of diverse and regional groups would lead to the dissolution of culture, tradition, continuity, and thus meaning. “Impurity” was, to Howard’s mind, synonymous with death.  And this of course also meant a fear of miscegenation, a fear of the other ‘infiltrating’ or ‘decaying’ the culture of an area. There are a number of stories that Mr. Lovecraft wrote that focused on this fear—where immigrants entered into an area and brought about “decay”. That Mr. Lovecraft for the most part did not perceive the value in syncretism or co-habitation and growth in a more fluid line speaks to some understandings of folklore—ones that around his time also strove, for instance, in the Balkans to demarcate the exact origins and national character of peoples under Ottoman rule.  Purity and traditionalism, especially in identity building, are common bedfellows.

One of the clearest examples, and most relevant to this prompt, is the swamp-cult in Call of Cthulhu. Here we witness a scene that must have haunted Lovecraft: a swamp ceremony, with wild dances around a strange object, where all sorts of peoples mix and mingle with death and passion. To the puritanical and chaste Lovecraft, this entire event is an abomination. The end of this encounter is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of violence by the white police department to put a stop to the child murdering cult, who’s conspiracy spread all over the world through distant dreams. It is the violent destruction of another terrible conspiracy that Lovecraft feared in large cities—we can examine Red Hook for a similar fear, including the strange immigrants and child murder.

This scene draws, I don’t doubt, from reports of Voodoo in Louisiana by journalists across the country. The emphasis on violence to women and children is a tell tale mark, as is the police raid and the dancing. These stories and articles were common during the Reconstruction all the way through the 1960s.  If you check the bibliography, you will find my sources are much more recent than normal. I have a tendency to rely on older works, especially folklore collections in the public domain or available through college libraries. This means many sources are from the 1800s to 1900s—although on many topics I will find more modern research (particularly if older sources have…suspect concepts or phrases), I don’t have the funds to purchase more recent collections of folktales. Such writings exist on Voodoo in Louisiana in abundance, but I consulted only two and cite none below. This is because writings from that period are, while telling and relevant for understanding these prompts, gross exaggerations to say the least.

These reports describe orgies, cannibalism, violence and human sacrifice, and other efforts to construct an image of blackness that is innately dangerous and primitive and infectious. Fear of miscegenation is clear with the many references of white women in particular being endangered—white men are rarely mentioned, and portrayed universally as low brow laborers. The image then becomes one of fear that white women will be stolen and children being murdered[1], and that the mixing of races is something that only occurs (if at all) among lower orders of society, who are too primitive to be considered.

But why?

To answer that question, we have to first answer what is Voodoo. In Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo:

 (a) Usually spelled V-o-d-u-n, it refers to the traditional religion of the Fon and Ewe people residing in today’s Republic of Benin, the former kingdom of Dahomey, West Africa; (b) spelled Vodou, it is the popular syncretic Afro-Creole religion of Haiti; (c) commonly spelled Voodoo (in the 19th century usually spelled Voudou), it addresses the Afro-Creole counterculture religion of southern Louisiana; (d) but as mentioned above, Voodoo is also the common term in American English for any African-derived magical or religious beliefs and practices, often associated with black magic and witchcraft.

Of these, b is the most common—and derives in part from a. The Vodun belief system of the Yoruba featured a number of divinities that had patron cities on the West coast of Africa. These divinities arrived in the Americas by way of the slave trade, often bought after being captured in war. These primarily came to Cuba. Vodou, as practiced in Haiti however, was not just the Vodun system of the Yoruba—in fact, in the 18th century, slaves from Yoruba were a minority. Instead, the Haitian system featured beliefs from the Kongo and the Yoruba’s often times enemies the Dahomey. The Kongo divinities often influenced Petwo. The Petwo include some particularly famous staples of Voodoo imagery—Baron Samedi (Baron Saturday) is the ultimate divinity of this court of the dead. Yoruba divinities, such as Legba-Elebga, appear with some frequency. Papa Legba stands as the ultimate spirit of the threshold, while Ogun (the lord of iron, blacksmiths, and warriors) becomes Papa Ogou and has his own cluster of smaller spirits.

There was a time when Haitian Vodou was considered the sole ancestor of Louisiana Voodoo, and a more spiritual form at that—antebellum New Orleans being more hostile than Haiti to the practice. However, recent work suggests Louisiana Voodoo had it’s own practices that evolved separately from Haiti’s, coming from neither Yoruba nor Dahomey sources but instead from the Kongo and Senegal basin. This resulted in comparable rites, but very different spirits. La Grand Zombi served here as the chief deity—the word zombi here not being the walking corpse, but rather a derivation from the word Kikongo nzambi (God, a term used in Bible translations). St. Anthony of Padua was also prominent—many of the enslaved already being Roman Catholic, and thus fond of the patron saint of the Kongo. St. Anthony is a common in other Yoruba traditions, especially associated with Legba. However, in Louisiana, Legba can be found as the only definite Yoruba divinity under the name Papa Laba and is associated with Saint Peter.

Haitian Vodou does have a more concrete connection to American Voodoo literature, however, than as origin. Haitian Vodou is often viewed as instrumental, by both detractors and proponents, to slaves in Haiti successfully overthrowing the existing plantation system there. This revolt, that defeated Napoleon’s armies, resulted in the Emperor of France selling Louisiana and other territories to Jefferson for an extremely low price. The fear of a similar revolt likewise informed antebellum Southern views of Voodoo—and in the post-war climate of New Orleans, fear that Voodoo and emancipation would permanently cast-off white male control of the country and the economy. The reports I mentioned earlier provided shocking imagery of what such a loss of control would mean—they painted an image of blackness as bestial and primitive, in order to define and justify white supremacy. These fears took on a sexualized nature in the post-war articles, instead of the more common police raid and political fears before. Hatian Vodou was an existential threat to the plantation way of life and understanding, for it granted power to slaves who many plantation owners believed were made powerless by God.

Voodoo was also, in Louisiana, a religion lead by women. The fear of a loss of control over women—particularly white women—was present in many of the reports that placed otherwise respectable women as bewitched or lured by passions into what was presented as primitive savagery. The role of these reports was then not only a violent assertion of white supremacy—and it was violent, playing into or advocating reprisals against imagined slights—but also of patriarchy. That women would leave the roles of society—even, perhaps especially, respectable women of class and means—was unacceptable. In a society focused on blood and purity, lest we forget the one drop rule that was common, loss of control of women was loss of control of the future.

Voodoo’s threat to the status quo then was granting the subaltern power and the ability to change the world, and by undermining the social structures of the existing governing bodies. As one writer put it “These religious practices and beliefs have provided practitioners with a way to ideologically order the world, negotiate bondage and exile, communicate with gods and ancestors, protect themselves and loved ones, solicit revenge or financial success, pro mote illness or recovery, influence love and desire, and challenge the exercise of white power in and over their lives.” As the modern state emerged in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, control over the populace—over the body and the future—was the growing preoccupation of culture. By the state, I do not mean just the overt functions of government. I mean the entire apparatus of social control. Vodou served a useful purpose, a subaltern group that could be kept at a distance and provide a definition of the community while at the same time justifying the expansion of state apparatuses. Stories of Voodoo provided justification for legal and violent assaults on African communities, in an effort to stamp out the emerging progressive movement.

One of the  articles I read while preparing this piece, however, drew me to a notion about Voodoo that I was unfamiliar with—the revival movement in the 70s and 80s, where a number of African Americans sought to reconnect with their roots in Africa to repair the damage of 500 years of active oppression. The logic and prospects are the same, on one level—Voodoo and traditional African religion provides a way to reconnect with an intentionally suppressed culture. These individuals rightly believed that securing political rights with the Civil Rights movement was not the same as achieving true equality, as their own cultural signifiers and traditions were not equal to the hegemonic white Christian ones. This scholarship that searched for meaning was often multi-layered—individuals would be initiated into multiple traditions, some in the Americas, some (finances permitting) in Africa. This was a search for a community and identity that was separate from the oppressive hegemony—one that was truly the members, that was authentic.

This search for self, for meaning and a sense of place in the world outside the current one, fascinates me in this context, because in a strange way it seems an echo of Lovecraft’s historical preservationist leanings. Now, let me be clear: the source of these anxieties is wildly different in scale. Lovecraft was not an oppressed minority, nor had he suffered centuries of deliberate cultural erasure. But nonetheless, part of his anxieties was the feeling that his regional identity was decaying—on the one hand, yes, by immigration but on the other hand by means of corporate expansionism and modernity. A modernity that sought to form a single hegemonic identity of “whiteness”, at the expensive of regional cultures and communities. One that to this day has such a dominance over popular imagination that it has to be combatted in the streets, where people very much like Lovecraft—who fear change and loss of place, and who have been socialized to blame the Other for their failings—persist in an almost pathetic way.

Lovecraft’s anxieties lead him to focus on purity and xenophobia, but it was an anxiety that worried about the fate later African Americans confronted—of having one’s own context stripped from them. In a way, Lovecraft was also looking for roots that he felt were dying. They resemble, to me, the movements in the Balkans towards nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century—which sought a romantic and essential character to the regions, that could be revived and made pure and bring about a new dignity. These found resistance in country sides, often to their confusion. Nationalists from the cities bemoaned the lack of existing national pride in their communities. Given the involvement of such romantics in folklore studies, this comparison is unlikely novel, but the result of such investigations and promotions are far less positive than elsewhere I feel. I wonder if the response of purity seeking, as opposed to seeking a plurality of traditions, is what leads to nationalist responses and dreadful results.

I’ve been told on a few occasions that Cosmic Horror is truly a horror only possessed by privileged people. The argument goes that there is, for the oppressed, nothing revelatory about being told you are insignificant. That the fear of lack-of-power or relevance is one that only matters to those who are a part of the hegemony. For those already oppressed, there is nothing strange or even unusual about a hostile world order trying to extinguish you, unrelenting and uncaring in its malice. There is truth to that—but at the same time, I do wonder if the idea of death of meaning, the death of even artificial meaning in the face of either time or active suppression and opposition, doesn’t cross that divide. Cosmic Horror I think is overly typified as “the fear of being dwarfed by the Other”. That the terror is only the scale of Cthulhu, the sheer size of the cosmos. I’ve suggested elsewhere that Lovecraft’s fiction is better typified as “the fear of being consumed/assimilated by the Other”. That other often takes the form of the past, of superstition, of the foreign, of the novel, of the alien and the vast. The story that is in a way most typical is not the story of the rising elder god at sea—rather, it is of the slow change by foreign customs, it is the gradual transformation into something accursed in your family home, it is to look into a mirror and see that you are a monster. It is more Pickman’s Model and Shadows Over Innsmouth than it is Cthulhu. I think in these contexts, to paraphrase H.Bomberguy on a similar topic, the marginalized and oppressed do see that uncaring and hostile cosmos Lovecraft could only attempt to describe.

While reading these articles, I was reminded of a recurring thought I’ve seen online—the struggle for young white men to find a cultural identity that is divorced from white supremacy. The period in which Voodoo was demonized also actively, particularly in the 20th century, sought to erase the regional and cultural differences among white American’s to create a single racial block that could enforce hegemony. This hegemony has cracked over time, as it always does. And as it cracks, those who’s culture was hegemony in large part—who’s identity was tied very strongly to the old order, or  It is little surprise then, that young white men (particularly but not exclusively well off) resort to fascism when they feel their status is threatened—and that those same demographics sometimes feel crises of identity when they move towards more progressive stances, attempting to reject the social order and system they were socialized in. While again, not nearly on the scale of African American cultural erasure and suppression, there have been suggestions to follow the example of “returning to roots”—of going back to the cultural forms that the Modernist and related movements erased in order to support empire. To correct the decay Lovecraft’s…shall we say regressive mind did understand. We can see this in a variety of places—some see it in neo-pagan revival movements, others in genetic testing and genealogy services, others in historical preservation.

These suggestions, to be personal for a moment, have never sat well with me. They feel…insincere at times. Or perhaps overly optimistic about the failures of Modernism. To me, the erasure has always seemed far more complete than supposed. I am fortunate to know a good deal about my family history, and to have had a few brief visits to places my family is ‘from’. Yet I would hesitate to describe myself beyond “White American”. I haven’t ever felt the pangs that some have described to me, where there is an emptiness that needs to be filled. I suspect a better solution lies in the other end of Lovecraft—perhaps we need not just a return to roots, but an attempt to create a new tradition, a new meaning when one has been lost.

These thoughts slosh around my head as I sit here, thinking on the prompts. I have spent over three years now working on prompts, knowing these were hanging over my head. I have written over two hundred thousand words on these prompts, and we are only this year approaching the half way point. I’ve already discussed twice now Lovecraft’s racism, his crippling hatred of the poor, of the immigrant, of the modern. There are other personages that people draw inspiration from, who are frankly disgusting people. Sometimes in their personal lives, sometimes professionally. To take a simple example, Aristotle’s feelings on women are well known, Plato’s totalitarian leanings more so, Carl Jung has a history of right wing disciples.

For all that, there is something different about Lovecraft. Lovecraft is…well, apart from terrible in the ways that have been publicly and privately demarcated, he isn’t exactly good. His writing is often overly verbose, many of his stories—fantastic or horrific—avoid character growth or dialogue, his structure is antiquated. It is clear, as one author suggested, that Lovecraft is more comfortable with buildings than persons. I did once aspire to write like Lovecraft, but why? Certainly I’ve stopped trying to imitate his prose, his format, and to an extent even his mythos—or at least the form as it currently exists, in some cases far to systematized.

Perhaps why I’m still writing about Lovecraft’s prompts is that want of tradition—that his stories, and the stories that are around him ‘feel’ like mine. They feel more like my experience of the world than most folk stories I do read—a world that is at times hostile, uncaring, and increasingly doomed by forces I cannot control and can barely fathom. Perhaps Lovecraft’s great trick, of seeding other stories with his own works to give the appearance of a folk tradition, work in his favor. Writing in ‘the Mythos’ feels like writing in something much larger than one story, in a way that is increasingly hard with corporate control over media and independent works. Perhaps it was the sense of discovery and exploration, of finding and learning and glimpsing the illusion of a greater story. The idea that there was this vast, barely seen thing full of wonder.  Something vast, terrible, and immortal. Something infectious, in away—something that, to make contact with would move one beyond the mortal world.

Please pardon me, if my words have become absurd. Back to the topic at hand.

In this case, however, I have to draw a line. The prompts, it is…transparent that these prompts embody all the worst fears of the Voodoo reports. The fear of white supremacy being overthrown, the fear of loss of control and power, specifically by supernatural means (the same supernatural that overthrew white supremacy in Haiti). I could write a research article on similar tropes in folklore—but these would be more revisions of a racist fear, simply in older clothes. Exchanging these prompts to discuss stories of Romani shape shifters or the like would not exactly be more tactful or appropriate, and I try to avoid feeding into tropes such as these.

While I have notions on how to write stories like this in an acceptable way—one could write a story, for instance, where the horror is discovering the true horrors of the replaced white man’s deeds, or something—they would by their nature be stories about race. And while, perhaps one day I’d feel confident in writing such a story…Not in a week. Not in three weeks, not in a month, not in a season. That is a topic that I would have to practice considerable more editing, sensitivity reading, and more before I attempted.  So, no story this week, I’m afraid. I can recommend (from the first 100 pages), for those interested, the book Lovecraft Country, for an examination of Cosmic Horror and race. I have heard good things about Winters Tide but have not made it far into the book. There is, I believe, a wealth of literature on the topic that delves deeper into some of Lovecraft’s character—I did not have the time or ability to read multiple biographies, letters, and more that would be required for this article, even with the extended deadline.

We will revisit some voodoo/vodou/Vodun practices later, in a month when we come to a…slightly less racially charged prompt. Next time, we continue an examination of cosmic horror—this time the idea of a vast witch conspiracy centered in Polynesia.

Yes, no political issues that might be related to a global conspiracy of witches. None.

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or feel generous, please check out our Patreon here.

 

Bibliography

Evans, Timothy H. “A Last Defense against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft”. Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan. – Apr., 2005), pp. 99-135. Published by Indiana University Press.

Fandrich, Ina J. “Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo”. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, No. 5 (May., 2007), pp. 775-791 Published by Sage Publications, Inc.

Gordon, Michelle Y. “ “Midnight Scenes and Orgies”: Public Narratives of Voodoo in New Orleans and NineteenthCentury Discourses of White Supremacy” American Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 767-786. Published by John Hopkins University.

Mazower, Mark. The Balkan: A Short History. Modern Library 2002

 

 

[1] It is impossible to observe these obsessions and not consider the now infamous “14 words” common among white supremacists and fascists, as well as the Qanon and Pizzagate conspiracies. Somethings, it seems, do not change.

Delays and Delays

Hello everyone. This is going to be a bit different than normal posts. As you’ve noticed, no doubt, there have been some delays in getting writing out on time here at the Undead Author Society. There’s no way around it–the COVID 19 epidemic hampered my emotional energy and bandwidth, and I’ve only recently reached regular energy levels I had before. This meant writing often was difficult, both here and on the patreon.

However, that is not the only reason today has no post. I have in the past rushed research and writing exercises to meet my self-imposed deadline. This and next weeks prompt will, however, be getting into topics that if I rushed would be doing them a disservice on multiple levels.

Those prompts being:

108. Educated m****to seeks to displace personality of white man and occupy his body.
109. Ancient n***o voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.

Touching on these topics in any context would be difficult, but given the legacy and reputation of our source, I want to do these topics justice. That means doing a considerable amount of research on topics of racism, folklore, and “voodoo”, topics that are not easy or simple to say the least. While I’ve done so in the past, with topics on anti-Romani bias and anti-Yazidi bias, this week I didn’t have the time to review…as much as I was comfortable with.

A full discussion of these topics will hopefully be ready next week. My work on Patreon should update this Friday. Thank you very much for your time and stay safe.