a book

This Week’s Prompt:86. To find something horrible in a (perhaps familiar) book, and not to be able to find it again.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

This is going to be a different article then most. Normally, I try and connect the prompt to folklore in someway—both because it interests me, and because I’m aware that many people are invested in it. This week, while folklore will be mentioned, I’m going to be talking more about modern horror. In particular, this week I’m going to print a portion of an essay on The House of Leaves—given our prompt, this will be a section on the House of Leaves and Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s own work. The full essay, when complete, will be included on my Patreon—it is both too long and more in-depth then this site normally goes, and still progressing. That said, given the House’s own references, folklore and the like will probably still drift into the piece. For now, the below will be part of our work.

In His House Cthulhu Lies Dreaming1

From Witch House to Ryleh to Innsmouth

If there is a man who’s shadow has grown outside his form moreso then Mr. Lovecraft’s, it is probably limited to Tolkien—but the difference between what is meant by Tolkien-esque and what Tolkien actually wrote is for another occasion. Still, just as Tolkien has become the name for fantasy, Mr. Lovecraft has become synonymous with cosmic and existential horror. Talking about the House of Leaves in the context of Lovecraft quickly leads us into the murky place of definitions of what we mean by “Lovecraftian”. Certaintly, it is not a story Lovecraft could have written. It is a manuscript that employs a number of modern techniques and styles, playing with the distance between the viewer and the original, making use of dialouge and characters more realized then Lovecraft’s protagonists and work. No one reading the House can easily mistake it for some work out of the 1920s, let alone Lovecraft’s. While Johnny Truant has rambling sentences, they are not in the style of Lovecraftian purple prose—if anything, they remind me of noir pulp. Overly descriptive, yes, but to be frank–no protagonist of Lovecraft’s has that sort of appreciation for women, drugs, or weapons. We’ll come back to that.

Well, is it a Mythos story? The winding mass of work that was started by Lovecraft–arguably–and cultivated since then? This one can also be dismissed easily. While a truly determined reader can tie the Navidson Record into that mythology, it is an extraneous in the extereme2. There are no gibbering cultists, there are no tendrils. But yet! It is a very Lovecraft story, in a way. It hinges and touches very similar themes—some of which I have discussed in detail above. But for here, I’ll focus on some similar themes in both the Navidson Record—or at least, what we can guess from it’s echoes—and the House proper.

The very first layer to move through is the nature of the text. It is a found text, a tradition that is quite literally as old as the Gothic genre—which is certainly what I would call a large bulk of Lovecrafts work. We have here a text that we receive after multiple transmissions—just as we do in many of Lovecraft’s stories. While some of his work is in the third person omniscient, a number are presented by second hand accounts and witnesses–the most clear example being the Call of Cthulhu, which is centered on a mass of papers, letters, and journals. However, here attention is always called to the artifice. We are told by Editors, by Johnny, and sometimes by Zampano that there have been edits, omissions, lost information, and a creation of genuine distance from the truth. In Lovecraft, the transmission by a second person is sometimes a filter–but just as often, it is a means to reinforce the reality. To suggest that the author has something genuine on their hands.

The second area of blending is the notion of a cursed text. The nature of a cursed text to read—and of an alien world, which we will return to—is a theme in Lovecraft. But here, the texts infectious nature, which draws Johnny’s life into a downward spiral, is questionable. If there is a thing Johnny is confronting, it’s certainty not so dangerous as to infect the entire text—right? His symptoms at least at first appear unique but…well. We can consider that a number of viewings of the media produced effects on those who saw it, as reported towards the end of Zampano’s review. We can even consider how the text haunts us as readers—for we have been in the house, in a way, and I have been more on edge since. After all. I felt compelled to create this.

The notion of a secret room or doorway that leads to haunting revelations of the past is a Lovecraftian trope if there was one. It plays into a universal fear he has–the revelation, the remembering of the past that lets it loose again to devour and unmake the present. Like the found text trope, this isn’t unique to his writing. However, it is something of a stand by in his more racist stories. How many Lovecraftian protagonists find dark and monstrous things by following up there family tree and descending down into the basement? From cannibals to fornicating with apes to great rites to witch gods.  But the House is a different, primal unknown. What lurks in that house is…unsavory. It is a history—as I argued in the section on the Minotaur, there are terrifying implications there—but it is a more primal history.

And in fact, in that regard, it is a Lovecraft story—the house is a fearsome and alien place, that bends and shifts in impossible ways. It captures the impression that we received from a frozen Norwegian. The feeling that we have entered somewhere not made from human habitation, that is now awake and lurking after us. We shouldn’t forget—just as Johnny suspects there is something pursuing him after finding the old man’s notes, the Cult of Cthulhu is lurking just around the corner for those who know of he who lies dreaming in his house. It is a hungry place as well, devouring those who explore it. I said, I warned at the start. We must descend into the house with clear intentions–or else we will be lost in it’s labyrinth. 

One of which is Johnny.

Johnny’s nature is one that I  have spent an entire section on—he is a strange man, an odd creature. His guilts, regrets, lies, and losses shape much of the story. What struck me about Johnny, however, was a two fold concern. First, his family. Johnny, a consummate liar, reveals feelings of inhumanity in the text that to me bear more than a passing resemblance to the fears of Lovecraft. Not the miscegenation fears—those are rampant in Lovecraft, but lacking here. No, no we can consider instead the portions of the text where Johnny or his mother tell him of his inheritance, of feeling like a dark and monstrous creature. Johnny suspects, as I have said, that he is a beast. Or wishes to appear as a beast. While Lovecraft’s own fears might be less clear then this, there is a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s writing about discovering (with horror) the true monstrous nature of aristocracy and of the self.

The other connection is one of family. Both Lovecraft and Johnny lost their fathers early in life–Lovecraft’s was placed in a mental asylum, Johnny’s appears to have perished in an airplane crash. Both also had mothers that doted on them through out their lives–or in Johnny’s case attempted to. And both saw their mothers sent to an asylum for a pathological fear of the dark. This incident, coupled with the death of Susan Lovecraft, is suggested by some to be the cause of Mr. Lovecraft’s writing of the Call of Cthulhu–a story that has odd resemblances to the House as we will see. 

Johnny as a person is very different then the sex averse, drug averse, cloistered Lovecraft, but they share this fear of where they are from. And it is interesting to consider, his work consumed him into an isolated and fearful man—perhaps even going straight edge. Lovecraft, according to popular rumor, wrote the story of Shadows over Innsmouth after learning of his ancestry—notably, this is the last story he wrote that saw publication, and is the only one where the narrator is directly confronting the horror that is themselves. Most comparable stories, the hero’s companion finds the truth of their self. Shadows over Innsmouth centers on the narrator as the discoverer. On the revelation of his roots, on his dark  Johnny likewise wonders aloud—is he the victim of a monster, or is he the victim of his blood. We follow his search for origins, across the country. And we might find it…intriguing what he finds.

Perhaps most interesting to us is how both Lovecraft and Johnny presented works of fiction tied to their origins and their loss. We know that Johnny engaged with the work of Zampano as a creative endeavor—he edits, he elides, he repairs, he transalates3. He, in a very real way, creates and changes the narrative. And always, we are reminded of his loss, of his terrible childhood, of women who he never really knew. And he comes back to this house. This house that, in a very real way, is overtaking his house. As I discussed in my section on Johnny earlier, we can never be clear—how much of the House is Johnny’s sickness and how much is an actual haunting.

As I mentioned, a popular story suggests Lovecraft wrote Shadows Over Innsmouth due to discovering his own heritage. But that is not the principle Lovecraft story I would discuss. Instead, I would point to Ryleh. A story that has consumed and overshadowed it’s author’s intentions—Lovecraft was not fond of Cthulhu, and while he produced sketches, he was focused more ‘Yog-Sothery’. But that is not the mythos name, and if any force has become the face of Lovecraft’s brand, it is Cthulhu and Ryleh.

This is a story that is told to us by complied documents and fake citations, of a group of travelers entering into the sleeping place of an ancient evil. We can even look closely at how these men, who dig deep into an isle and meddle with it, perish. Several die at the hand claws of Cthulhu, while others are trapped by the strange architecture. One, upon reaching apparent safety, kills himself. And one is found, at last, adrift and freezing.

The story is related by a dangerous text, found abandoned. But not a singular text. Like Zampano, the manuscript is in pieces, and must be collected and restored to something readable–and the character travels the world even to reach all the pieces. As an aside. an interpretation of the Lovecraft canon as a series of found texts might be interesting—considering what edits were made to Innsmouth’s description, in order to back a government sponsored extermination, or the incident at Red Hook to play into fears of the local population. That sort of thing. I suspect it has been done.

Johnny’s fears of the text—that it is dangerous to hold, and that it opens to a dangerous place—resemble the fears of Rylehian scholar but enlarged. They also are akin to the symptoms of the Witch House. Johnny begins to have trouble working—his sense of hearing grows, he has distrubed dreams. He does not recall his dreams, a conceit around the indescribably of Mr. Gilman. Gilman and Truant both acquire knowledge through their work, in their own way—certainly, Truant visits libraries frequently to create his translations. Both engage in unknown behavior in their sleep—Johnny screams, Gilman walks, both attracting rumors and neighbors form their isolation. The strange sounds, the invading sights, many are present. Even the notion of the House that is larger or warped spatial is found here.

Johnny is not a Lovecraftian protagonist—he plays into his own machismo in ways that Lovecraft’s play into their academic knowledge, he womanizes when Lovecraft’s flee sexuality it seems, and he uses a cocktail of drugs when Lovecraft’s despise anything that addles their mind. Johnny is however, motivated by many of the same fears of a Lovecraft protagonist. He fears the unknown. He fears the places of domesticity. He fears the text he writes and works through. He fears the old. He is consumed by his work, in the way many a Lovecraft character is—and becomes convinced at its haunting power.

Unlike a Lovecraftian character, Johnny calls attention to his artifice. Lovecraft’s narrators present themselves as arbiters of truth—Johnny is a liar, and reminds us regularly that he is a liar. That he lies, edits and alters.

There is one more thing to discuss when dealing with Mr. Lovecraft and the house. We must discuss the fear of the elder. As I discussed in Twins, there is a strong theme in the house—fear and oppression of the old. Johnny calls attention to a feeling of an oppressive man weighing down on him. While his mother fears the ominous New Director, we can find this anomalous at best. The New Director, after all, is the Old Director—even when he is not. We have instances of pairs, in which the Older of the pair is considered with caution. The image of the father as danger—especially in Johnny’s narrative—is prominent. Among the two Navidson brothers, Navidson and Tom make a comparable pair—and here Navidson occupies a danger seeking and danger drawing roll. Holloway, the oldest of those to descend into the house, is the least stable and most dangerous man in the entirety of the cast. The swearing to commit infanticide that might escape a readers notice. And of course, there is the House—and the Book. The First Edition. The Old is dangerous. The Old is powerful, haunting, and consuming.

And that is what Lovecraft fears most—that the Old is not old. It is not dead, it is only dreaming. Yes, much ink has been spilt over this particular fear manifesting as fear of the unknown or fear of the other—and this is correct! Yes, Lovecraft’s fear of modernity seems backwards with a fear of the past. After all, how could a man who dreaded the ancients so seem to loath New York city?

We cannot forget that Lovecraft and several of his contemporaries positioned time and space differently. To view from the post of Lovecraft, there is no future. There is no movement forward, there is only decay. Backwards, forwards, you fall into the waiting jaws of ‘savagery’. Lovecraft presents and believes in no bright city on a hill—or if he does, it is the result of an endless fight with the forces of the Cosmos. He can join the author of the Golden Bough, in suspecting that in the depths of the world of humanity, so-called savagery is the true state. The Old World, that Modernity and the Enlightenment abhor, will consume the new.

The House asserts something similar—a fear of the assertion of the old over the new, the elder brother over the younger—but at the same time, it situates itself in the reverse. As I discussed in the section on Echoes and Ruins, there is a profound fear not only of the past over powering the present, but of the past being entirely lost. Lovecraft fears his origins will become him—that in truth, he is secretly some descendant of a monster and not of the Rhode Island pseudo-nobility. We can even compare his belief in his own heritage with the statements of Ms. Truant regarding her sons character. But the House is also afraid of being lost over time—repeatedly, images, ideas, themes, entire places are intentionally erased. Some deliberately, some by accident. Some without any explanation at all. The House itself is like the panther. To forget it is not to be saved from it.

Lovecraft is afraid of remembering, of the Old returning because we can see it—a fear that is perhaps reasonable in a time of Modernism, where a sharp break from the barbarous past was presented. Lovecraft fears that we will find the unknown, confront it, and be found wanting. But the house? The House knows—the panther will remain, forgotten or no. To forget the beast is not to leave it dreaming—it is to allow it to devour you.



 

So what does this mean, for creative works? For our writing next week? Well, this time I have evaded folklore—the horror of hidden places we’ve discussed here. The idea of a dangerous text we’ve discussed here. And while there is a history of labyrinths, I think a discussion of them wouldn’t be quite what we are looking for.

Instead, this rumination on the house has given me the notion of things be remembered. Things arising from the text itself. I toyed with the idea of playing with the text here—telling a story in the same meta way that the house did. But that notion seemed difficult to succeed at. We have something like the opposite of an earlier incident—where a memory was aroused by a book. Here we have lost a vital, but dreadful thing we can’t place. It might serve well to play with what connections this discovery has—we perhaps fear the book, but also the hill were the dreadful thing was described. We will have to see.

1With apologies to Filamena for including such a section, hastily hidden at the end of the essay.

2For what it is worth, the easiest way is to employ the most boring reading of the growls in the house, and then take hold of the Haunter of the Dark—but again. Extraneous. Like these foot notes.

3And to translate is fundamentally to change.

Sun and Snake on the Isle

This Week’s Prompt: 85. “For has not Nature, too, her grotesques—the rent rock, the distorting lights of evening on lonely roads, the unveiled structure of man in the embryo, or the skeleton?” Pater—Renaissance (da Vinci).

The Prior Research: She’s a Viper

Chasing Austin’s invitation to his new studio-home—several miles away from a small island town several hours away by boat from his well our old home—ended up costing me an third of my rent for the month. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that I was in something of a bitter mood. Austin had been insistent I come out to see him. I had convinced myself that it was only to save on postage that I was visiting, but it had been almost a year without seeing him or sharing a coffee.

The boat ride was calming at least—the sea has that effect on me. It is too vast for concerns and anxieties to stand in it’s presence. Austin and I had tried with both our arts to capture that vastness, but it defies capture. It is too big for words and pigments, except in the hands of a master. Still, it was a nice image to wake to in the morning, enjoying coffee on the misty deck.

There was only one other companion out to greet the morning sun. He was an old man, Patrick Seoriseson, who would strum a guitar at the dawn and hum some song I’d never heard of. We didn’t talk much—not that he was bad company, but he was…well. Strange. He looked in his sixties, but his hair was bright blond, and his face and eyes looked young. Like someone grafted a twenty year old’s head, fresh before college, onto the body of their own aging grandfather. He had a beard, but it was blond too—not scraggly hay blond, folded and woven silk blond.

Apollo.png

As unnerving as he was, another presence on that chill morning, as the island rose from the fog, was a welcome one. We had, turning back to see the homeland, made it just in time. Behind our ship, dark clouds had formed. A storm was roiling, and I was suddenly glad to have no pressing business for several weeks.

It was getting dark when I finally set foot on the land—my sea legs taken three steps to return to their land-bound cousins. I bought a large bottle of water, and set my phones secondary charger—the house was a good five miles from town, a nice hour or so walk to gain my composure. Austin had been very clear about getting to his house as soon as I could—apparently whatever he had couldn’t wait. And while small coastal towns are welcoming to some, to me they are always a tad unearthly. They all feel drenched with age by the sea.

The road to Austin’s house was a somewhat paved, at least the first half. As the sun began to set into twilight, I was walking on more rocks and dirt. The shore had splits and crags, streams of salt water rolling inland. Eventually, I saw his house come into view—two luminous lights, shimmer on the horizon.

I thought it was his house, anyway. I didn’t check my phone, and well. I nearly walked into the tide and rocks.

And saw the lights in four different directions.

Whatever was going on in the atmosphere, my GPS hadn’t failed. And that I could follow, cold from the wind, back to the path. And at last, I found his house. A collection of lights from the house—square, instead of the lying spheres I’d seen on the way. It was a nice looking house. As I got closer, I saw the paint was peeling. There was something acrid in the air. As I walked up to the house, I saw someone shuffling inside—their back was bent pretty far but when I squinted they were walking fine.

I rang the door bell, but there was just a fizzle. Austin probably forgot to fix it. So instead, I gripped the knocker—an lion headed one, old iron—and rapped on the door. There was a bustle, papers unseen falling to the floor as Austin came to the door.

He was a bit thinner, still catching his breath as he held out his hand.

“Jeffery, come in, come in. Gods I thought you’d abandoned us.” He said, stepping out the way after a brief shake.

“It is a bit out of the way.” I said, looking around. The walls were nice—the wood floor was oddly smooth. “And there’s…some sort of rave outside…I think. Have you had problems with lights?”

“Lights? Oh, come now Jeffery. A will-o-wisp never hurt anyone who had their wits about them.” Austin said, laughing. I didn’t laugh as he lead me to his study up the stairs. The house creaked as it settled, and the steps spiraled at a bit of an incline.

“You have a cat out here, Austin? Seems more like dog country.” I said, looking down at the steps. “This groove to drain water or something?”

There was a foot long indent along the stairs, running down the middle. Perfectly even at a glance.

“Oh, no, no, old owners lived here a long time. I think they might have evenly spread it–”

There was a crash, first of thunder then of a dropped pans from the kitchen. Austin’s face went pale for a second.

“Its quite alright, I’m sure!” Austin shouted after me. I had already rounded into the source, the kitchen—door half open. I threw the door open and–

And she nearly put me through the wall. I felt claws on my shoulder and saw dozens of enraged and startled serpent eyes. As she held me on the floor, I heard the warning rattle from an unseen scaly tail. My eyes were distracted by her fangs bared at me.

“Its alright, it’s alright!” I heard Austin shout. “Dear, please, your both high strung! Storms do that.”

“Austin, I think you forgot somethings!” I shouted, eyes fixed in hers. Her face was hidden by a veil of snake skin.

“Did he now?” The woman said—with all twenty snake mouths that made up her head, her face unraveling and rem-emerging from the masses. It was when she moved that I realized my legs were trapped—feeling slowly returning to my feat, little bites marring my pants.

“Well, dear, how would you explain it.” Austin said defensively.

“…You better think of a quick way to explain it Austin.” I said, slowly pushing my self up into a chair.

MedusaHeadSwarm.png

Austin’s explanation was full of poetry and phantasms and whimsy. I will abbreviate it here, as I was not in a whimsical mood. He had acquired the house from a man in town, at first to rent but then bought outright. The house was the man’s great aunt, and something about it’s perpetual disrepair had spoken to Ausitn. Fallen age of man, decay of empires, Adam’s sin, artists of his type always seem to love decaying bodies.

Never seem to ask why the place is full of dead things, and maybe that dwelling on such things is dangerous.

Of course, Austin, the fop he is, found the notion of a haunted place alluring. He loved the idea of will-o-wisp, of changelings, of entertaining morbid faerie guests. I’ve never found a reason to want such things—stories rarely make them pleasant. Had I been Austin, the strange rustling outside, the flash of scales in the bed room, the sight of dozens of serpentine eyes down the hall? Those were signs to flee.

But fly he did. Into her arms. Well, not at first. There was some back and forth. She hadn’t had someone react quite like Austin did. Asking her name—Tengra Dudana They became friends the way most people did. Shared food.

Of course, she asked questions. Why was he here, what was he doing. The two became fast friends, once they started talking. She enjoyed his artistry, he enjoyed her singing and laughter—he insisted that a hundred serpents singing was a choir I’d have to here.

Austin had a knack for friends. His art improved also—her rippling serpents inspiring thoughts of the sea more perfectly realized then before. Austin elided if they had ever left the boundaries of friendship—but he grew sheepish enough for me to decide.

Thunder continued to boom outside as Austin talked. Thunder and storms put her on edge—she was suspicous of everything on dark nights like this.

“It was not a typical romance.” She said, encoiling her body around the chair. “But a pleasant one.”

I nodded, nervously sipping the tea.

“Well, I—I imagine.” I said slowly.

“Yes, well, I had…hoped to show you the gallery first.” Austin said. Tengra rolled her eyes.

“He thinks pictures are a good start. They are wonderful paintings, but…they are not good preparation.” Tengra said, unwinding herself and sinking to the floor, then reforming as a singular woman—a rather tall one, her skin only rippling slightly as coils found their place.

“I would not oppose seeing them.” I said, placing my tea down. My nerves were slowly waking up from their stunned silence.

The paintings were…good. Yes, good. The paintings were acceptable, they captured some of the motion of their subject mater that, without first hand experience, would have seemed unbelievable. Tengra seemed fond of many forms, but there was something in the shape of the cliffs and moors that carried her image as well. By day, I’d have to see the originals nature had carved—whether she had woven Tengra into the hills, or whether that was some inspiration of Austins I cannot say.

There was one picture, however, that I paused at.

PerseusandAndromeda.png

“Austin, who is this?” I said. I pointed behind the cross of interwoven snakes, to a man on the hill. There was something about his shape I recognized—his golden wave beard and hair.

“Oh, some vagrant I think.” Austin said, shaking his head. “Well, a rather well off one maybe. He’s been around once I think.”

“Did you talk to him much?” I asked. Austin frowned, and I noticed Tengra seemed to be paying more attention.

“I…don’t think I did. It’s strange I hadn’t considered him much, but I think I talked a decent amount with him. He’s some sort of musician I think? He’s from across the sea though, I didn’t think it much important.” Austin then paused again. “No…no, not across. He said the strangest thing. He’s from the ‘other side’ of the sea.”

Austin raised a finger upward, imitating the memory.

Tengra hissed a bit.

“He is a strange man. You should have pointed him out to me, he might have been squawking.”

“You mean gawking?”

“That as well.” Tengra said.

SnakeFrogSpider.png

The next morning, me and Austin had arranged to have coffee on the porch—Tengra was sunbathing somewhere, warming her scales.

“So…so what do you think?” Austin asked, sipping his coffee slowly. I put down mine, steam still rising from it.

“The house needs work. The fence is rusty, I’d start there.” I said, flatly. Austin blinked.

“I meant about–”

“I know, I know. Uh. Well.” I said rubbing my head. “Your in love with a swarm of snakes. I…Look, I don’t have the tools to process this at the moment. Like, I’m assuming she’s not holding you hostage right? Not hypnotizing you with her eyes, like that Disney movie?”

“…the Jungle Book?”

“Yeah that one.” I said, scratching the back of my neck. Austin burst out laughing.

“No, no, she’s just a wonderful person.”

“Made of snakes.”

“Made of snakes.”

“Well. I, I guess there are worse things?” I said, sipping my coffee. “She’s not French or a fascist, so a plus all around there.”

“She can sing in Gaelic.” Austin piped up.

“Talented. Creepy, I’m not going to lie, but talented.” I said with a laugh. The storm hadn’t cleared yet, but in the distance I saw the sun rising—the ship back wouldn’t have a problem. I’d need to make my exit politely, this needed some thought.

It was while I was mulling this over and talking a bit on art with Austin that something caught my eye—like those will-o-wisps, a flash of light. But this was bright, metalic light. Turning my head, I saw a car rolling up the road. There was a boom of thunder, a flash of lighting in front of the sun as out walked the man with the golden beard.

Apollo and Python.png

“Hey is that…” I said nudging Austin—and then I saw it flash, briefly. A long backward curved blade, that he was examining beneath his coat. “Austin, we…we should get inside.”

Austin took a moment to register—maybe sleep still lingering on him, but he saw where I pointed. Across the way, Patrick waved. He was smiling, perfect white teeth catching the sunlight.

“Oh, yeah, its…that guy. Come on, Jeffery, lets get some more coffee. Ask him what’s happening.”

“Austin he has a–”

“Hello there, fine sailor and artist too.” Patrick said. He’d…moved fast while we where talking.

“Oh, well…Hello.” Austin said. Patrick laughed. His laugh was surprisingly deep—his slightly higher pitch giving way to a low rumbling laugh. “Can…Can I help you?”

“Serendipity says so, yes. I’m looking for something old among the cliffs—older then will-o-wisp and banshee and them.” He said, gesturing behind him to the road way. “Something with fangs and scales, an old something.”

“Well, there aren’t snakes on islands.” I said, standing up a bit.

“Adder, smooth snake, grass snake, corn snake, and viper all round the King of England’s crown.” He said, as if that explained anything. “Only emeralds really snake free, my friend. Only emerald, and that’s at least part from me. Now, have you seen it?”

“No.” Austin said, getting up. “I haven’t seen–”

The man held his hand to Austin’s face, tilting his head. He hissed behind his teeth.

“Nevermind that, never mind me.” The man said, turning now to the hills, hand reaching in his jacket. There he held that knife. “You stay here, I’ve got business. I think I can enjoy myself from here.”

I reached out to grab his arm—Austin reached for his back. The next moment I was against the wall—his fore arm was under my neck, while Austin had been tossed onto the roadway. His knife was drawn, blade facing away—it was was curved somewhat, with a straight edge on the inside, away from me.

“Friends, this seems unbecoming of men of art and wonder. Lying in the underbrush like savage hunters to catch the noble deer—very unbecoming.” He said, pushing back against my neck. I gripped his wrist—I couldn’t breath, and I felt the wall behind me cracking. My entire back was bruising—and then he dropped me on the floor. I slumped over, breathing heavy, eyes closed from sudden exhaustion. When I opened them, he was walking after a scrambling Austin—who, god bless him, was shouting a warning for Tengra.

I pulled myself up—my legs and back were not fond of the predicament. His hat flew off as the wind picked up, the storms weeping overhead. It was strange. I thought the man’s coat had looked pitch black before—now it seemed to be roiling gold and white and red. He had so many eyes. Why did his coat have so many eyes?

I threw the door open and stumbled inside, sitting behind the door frame. I heard thunder rolling, and hissing outside. I didn’t look, so this I cannot report on directly. The sun had risen only a finger when I was able to rise again— and see an empty roadway, no sign of Austin, Tengra, or the man. I hobbled out, calling Austin’s name along that cliffside road.

“Jeffery, Jeffery is that you?” a shout came from a large stone on the edge. I ran to it, and found him there—slumped against the back, holding a long snake skin to his face, sobbing.

“Austin, God in Heaven, your alive.” I said.

“Oh, not in heaven, and how alive? She is gone, Jeffery, she is gone!” He said, batting away my outstretched hand.

“Gone? As in gone or gone?” I asked, looking around. “And that man…is he gone with her? We need to leave Austin.”

“Gone, both gone! Oh the fire, the eyes, it was like Apollo wrestling Python! Oh it was dreadful–”

I decided that was enough and pulled Austin up. This time, he didn’t resist. He just kept up his mourning, about how she had vanished, how that strange man had seemed so much larger, how helpless he felt when he’d been thrown against the stone—thrown, yet lived! The man has no taste for practical miracles—how could he face the dawn without her, how could he paint without her and so on.

“Well, you have some of her scales.” I said, sighing as I lowered him on the porch. “So that’s something.”

It was apparently only a small consolation. Austin swore, swore as he lay there, holding to the skin tight, that he would find her somewhere—somewhere, in earth an heaven, or whatever was on the other side of heaven. I nodded politely—and reminded myself to never again agree to any of Austin’s wild adventures.




If there ever was a story that warranted more writing and expansion, it was probably this one. The central mystery needs more time, and the final confrontation with the Apolloian hunter needs more build up. I’ll file it away for next year.

Next week, however, we return fully to our horror roots. It’s time to go inside a book, into an old house



 

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She’s a Viper

This Week’s Prompt: 85. “For has not Nature, too, her grotesques—the rent rock, the distorting lights of evening on lonely roads, the unveiled structure of man in the embryo, or the skeleton?” Pater—Renaissance (da Vinci).

The Resulting Story:

The quote above is from an essay on Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Pater—not as I first thought, a saying by da Vinci as pater Renaissance. The essay is partly biographic, detailing da Vinci’s years as an artist and academic—his knowledge of nature that for his time took the form of divination, alchemy, and herbal ism. What caught Lovecraft’s attention in this quote, and what the essay points to, is that da Vinci’s mastery of nature and painting was from his in depth knowledge not only of its beauty but its grotesques—Pater points to a painting of the head of Medusa as exemplifying this. While this painting is not actually a da Vinci, it will give us a place to start in a moment.

We can first begin with some of the descriptions given by Pater of Nature’s grotesques. The rent rock is unfortunately a bit to opaque for me to refer to. The distorting lights of evening on lonely roads, however, are familiar to any student of folklore. Frequently called the Will-o-wisp, these strange lights are attested to in a number of places as leading travelers down roads unfamiliar or even to their deaths. Strange fireballs at night are also often taken as signs of witchcraft or devilry, as we discussed in our works on those topics. That such alluring sights are taken as grotesque is strange for me, but I suspect Pater is thinking of the bodies and broken corpses they leave more than the lights themselves.

This link with witches, however, brings us back to Medusa and the Gorgons. While not the exact portion of the essay quoted, the portrayal of the Gorgon as both the beauty and horror of nature isn’t without precedent as we will see. The serpentine women of the world are a varied group, and we can see traces of them in many places. And in many of them, they are beautiful and terrible.

Medusa Leonardo

Pater attributes this piece depicting Medusa to Leonardo–current research believes it to be a Flemish painting.

Beginning with the Gorgon sisters—Medusa, Stheno, Euryale—we have a group of three terrible monsters, with gazes that turn men to stone. Each is described as having serpents for hair, bronze claws, and cause terror among men. Early variations give them instead wings, boars tusks, and long tongues, with serpents for belts. The nature of these gorgons is varied. Hesiod says they are of the sea, with Medusa as their Queen. Homer attributes Athena and Agamenon as having the head of ‘the Gorgon’ on their shields, flanked by terror. Eurpidies says they were brought forth by Gaia to aid against the Olympians, and Athena killed this Gorgon and placed her on her shield. Another version says the gorgon, Gorgo Aix, was killed by Zeus in the titanomachy, skinned, and put on a shield (here her skin has snake like features). Both the Odyssey and the Aenied note the Gorgon’s are present beneath the world.

And then there is the story of Perseus and Medusa—a story I’ve taken time coming to, because the various forms the Gorgon and her sisters have taken often gets overshadowed by this tale. The story is most famously recounted by Ovid. Medusa, the lone mortal Gorgon and their Queen in some sources, was once a beautiful woman with many suitors. In time, she attracted the attention of Poseidon, who raped her in Athena’s temple. Athena, enraged by the transgression, turned Medusa’s most famed trait—her golden hair—into serpents as punishment. Medusa’s power here it should be noted is from her fearsome appearance—it is not from her mere gaze.

Medusa Ancient.png

Perseus enters the story, and we have discussed him before I believe, when a king sends him to kill Medusa in order to marry his mother without worry. Perseus receives various gifts before finding Medusa, and uses a mirrored shield to reach her and slay her—cutting off her head. Yes, a rather anti-climatic ending, but most quests that involve killing large reptiles end with either dead heroes or crafty ones. Medusa’s blood, like a number of monster’s blood, spills into the sea and creates Perseus and his less well known brother.

Medusa’s fate, as a victim of powers at be—ultimately of many powers at be, as not only is her transformation because of a patriarchial standard, but her death is ultimately because of another man trying to pursue an uninterested woman—has resulted in more sympathetic treatment of her as a character in later years. I do not feel qualified to discuss the full scope of feminist readings of the Medusa story, but they are many and worth consideration at the least. At least one scholar has suggested this is not a new reading—that Medusa was granted her powers and apperance to defend against the gods. While I haven’t included all of the analysis by Wilk here, some poritons are worth considering in the broader scope of folklore—for instance, in Ovid and other versions of Persesus, he is given an inordinate number of gifts, which might reflect a combining stories where only one gift was given.

One more note on the Gorgon that I found peculiar was it’s use as a repellent for the evil eye—yes, the one we discussed early that seemed to be exactly what Medusa possessed. The use of the Gorgon’s head on an image was said to keep it at bay, the opposite of what I expected. There is then even in the ancient context a duality to the character of the Gorgon.

Lamia.png

Especially as we go further down the line of serpentine women. The term Lamia is one I hesitate to suggest searching—it is a name that has become associated with any woman with the bottom half of a serpent. Lamia originally was a lover of Zeus who was, as per the norm in Greek myth, cursed by Hera. The nature of the curse is varied—sometimes Hera kills her children, sometimes Hera afflcits her with infantcidal maddness, as she did to Hercules. In at least one case, Lamia is cursed with sleeplessness by Hera, so she can never cease her grieving. Zeus, taking a rather strange route, blesses her with removable eyeballs so she can sleep somewhat. After this introduction, Lamia becomes a child devouring boogeyman. Over time, Lamia gained serpent like attributes and even a snake like lower body. She has also gained a reputation for vampiric traits, and in the first century AD a seducing side. With her, there is also the boogeyman Mormo—a creature defined only as terrifying, sadly.

Moving to more northern regions of Europe, we find the medieval Melusina. The stories here vary somewhat. Melusina is a watery spirit—she is associated with fountains and springs. In the most elaborate stories, she is the daughter of a fairy and a king. The fairy forbid the king to look upon her on certain days—and when the king failed in this task, she left with her three daughters. Melusina, the eldest daughter, asked the cause of the divorce, and with her sisters planned revenge against their father for his disloyalty. In at least one version,they employ their fairy magic to trap him under a mountain! Regardless, their mother does not approve of the schemes, and curses Melusina to die if she cannot find a man loyal to her in the way her father wasn’t. Every Saturday she will become a serpent—if her husband sees her as such, she will perish.

Melusina.png

Melusina, with some time, finds such a husband that will be loyal to her. Often, this is Count Raymond, who sires with her many children. However, because of her wickedness these children are often deformed. In time, the Count does as all husbands of fairies do, and spies on his wife. She cries out upon being seen and perishes—her faerie nature remaining around a nearby fountain.

In an important variant, Melusina marries Count Siegfried and has seven children with him. Here she maintains the Saturday prohibition—however, Melusina has been seen since in Luxembourg and is regarded as the mother of the city in some ways. She appears every seven years as a woman in white, asking to be redeemed. One traveler tried to redeem her, standing at midnight behind the church altar for eight of nine prescribed days. Had he completed the task, a nearby Roman ruin would have been restored! But alas, he failed to arrive on the ninth day.

Melusina still loves Luxembourg however—she weeps when it is in danger, circling overhead. If she is not redeemed, the city will collapse and be her grave stone.

Echidna.png

To finish our European serpent woman—but not finish all serpent women!–we can consider the form of Echidna. Here we find the most direct connection at the implications of nature featuring both grotesques and beauties, for Echidna is a beauty that is attractive to men far and near. She is at times described as immortal and deathless. Hesiod describes her as appearing partially beautiful nymph, partially terrible dragon. She was wife to Typhon the terrible, a monster that we discussed long ago—and should one day dredge up again—and bore a number of children by him. Aristophanes gives her as many heads as Typhon had—one hundred snake heads. Her children are many, almost as many as Tiamat: Orthus, the two headed dog; Cerberus the three headed hell hound; the Hydra, the many head snake; the Nemean Lion, invincible to moral weapons; the Caucasian Eagle, who tears out Prometheus’s liver; the Sphinx of Thebes, who only Theseus could outsmart; Ladon, the dragon who guarded the Herespedies; the harpies; a nameless venom spitting son who aided Cronus against Zeus; Scylla, who consumes the waves; the Gorgon, who we’ve discussed above; the Crommyion Sow, also slain by Theseus. In Scythia, according to Herodotus, there was a story of a similar half-snake woman that was the mother of the Scythians, with Heracles as the father.

The notion of snake like heads reminds me of an Aztec goddess—Coatlicue, the earth mother and serpent woman. Associated with both birth and death—the earth as fertile, and the earth as grave—Coatlicue is the mother of the sun god Huitzilopochtli and sometimes Quetzalcouatl, as well as the Moon goddess Coyolxāuhqui and the star gods Centzonhuītznāhua, who tried to slay the sun. She also has assoications with the god of women who died in childbirth, the Serpent Woman Cihuacóatl. While sometimes a young woman, the serpent woman often was depicted as a skull faced woman with a shield and weapon—among the Aztecs, childbirth was another form of war. With her attendants, woman who died in childbirth, she sometimes haunted cross roads looking for other children to make off with.

Aztec Earth.png

On the opposite end of these creatures, we have Nuwa—who almost resembles a cosmic Melusina. Nuwa appears or is depicted as a woman with a dragon’s coils as her lower body. During a time of chaos, in the aftermath of the destruction of the central pillar by giant headbutt, Nuwa set about re-ordering the world. She set about placing five elements and sapphires in the sky. She set four pillars made from a tortoise to hold it in place. In some accounts, she further made humanity out of yellow clay and ropes—her husband was the first of humanity, and invented arts of hunting, fishing, and farming. Nuwa enjoys popularity still, and sometimes acts as the arranger of marriages.

These various women show a common dichotomy—excluding perhaps Nuwa, they are both mothers and dangers. While there is a temptation to write this off as succubi—the fear of women’s sexuality, woman being a wicked tempter—it falls short in some stories. The Melusina is ultimately a victim, more so than her close cousin Medusa almost (depending on the version). Echinda to the Scythians is simply a mother of a people, as strong as she is. It reminds me, coming back to our very beginning, of the various dichotomies used to present and describe nature.

What sort of story can we make of these? I am tempted to avoid a literal serpent woman. However, the notion of appreciation for beauty coming only with understanding of natures horrors has some precedent in Lovecraft’s fiction (most tellingly, the work of Pickman). I think something about that, something with an artist and a muse perhaps, can be made. We will have to come around to it next week! I will see you then.

Bibliography:

Wilk, Stephen R. Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. Oxford University Press, 2000.