In The Depths of the Earth

This Week’s Prompt: 100. Subterranean region beneath placid New England village, inhabited by (living or extinct) creatures of prehistoric antiquity and strangeness.

The Resulting Story:

The underground and underworld are topics of human imagination for as long as humans have been around. It’s of little surprise, since the world below is an almost alien notion—neither plants nor sun seem to be there, but at the same time things spring from it. In this case, Mr. Lovecraft wants to point to prehumen or at least prehistoric. And for that, we have a startling amount to find in folklore. We discussed some of this before—but most of this is new.

We can start of course with the creations of the worlds before this one. One Othama story tells of worlds buried in layers beneath this one. The first one, inhabited by the first race of humans, never suffered age or sickness. However, without these, the immortals grew too numerous and devoured everything, before turning to cannibalism. They were wiped out, and the sky collapsed on them, forming the next world. Here age was introduced, but it grew quicker with each generation—and so they were wiped out. The next age smoking tobacco spread down the generations too fast—and so they too were buried. Before the forth and current world was made, the gods noticed that the world was slightly off balance—each collapsed sky had tilted farther and farther up in the east. After raising the west to balance it, they placed the current race of humans.

Pima1700

Akimel Oʼotham (sometimes called Pima) territory, circa 1700

The Dine have a slightly different story, presenting a layered world but not layered creations. Instead, humanity ascends through each world after being driven out of the one before it. Battles often follow, although one document suggests the third world was abandoned after Coyote kidnapped two of Water Buffalo’s children. The fourth world was found too barren for habitation, and the final ascent was into this world, the fifth world.

The Zuni have another tale of underground peoples in the same area. Here these people are not quiet dead, but not quiet alive. They live opposite lives of humans—food is toxic too them, but they can live on vapors and steam. They are ‘incomplete’, and able to shift their shape. One story tells how two heroic twins heard the wailing and war calls of these people, and went down to learn of their nature. The twins used magic to travel down into the underworld, entering a dark lake with their shields on backwards.

Zuni River.png

They discovered what we have already revealed—but also that the unmade men cannot be hurt by strong blows and weapons, but only by soft and normally delicate things like grass. The wind of straw becomes a wind of arrows below, and the touch of a jay bird landing on them is like lightening. The twins try and teach their own ways to make them stronger, but are disdained as eaters of refuse and monsters by the people there.

Further south, we find the Maya. We have here a number of chthonic and underground realms. In the Popul Vuh, the world below is Xibalba, the land of the dead. Here we find the houses of bats and obsidian, rivers of pus and scorpions. We also find in more modern times the Earthlords. These spirits are rich but flighty, and live far away from any towns. They dress as colonial Spaniards and ride horses—and with their immense wealth comes the power to be both cruel and kind without worry.

Among the Ainu, there are conflicting descriptions of the underground. At least one version claims that the bottom of the underworld, seven layers down, is where great thunder gods battle. When one die, they are restored to the heavenly abodes and shoot back down to their place of war, forming lighting bolts. These battling gods fight over fields of paradise, far enough away that they will not destroy the world.

Other accounts suggest that the world is like a coin—on this side, we live. On the other side, the gods and others live in a paradisaical existence or demons live a hellish one. Both trample down the ground, keeping it even.

Among the Tonga, the underworld contains Maui Atalanga’s garden, where his mischievous son Maui Kijikiji discovered fire. Fire was held by Maui Kijikiji’s grandfather, who loaned his grandson some of it—only for him to repeatedly put it out. At last, he gave him the hole log in frustration, which Kijikiji tried to smuggle out. Atalanga caught him, and forced him to return it—but didn’t notice that some of Kijikiji’s loincloth had caught on fire. There also grows a nonu tree, who’s leaves restore the dead. In Maori stories, Maui (and my source indicates only one Maui) is a descendant of the inhabitants of the underworld, and steals fire from the below as well, and discover his heritage like Maui Kijikiji by following his father and finding a secret road to the below. He stole fire more properly, with no father trying to stop him as directly.

Basque Mountains.png

There is a mountain in Basque country that has a darker below, it’s entire interior full of Satanic worshipers. Strange songs are sung and resound out, smoke rises from burnt offerings. I discussed the fullness of the origin of these omens on patreon, but at least in part the regular witches sabbath begins here, and it appears the mountain is named after these gatherings (Aqualarre–a mountain I can’t find on the world maps).

Welsh mountains and mines are said to be inhabited by coblynbeau. The cobyln is a knocker or thumper in the mine. They stand about a foot and a half tall in miners clothes, and attend to a variety of activities in a mine with no clear purpose. If irritated they will throw stones at miners.   At least one account reports that they are busy in their own, spectral coal mines and thus are only seen when they are on holiday.

Their German cousins, however, are less friendly. The German miner will hear three distinct knocks to mark his doom from the knockers, and smaller knocks for lesser evils. These are a tad taller as well, and will even go to unwork the miners efforts. Some even report that these kobolds will place wicked metal in the ores if insulted, seeking to poison miners who have displeased them. On other times, they will work to ensure a miner with their favor strikes a particularly rich vein of metal—more aid then the average cobyln.

Kobold2.png

In Ulster, fairies can be found in clefts and caverns—and speaking with them can have dire consequences of deafness or loss of speech. Demolishing one fortress that the faeries dwelled in lead to the death of every laborer, and a number of caverns beneath the fortress had a tendency to swallow up cattle plowing nearby. These caverns could even be hidden from mortal eyes, and held prisoners within, and some were laid on their side so movement required going down a central hole. Some of these are built by a group known as the Danes—however, these appear distinct from the real Danes, as they were wiped out in a massacre by the current population of Ireland in most accounts. They had sandy hair, long limbs, and large feet. They are joined by the Pechts, who could slip through a keyhole. The pechts dress in grey cloths or skins, and will work the field—however, if they are paid in food they will grow offended and flee. The pechts are said to be particularly numerous, capable of standing in a single line and passing dirt from one end of Ireland to the other without moving a foot. These two are sometimes conflated with fairies, a group we could write on for ages.

The underground in Arabia has such strange wonders as well—massive caverns guarded by automatons and talisman gates. Buried in the earth in one story is a crown that made one the king of all of India, realms of riches. Maps to these places, and information on how to navigate their terrors, were the starts of many an expedition.

In the pulps and works around H.P. Lovecraft, of course, there are other underground and subterranean locales. There was the world of Vril, a land where men and women turned hidden and occult powers of life for their own uses. There was the Hollow Earth, where perhaps ancient species and people survived—a notion that perhaps owes some of its origins to the disgust at notions of extinction, and partly to the lack of exploration of the depths. The idea that dinosaurs were not wiped out by the Creator but persisted in some yet unseen place was strong for a long time. Mr. Lovecraft put a number of caverns beneath the world, from ones used for Satanic rites to ones in the distant Antarctic to systems beneath castles that hide ancestral fears.

These stories present us a swath of dangers in the underworld, even if uninhabited. And we have yet to the touch on the clearest meaning, that both terms of antiquity and prehistory suggest—that the depths of the world are old and historically heavy. They are places full of potential riches lost to time and things time has swallowed up. From lost creations of cannibals, to the origins of flame, to things made of smoke instead of flesh…I wonder what we will find, when we descend below?

 

Biblography

Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. E.P. Dutton 1919.

Batchelor, John.  The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901

O’Bryan,  Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians. Smithsonian Institute, 1955

Collcott,E. E.  “Legends from Tonga. The Maui.” Folklore Vol 32, No. 1, March 31 1921.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. “A Zuni Folk-Tale of the Underworld”.  The Journal of American Folklore Vol 5., No. 16, American Folklore Society Jan-March 1892.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropeshire Folklore: A Sheaf of Cleanings. 1883

Popul Vuh: Sacred Book of The Quiche Maya. Translated by: Allen J. Christenson. University of Oklahoma, 2007.

Watanabe, John. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist. Vol 17. No 1. Feb 1990.

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The House of Witchs

This Week’s Prompt: 99. Salem story—the cottage of an aged witch—wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.

The Prior Research:Salem

I’d been house hunting for the last four days, when Alex finally agreed to take me to the house on 35th and Main. He grumbled and sighed the entire drive, before we pulled up to the slightly overrun yard. It was a nice, two story house—clean windows, nice door, fresh wallpaper.

“It’s just a bit pricey, you know, and there are better places.” He said, sighing as we walked through the house. “I mean, and you know, it’s got a history.”

“And that’s why we’ve got to check it out!” I said. The house was the exact same, top to bottom—okay, not quiet the same. The kitchen down stairs was the exact shape of the guest room right above it, the bedroom and living room perfectly mirrored each other.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the same house they hanged her in.” I said, flicking a light switch on.

“No…Okay, no it’s not.” Alex admitted. “Got rebuilt a few times after fires and the like. Last time was back in the 70s I think. Some freak earthquake or something broke the foundation and they had to fix it. And then there was a wave of renovations.”

I walked through the halls. I wonder how much of this place had actually stayed the same after three centuries—were the rooms always like this? Did they shift and change? The attic upstairs was entirely empty except some boxes—what had they once held? Was the living room the same one where they tried her, searched her entire body for where the creatures of the night drank blood?

“I think it’s the one.” I said, smiling as we left.

“Of course you do.” Alex sighed. “Of course the witch house halfway out of town is the perfect one—no, can’t be any of the ones down town or near a train station, nope, crazy house.”

Apartment Floor A.png

“So it really is the same, top to bottom?” Cheryl asked. She was at the desk across from me, peering over the screen.

“Yep.”

“Doesn’t that get…confusing?” She said, clattering away at the keyboard.

“Not as bad as you’d think—I mean, I’ve gotten mixed up once or twice when putting stuff away.” I said with a shrug. “You know, I’ll come home, get ready for shower and whoops! Walked into the walk in closet, bathrooms on the other floor.”

“Wow. I mean, that’s not too bad.”

“No, like—unless it’s late at night, it’s pretty easy to navigate around. When I’m like half asleep, it gets worse.” If I’m drunk it is an actual nightmare. I once spent an hour racing up and down the stairs, trying to figure out which one had the living room and which one had the bedroom, before just sleeping on the couch.

“Seen any…” Cheryl, pausing mid type. “You know. Last people that had the house left after a month.”

“No, nothing.” I said, clattering along. “I mean, I might ask someone to look at the walls.”

“What, blood leaking from them already?” Cheryl said with a nervous laugh. I didn’t mention that the walls had made a clicking sound at night—not loud enough to wake me up, but enough to keep me awake. Everything was so quiet out there.

Apartment Floor B.png

It wasn’t much of a conversation, really. I had a few like that, people surprised I was living in the old haunted house. Which—okay, yeah, a few people it turns out had gone missing in the place. But like, of the past owners—I checked, out of curiousity—none of them ‘mysteriously’ vanished, and even the ones that had a bad time were like, fifty to sixty years apart. The stories get wilder around the 1700s—everyone’s grandma has a story about my old house it seems.

It was kinda thrilling to live somewhere famous. I even gave tours to a few friends—some of them joked about breaking into it when they were teens. Looked different, back then. Run down, but same double floors.

“Yeah, its always been like that.” Jermey said, pointing at the ceiling as we walked down the stairs. “I mean, you know, when I was here it was like. Graffiti’d up and shag carpeted.”

“Shag carpeting?”

“Yeah, it was gross as hell. But the same, top to bottom. Weird that they didn’t like—like the bathrooms weren’t.” He said looking it over. “I mean, they kinda are—we figured that since they were on top of each  other, we’d drop stuff down one pipe and it’d go down the other but nope. Just pissed off the handy man.”

“Thought it was abandoned?” I asked, frowning.

Jeremey shrugged.

“I mean, no one lived here. But I remember once we got wasted and tore up one of the walls—freaked out, thinking we’d get caught.” He said, gesturing. “But it was all put together in like. A day. Someone had to do it. Never heard of ghosts patching up brickwork.”

Apartment Floor C.png

I did get used to the noise after a while. The little creaks and dings and shifting of moving papers stopped bothering me.  I dreamed about getting lost in repeating hallways more than once. I know I came home drunk and went to bed in my room, and woke up in the living room at least once.

I kinda got used to just staring ahead and counting whenever I saw someone on the sidewalk, a shape I couldn’t quite make out until the last moment. Once or twice, I caught someone following me—or well. I thought they were following me. They just lived nearby and I hadn’t seen them yet. No one was following me.

At least—well there was one time. I woke up in the middle of the night in the bedroom down stairs. I walked around, trying to get my bearings again, and looked out the window—and I thought I saw Cheryl. She was just walking…to the bus station, which was weird because I swear she lived on the other side of town. No reason for her to be around her.

*

“Oh, just went home and binged some shows.” She said when I asked what she’d been up to last night. “How about you?”

“Not much. Read a book.” I muttered.  I mean, it wasn’t a lie. I’d been reading some documents. The crew that came over couldn’t find anything causing the clicking sound,  probably something the construction crew before left in there. So I went digging for the construction crew for the current house—and couldn’t find one.

I couldn’t find the last one either. Not like, a shell company or anything, but like—there’s a newspaper article from 1970 about a fire destroying the house. It’s listed for sale in 1972. That’s the house I’m in. But no one built the house. The listing is in a newspaper, it doesn’t mention the company. And I don’t even know how to start finding that in a public record.

“I think it was built by OMN?” Alex said. I hadn’t given him a ring in a while. “Can’t really…huh. Can’t find a specific record, but they did a lot of construction back then. Hey, don’t worry about it too much. It’s probably just settling or something—get an exterminator if your worried its rats in the walls I guess?”

Or move out of the creepy house, like I said to was the unspoken bit there. But whatever. I couldn’t leave—unless I found another buyer, I didn’t have the cash for that. So exterminator it was.

*

“And he found nothing.” I muttered. I could feel the bags under my eyes, even if they weren’t there yet.

“Well, that’s good right?” Jeremey said, printing another few copies of…something. I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.

“I just…It’s been getting louder I think. More frequent for sure. He heard it, said there’s no animal he’d heard make that sound—left out some traps.” I waved it away. Just when I got used to the little noises, this one comes in insistent.

“I mean—maybe a plumber or something? Might be something rattling in the pipes.” Jermey said, tapping the papers. “Loose coin or something.”

“I don’t…maybe?” I said throwing my hands up. “I’ve got to figure out what it is—I swear, I’d never have bought the place if I’d known it was this much of a pain. Supposedly haunted historical house is one thing, this is…This is just maddening.”

Apartment Floor D.png

I just didn’t sleep that night. It was the first night I stayed awake all night—cup of coffee and ears listening for any sounds. I’d just, I’d catch this thing.

The ticking started earlier than I remember it starting before. One of the old paintings ticked up a few inches. As I watched, the face on the old woman’s painting peeled off. A small plate there, of some fibrous material, rotated.

I got up slowly…and the floor swam beneath me. I fell back down. The room rotated. The walls fell away, a labyrinth of crystal and glass shimmering in the moonlight. My bed fell through the liquid floor. I screamed and waited for a crash.

None came.

I looked up at the old house—shimmering like moonlight on the water. New stars shone down through the transparent roof. When I got up this time, I was on solid ground. I saw hundreds of miles beneath the house—hundreds of fractal rooms. Perfectly shaped, all with glowing like stars. Except one—down at the very bottom, there was something…something dull. Some small blob, a hundred feet away. The ticking was coming from down in the depths, and I was sure it was from that strange shape.

There was a shout form the window. Looking up, I saw such…wonderful places. I saw hills of sunlight, I saw sable sands with red rivers. I saw moons, I saw worlds outside. I saw them tearing and bending and wonder turned to horror. The ticking turned to skipping—the house…whatever it was, something was wrong. I looked down again, at the shape sitting their listless.

It was like a bug trapped in amber. A small shape but I saw the whole house struggling to break free  of it. It shook and seemed to crack. The floor gave in beneath me, and I went tumbling down. Before I could get up, it cracked and fell again.

Bruised and exhausted, I fell. I fell through house after house. I fell down centuries, down to the very bottom. I looked up, struggling a bit to catch my breath. The light was dim down here—I could barely see my fingers.

I looked up and saw her. Hanging there—not really her. Not her body, that was long gone. Her shadow? Something that was there but wasn’t. It wasn’t really there. It was there though. It was…the house was broken. It yearned up.

But she was there. Her body was there, jammed in the gears and light. She was glowing like a dim moon, soft and cold. The windows down here were all black seas and forgotten woods. The house shook and quaked. It glowed and ticked.

Apartment Floor A
I next remember waking up in the hospital. The doctor said there’d been an accident—freak fire while I was asleep. Most of the house was burned down—not all of it, but most. The fire department was just glad to have contained it—there were lots of old homes down there.  It could have spread uphill, caught some of the others.

It was really lucky it just burned mine. I guess.

Just like that earthquake back in the 70s, I guess. Or the flash flood that tore out the foundations in 1922. It’s a very lucky house, in a way.



 

I’m still unhappy with this story. I liked the idea of the house as some sort of mechanism, which was stuck trying to complete its task by the crime committed in the past. But I couldn’t find a strong A-plot to go in with, and interweave with, the haunted house. I think there might be some burn out on houses for now–and looking a head, we’ll be away from them for at least a few weeks! Thank you for your patience.

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Salem

This Week’s Prompt: 99. Salem story—the cottage of an aged witch—wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.

The Forthcoming Story:

This prompt continues our haunted and disturbed houses of New England—a tour that has gone on for almost a month now. Here, however, Mr. Lovecraft has grounded us in a very particular historical tragedy—the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The story of the Witch Trials is an infamous one, but one where the details are sometimes lost. So I will describe the chronology in brief here.

The Witch House

The Witch House, former home of Judge Johnathan Corwin, is the last building standing from the Witch Trials .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witch_House

At the center of the witchcraft outbreak are two girls, Elizabeth and Abigail Parris, daughters of Reverend  Samuel Parris, and their mixed race servant Tituba. According to documents, Elizabeth and Abigail learned tricks from Tituba during the winther of 1691-1692. Other girls are documented as possibly being there. A time after this, it is reported that the children began acting strangely—they spoke in tongues, crawled into holes and walls, and others acted foolishly. The local doctor could not identify the cause of this behavior,  and proclaimed them bewitched. This of course attracted local interest, including a gathering of Ministers to determine who had bewitched them. Tituba and her husband offered their skills at finding witches—but were accused of witchcraft themselves by the children. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn were also accused.  All were found guilty, and executed. Shortly after there were waves of witchcraft accusations in the area around Salem—A total of 151 people were accused, most but not all women. At least 20 were executed. Most of towns accused one to three individuals, and often only held one trial that year. Most of the accused follow expected trends—they were usually of low means, mobile, old and asocial. Those of greater means were rumored witches or accused before hand, and often new arrivals. After 1692, the hunt ended as the commission founded was dissolved. Numerous suggestions have been made for why—the targeting of less stereotypical

Recurring incidents associated with witchcraft and the trials are appariations terrorizing their victims, often to compel them to sign a book; the pricking or draining of blood; the appearance of people far from home; and the unheard speech of witches, often taken as cursing. This is not particularly new for witchcraft. In fact, one of the reasons Salem has attracted attention is not do to it’s bloodiness—it is far from the largest witch hunt—nor its symptoms—witchcraft symptoms, being based on witch hunting guides often enough, are very similar.  The only new notable symptoms is the betwitched cannot say the name of God, nor read the Puritan catechism, but can read it and say the Quaker and Catholic ones. Which indicates a curious and genuinely frightening notion for a community so defined by its religious convictions—that some force has compelled them into the hands of the enemy. But that is for the end.

Salem Trial.png

No, the primary point of interest with Salem is that it is very late in the history of witch hunting, and in a community that was not prone to it. Popular imagery of the story has suggest the Puritan Witchhunter as the most common participant in these massacres, but historically that does not bare out entirely well. The sum of Salem is a strange aberration in time and space, fitting into a common narrative of history during it’s era and until to this day—that as one moves farther in space, one moves backwards in time. So far from the continent, it is no wonder such barbarism occurred.

Certainly, the witch hunts have a character about them that lend themselves well to horror stories—they are a gothic horror for New England, remembered well by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. Here the witchcraft trials serve as a strange, spectral ghost that haunts the landscape and the characters. From the echoes of the accusations in the Scarlet Letter to the haunted images and manuscripts in The Devil in the Manuscript  and Edward Randolph’s Portrait. Given his admiration for Mr. Hawthorn, such an interest is not surprising for Lovecraft.

They are also a frequent stand in for the notion of a paranoid and superstitious community turning on its own—Arthur Miller’s The Crucible used the trials as an allegory for the MacArthur era of anti-communist witch hunts, for instance. Again, Mr. Lovecraft’s own lurking fear of tradition—his fear that the so called enlightened era of humanity was a mere moment, and soon darkness would descend in its old way—makes the connection rather clear. It is at times the use of authority to establish itself over the mob and quell progress—a line with more than some truth—and other times presented as the mob calling for blood and at best moderated by the priesthood.

Beyond these older sources, other media has of course taken on the notions of the witch trial in the new world—if not Salem itself, then certainly it’s presence. The Blair Witch, for instance, is also accused by children of her nefarious acts and haunts a nearby woods. The online series Catghost enters into these notions of magic and witchcraft—and even goes so far as Lovecraft’s witch house, crediting to the witches there some true knowledge of the universe beyond mortal ken. VVitch is a more direct example, featuring a Puritan family and being within a century of the witch hunts themselves.

MoreWeight

Giles Corey, one of the men executed for witchcraft, famously said “more weight” before dying by being crushed to death with stones.

What then should be done?  The prompt presents us with a rough timeline of events: A witch trial, followed by the search of her house, in which terrible things are found. This is a profoundly bad outline—there is no clear surprise, except to subvert the modern expectation that the victim is innocent. I do not believe we are in need of a story where the witch was really a witch. Alternatively, perhaps this is meant as a less direct version, akin to Dreams in the Witch House. Here, it becomes something again like a haunted house. And certaintly, there is a tradition of ghostly witches and associations between witches and necromancers. Here the history of the house comes to grossly manifest into the new inhabitants lives. And something could be done with that sort of horror.

One author suggested that the witch trials, and Salem itself, stand for the intervention of a spiritual evil in a material world. They are the imposition and manifestation of a very non-‘whig’ or modern sort of horror. They are the ancestral sin of the region—one of many perhaps. This then becomes a collapse of history in two ways. First, the most literal—the victims of the past refuse to stay dead and quiet literally disturb the modern world. Secondly, the means of this disturbance is not in the methods the modern world would permit—it is not an avenging family member descended of the witches, it is not some structural or biological secret lost from beyond the grave, it is instead a horror like those older horrors. It is a specter, a phantom, a shadow that lives.

If we wanted to go in a different direction then a simple Lovecraft haunted house, where ancestral guilt and fears stalk a new victim, we could play with the notions of memory and history that crop up in researching Salem. A major difficulty for those investigating Salem is the lack of proper documentation at times. Not all court documents are preserved, not all the accused have court documents, and so on. Things have simply been lost, some recovered in poems and stories, but most abandoned. Things that perhaps should not have been forgotten, for forgotten things still remain.

How would you approach a horror story about a witch’s cottage? Was she holding back something in the basement, now unleashed by foolish clergy men? Was there no horror before, but the tragedy has invited it in?

Bibligoraphy:

Latner, Richard. “The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chornology and Collective Violence in 1692”, Journal of Social History. Vol. 42, No. 1, Fall 2008. Oxford Universtiy Press.

Nevins, Winfield S. Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692: Together with some account of other witchcraft trials in New England and elsewhere. North Shore Publishing, 1892.

Stock, R.D.. “Salem Witchcraft and Spiritual Evil: A Century of Non-Whig Revisionism.” Christianity and Literature Vol 42 No. 1, Autumn 1992.  Sage Publications Inc.

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