The Testimony of the Dead

This Week’s Prompt: 102. Corpse in room performs some act—prompted by discussion in its presence. Tears up or hides will, etc.

The Resulting Story:The Last Will

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This prompt in a number of ways limits the story that goes forward. While there are some folklore models that we can draw upon here, I think I’ll start by discussing what form the story is likely to take first. The supernatural element, the key moment, is the destruction or hiding of a will by a dead person. The act is prompted by discussion in it’s presence, presumably discussion of the corpse itself or what is contained in the will. Now, it has been some time since I attended a funeral, thank god, and I have never actual sat for a reading of the will.  This is not terribly surprising, as a brief google search reveals that the dramatic heights of a reading of the will are in fact entirely fiction. Such events do not happen. Perhaps then, in some macabre way, we can place the body at the center of the scene anyway.

As it happens, then, we have a unique advantage. The horror of the grave rising up, one last time, to defy or scorn the beneficiaries of its will is written out in our prompt, but itself is not the core of the story. No, the story’s thrust is not in the moment but in the build up of family tensions, of schemes before and during, of arguing, of lying and truth telling. It is like a gothic Thanksgiving dinner, where all the family gathers and learns too much about each other but cannot leave. Because as they say, where there’s a will there’s a hopeful line of relatives.

CasketOpen1

Now, what folklore do we have examples of living corpses and haunting. We discussed the nature of some vampires to rise and feed despite lying in wait, and how recitations can drive them out here. These are especially notable in the context of a will, given the tendency of the vampire to feed on its own family. While not all of them have this chance, the looming spectre of lost family is hard to avoid.

We’ve talked about numerous, truly numerous numbers of the living dead and ghostly creatures here and here and here and here as well. The nature of the dead is strange, numerous, and plentiful in folklore and horror. However, there are a few more stories we can add to the discussion, particularly from the recent readings I’ve done.

One story that relates particularly well is that of the Biting Corpse—tale number ten of the twenty three. This story follows a motif common in the stories, of two quarelling brothers. One is rich but miserly, the other generous but poor. The Elder brother holds a great feast and decides not to invite his younger brother, so the younger brother decides to steal food from the elder brother’s storehouse. While doing so, however, he sees his elder brother’s wife taking some food out in the night. He follows her  until on some flat ground, behind a hill, he finds her again. She sits caressing and feeidng a corpse, or at least trying to do so—the corpse of her last husband.  She even leans down to kiss him—but the corpse bites off her nose instead. He escapes before being noticed, and waits for the next day.

The wife tries to cover her new injury by claiming it was her husband who inflicted the wound. The two quarrel over the matter until at last it reaches the khan, who is ready to sentence the husband to death. However, the younger brother appears and reveals the truth—and when the woman’s corpse-husband is found, she is put to death. Other tales, which I will discuss in more detail on the patreon, do present wives who revive their husbands—but this incident is not repeated or given further context.

The moral of this story lies of course in proper treatment of ones family more than the corpse itself—but I found it strange when reading that the body would except no food except the nose. The nose, one of the facial features that is most clearly not present on a skeleton. And there is something to be read here, about how attachment to a former husband drives a rift between husband and wife, such that the wife conspires to get the husband killed.

To touch on an example of living dead that we haven’t discussed, the dybuuk is another familial threat. A dybuuk is a Jewish ghost, one that cannot find it’s way to the afterlife and thus is trapped in limbo. In  order to escape this torment or perhaps to continue it’s wicked life, a dybuuk often possesses  a body—sometimes its own—and commits various transgressive acts, including blasphemy and murder.

Dybuuk.png

These sources stuck out to me among the other undead for their combination of both thinking or at least responding to the living and their corporeal form—while lacking the direct feeding that vampiric creatures possess. They are somewhere between the two—neither full blood sucking beast nor mere phantom hurling objects about. The only difference here is the singularity of the incident. The body’s sudden motion is its only act.

A more comedic set of tales comes from Indiana. Here a pair of stories related a hunchbacked man’s burial—due to his hunchback, the man could not lie flat in the coffin and so was held down by straps. In one story, a friend was watching the body when a cat snuck in. As the man chased the cat around with a broom, he accidentally struck his friend and caused the binds to break—the dead man shot straight up and the firend only said “Lie down, John, I’ll get the damned cat.”

In the other instance, the man stays down until the funeral. During the service, the minister passionately proclaimed that “this body will rise again!” And on cue, the dead man sat upright! The whole congregation fled that instant.

What is interesting to me about these two stories is the similarity to vampiric ones, in an odd way. In the Balkans, as we mentioned, a cat walking over the grave of a dead man could in fact cause him to rise—as a creature of the night, murderous and cruel. Likewise, the connection and antipathy vampires have for the holy and proper funerals is oddly similar to the reaction of the minister. While I doubt there is a direct connection between the stories, there is a strange resonance between them.

House of Usher2.png

When it comes to tales of Lovecraft and Gothic Lore, the dead are of course always nearby. But this story in particular reminded me ofthe House of Usher—a story that will return and return, I believe, in these prompts—and how it included the burial alive of a dear relative by an off-kilter brother. That the woman was only mistaken for dead does little to change the effect of her rising at the reading of a story in her presence, and rush out to her brother in rage.

Mr. Lovecraft’s story, In the Vault, deals with another vital corpse. Here the corpse is of a wicked man, and it’s motion is perhaps questionable. We follow a careless, lazy, and generally unprofessional undertaker who, because of the winds of April, is trapped in a vault of coffins. This vault, to store the dead during winter, when the ground is too dense to dig through, is of course a terrifying place to be. As the vault is sealed, and in a hill, the undertaker must make his own escape. He stacks the coffins, one atop another, and stands on their poor construction to break himself free. A moment before he manages to get free, something—either the corpse or the breaking coffins—savages his ankles, forcing him to crawl not just out of the vault but all the way to get aid. The doctor, however, recognizes the true source of the wounds and demands the undertaker never reveal them to anyone else.  That is not the full story of course, but I do enjoy the full twist myself.

The Gothic tale House of Seven Gables has a similar, haunting notion of a lost will buried in the walls. We’ve discussed this at length here, to elaborate on some of its plot points in inheritance, family, oppression, and communal guilt. For our purposes, its important that the will serves as a promise in the past for fortunes that could have been or that came into their own in the future. The will that is destroyed is not only a symbolic connection to the past, it also acts as an embodiment of a dream or vision of the future.  This is part of the horror of the story—not only that the dead walk and possibly talk, but that the dead reject or deny something to the living. Peace of mind at the most basic, of course, but more tangible things as well.

Our stories conflicts will then be two fold—we will have the living against the living and the living against the dead. This is, as I mentioned before, a story of relationships and their many forms, and how they change or come into new lights with someone’s passing. In particular, however, this can be the story of secrets as well—the sorts of secrets that only come to light when someone has died, and left their last act in the air waiting. The will is their last communication, the “truth” of their feelings and cares. And of course, a fight over that will be painful—especially if the prize is to be denied at the very end by the dead themselves.

Bibliography

Baker, Ronald L. Hoosier Folk Legends. Indiana University Press, 1982.

Busk, Rachel Harriette. Sagas from the Far East; or Kalmouk and Mongolian traditionary tales. London. Griffith and Faran, 1873.

Epstien, Saul and Robinson, Sara Libby. The Soul, Evil Spirits, and the Undead:: Vampires, Death, and Burial in Jewish Folklore and Law. Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2012), pp. 232-25

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