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.
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.
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?
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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