Through the Looking Glass

This Week’s Prompt: 118. Something seen at oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house.

The Resulting Story:

I think Mr. Lovecraft must have had a strange architectural road trip, given the number of stories that have focused on being stuck in a home and seeing horrible monsters and sights—and checking his timeline, March 1924 was when he moved in with his girlfriend to New York. Which is around the time this prompt is recorded.

Unlike the last few times of circling haunted houses and locked basements, I thought I would look into the specific nature of windows. Windows in many places act as points of entry for unbidden and unwanted spirits. Vampires and foul creatures fly into the homes here, and so they are often critical to protect. Some examples of strange windows that I found include a common architectural design in Vermont, the witches window.

This window, placed at an angle, was supposedly used by witches to fly out of…or to remove coffins from the second story. The windows are placed at an angle, to catch a witch flying—she can’t enter, because the windows would catch the broomstick. This example might be catch Lovecraft’s eye, given his interest in architecture and witches and New England. The validity of such a window being ‘to catch witches’ seems…unlikely, given that it is not the only window in the house. Likewise, a coffin going up the stairs is unlikely—it seems more likely a  body would be brought be back down.

A more fearsome example would be Black Annis—a hag, with a blue face and iron claws. Black Annis was known for eating pets, children, and sheep. She was entirely nocturnal, and would no doubt be a terrifying and fearsome creature. Except she had a habit of grinding her long, white teeth against each other.  This gave everyone time to bolt their doors and run inside—and in fact, windows in the area are too small for the hag to enter. Fire was often located near the windows for the same intention, as when fire was too far from the window she would reach in and steal children. And if both of these failed, the grinding could be heard from five miles away—giving time for farmers to place herbs and skins over the windows

A more fantastic story comes from Grimm. There once was a princess who every day would visit the top of a tower with twelve windows to look through.  From these windows she could see anything in the kingdom. From the first window, she could see more distinctly than any other human in the world. Further, each window made her window sharper and sharper until the twelfth window. Being a haughty princess of such supreme skill, she insisted that she would be married to no man unless he could hide from her view—and further, that if a man should try to hide and fail, he would be beheaded and his head stuck on a pike. Ninety-nine men took such a risk, and lined the castle walls.  Three brothers decided to try their luck. The first hid in a limepit and…well, was found instantly, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The second hid in a cellar was seen from the second window, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The youngest begged that he be given three chances instead of one—and he was so handsome and charming, that the princess agreed to his terms.

The brother meditated on how to succeed, and thinking of nothing else he went hunting. He spied a raven, raised his gun, and was about to shoot. The raven cried out that he would help the youngest brother if he was spared.  He went down to a lake saw a large fish—and the same scene repeated. And so on with a fox.

The next day, he set out to hide—and asked the Raven for help. And the raven thought for a time, and opened up an egg shell, and placed the youth inside it. And this went well—it took the princess until the eleventh window to see him. And she had the raven shot and warned the man that he had two more chances.

Then the man went to the fish. The fish swallowed the man and went to the bottom of the lake, and there hid from the princess. And this time, it took until the twelfth window for the princess to spot him. And she had the fish killed, and warned the youth again. One more chance, she said—no doubt nervous—that he had one more attempt.

And then the man went to the fox. The fox took the man to a spring, and bathed in it’s waters—and became a stall-merchant. The youth washed himself, and became a sea hare. And the merchant that was a fox took the hare that was a youth and displayed him to the whole town. And the beauty of the youth was carried over to the hare, and all the town came to see—including, in time, the princess. And the fox warned the youth—when she goes to look at the window, climb into her braids.

In case, like me, you’d imagined a sea hare as an adorable fish-bunny.

The princess did buy the sea hare, and took him up to the tower. And as she failed to see him in every window, she slammed the window shut with so much force that it broke every one of the windows and shook the castle. Feeling the sea-hare in her hair, she tossed it in a rage and shouted for it to get out of her sight. So the hare that was the youth obliged and ran back to the merchant that was a fox—and the two became themselves again. And the youth thanked the fox, that he truly knew how to hide. And came home, married the princess, and became king. Never once did he tell her how he accomplished all of this, so she believed he had done so by his own talents and respected him. A rather dastardly end, I suppose.

The Formorians, who’s king Balor had a baleful eye.

A few stories from Ireland caught my attention with windows when I went digging. Some are versions of stories I’m unfamiliar with—such as suggesting that Balor gained his evil eye from witnessing the creation of a poison by sorcerers through a window. The witnessed poison infected Balor’s eyesight. A host of dreadful monsters likewise seeks to enter homes through the west windows—ones that may be the restless and numerous dead or something far worse, depending on the origin. These Sluagh resemble great hosts of blackbirds, and seek at night to steal the souls of the dead before last rites. They were sometimes once people, sometimes merely monstrous fae. Their battles caused not only terror, but death and plague—they might sweep a mortal up with them to sow havoc and despair throughout the land. Clearly, not guests one wants to receive.

I know there is also a tale from Lorraine, France of a window that holds victims still…but sadly, I cannot find a translation of the story to know much beyond that (and I know that only from the myth motif index. That said, I think we have quite a bit to work with here. A window is something that lets eyes in and out, and has all the implications of ‘witnessing’ that implies.  And given the imagery of the prompt—an oriel window, looking out and over a plain, a street, or something else from above—I think that is the crux of the story. Something our narrator has witnessed.

Perhaps it is another place—another time. An alien world or a past time or something else that leaves a ghastly impression. The house or room sits on the edge and only the window can see into the other side. I have not yet read House on the Borderlands, but that seems a wide space to explore. The Aleph, by Borges, delves into the power to view far away vistas and strange places deeply.

There is of course the idea that seeing something changes you—that perhaps seeing something lets that thing see you. That vision is a two way process, and while God may have shut the door…perhaps he opened the wrong window. Things seeping in, leaking in through a window from the beyond seems like a fascinating story in it of itself.  

Windows are ways to observe the world, and I am fascinated by the idea of a set of windows that show something or somewhere more precisely—allowing one to see new and strange vistas, each it’s own little story. That concept is perhaps too long for what we are given here, but perhaps for another time.

Bibliography

Briggs, Katharine Mary. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. Pantheon Books, 1978.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.

“Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare.” Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Grimm’s_Household_Tales,_Volume_2/The_Sea-Hare.

Noyes, Amy Kolb. “What’s The History Of Vermont’s ‘Witch Windows’?” Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Public Radio, 2017, http://www.vpr.org/post/whats-history-vermonts-witch-windows.

Religion, / Atlantic. “’Sluagh Sidhe’ and ‘Hidden Folk’ – the Host of Souls.” The Atlantic Religion, 9 May 2014, atlanticreligion.com/2013/08/17/sluagh-sidhe-and-hidden-folk-the-host-of-souls/.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.

The Family Business

This Week’s Prompt: 117. A secret living thing kept and fed in an old house.

The Prior Research: The Beast Must Feed

My childhood was blessed. While my older brothers had inhabited more of my father’s industrial, entrepreneurial spirit of wanderlust, I was more than happy to be at home with my mother and my tutors. When they returned there would be festivities, with stories of extravagant parties that my mother hushed or amazing sights that she loved. And I would keep rapt attention, because despite all the comforts they provided, I still did not know what the family business was.

I attended school with other boys and girls, who all had homes of equal splendor. And while children do not often discuss the finances of their mothers and fathers, I was a keen young man. I learned, with time, the signs of every source of revenue. The ones who owned farmland were concerned with bad storms—even if they themselves never tilled it. The ones who’s ships sailed the seas went on long voyages, yes, but were superstitious about weather and returned always with exotic gifts. And drank. Often.

Those who owned mines often had some piece from their mind on hand, and talked often of good fortune and a sense for things. Vinters always wished to own a bottle of the land they had. Those who squeezed money from houses often had exceptionally wealthy tenants over for dinner or lunch. Bankers, lawyers, and bueracrats often met at each other’s homes, their children becoming somewhat familiar. With this accumulated second hand knowledge, I strained to review what work my family did.

It was quite profitable work, whatever it was. I wanted for nothing, except perhaps company. Whatever it was, it required a good deal of travel. Some of my brothers, I recognized the signs of sea trade. Others vinters, others wandering merchants without any interest in particular wares. But despite my observations and innocent questions during celeberations, the beating heart of the family was still obscured.  

I had hoped to gain some understanding from my father, when he lingered in the house. Sometimes he would have an accountant over for dinner to discuss matters of business—but never what business. Only that this and that deposit was in order, that this and that would be available then. Where theses sums came from, no, never. Not a word.

That was, until one summer morning. My mother woke me early, my grumbling bringing more sure shaking of me awake.

“Get dressed. Today is a very important day.” She said quietly, perhaps earnestly afraid of startling me. I yawned and looked up in confusion.

“What’s today?” I asked, my tired mind cycling through a calendar of tests and holiday’s and appointments.

“Today is the day you’re father is taking you to work.”

I wore my finest clothes. We rode on two fine horses for two days—up into the hills, where our old family estate was. We rode through fields I had seen from my window and woods my brothers hunted foxes in. I never had the taste for hunting, it was a cruel and one-sided game. At the least, hunting a boar or bear in the older days put one at risk. What might a fox do to a rich man surrounded by friends? Bit him with needle teeth?

We spent our first night in a traveling house in the woods. The innkeeper, a smiling woman who’s eyes never fully opened and exuded a warmth that reminded me of freshly cooked sweets, was familiar with my father. Despite their difference in character, they greeted each other like old friends. She smiled at me, and spoke to me.

“Oh and look at how big he is! Are you sure he’s not your brother?” She said, patting my shoulders and laughing. “Still, not too big for chocolate I hope, I’ve some homemade—let me go get it for you, you’ll love it.”

My father waited patiently for her to return. Not one word until she returned with some slightly mishappen sweets.

The room was smaller than mine at home, even smaller since it was shared. My father removed an old book to read and sat in the corner, a pair of half-mooned glasses from his suit. I had tried asking questions—where we were going, what was expected of me when we got there, who we might meet with, what we might see. But he stayed silent, reading his book through the night.

I had studies to do. I sat at the desk, facing into the darkness of the woods, reading my book. Looking up, I thought I saw a fox, staring at the window with envy from the underbrush. And then it was gone.

The next day’s ride was deeper into the woods—past people who stared at strangers, but averted their eyes when I glanced at them. Carts heavy with logs passed us by—one seemed intent on running us off the road, hurtling down towards us. I pulled horse to the side, but my father stayed still and resolute—and sure enough, the blind horse slowed. Perhaps the driver, face red and eyes glaring, lost his nerve and pulled the reigns while I was not looking. Perhaps my father new some trick with horses. The attempt wasn’t a surprise to him.

Despite being our ancestral home—the home my great-great grandfather had built by hand, using only local lumber—I had never been to this wood. The trees felt familiar, probably because they were kin to the hunting forests of my brothers.  The stone paved road wound its way through ancient trees—a mighty expense, for only one home. Even overgrow with moss and cracked with roots, the stones shone in the sunlight like a river.

The silence my father had as  we rode up the hill stifled any wonder the sights could have presented. At last we came to the end of the road—an iron wrought gate, with a heavy chain around it and verdigrised lock.

“We walk the rest of the way.” My father said, his voice sudden as he came down from the horse. “Not much farther now.”

I was too stunned to ask what he meant. He pulled his coat up,and opened the gate with a small silver key.

We walked a bit farther. Maybe it was a mile. And then it appeared, like a storm suddenly rising on the horizon.

Peeling paint and plaster revealed the brick and stone work below. The roof had a faded coat of arms on it, five flowers blooming in a star. A pair of knights reclined at either side, their spears ready to defend the door. Ivy encrusted lions flanked the stair case, to the heavy, oaken door. Wrapped around it too was a heavy chain, with a shining silver lock. My father wordlessly produced a small gold key—one that seem bent and twisted. But the lock opened with a click, and the heavy chain was removed.

My father ignored my inquiries—what work brought us to such a decrepit house, even if it were our own? There were no clients, no offices, no way of attracting patronage. He merely gestured I follow into the dust and cobweb strewn house.

The distance between doors stretched farther than between our home and the iron gate. The silence was so heavy, it was as if a third had joined our party. Their footsteps interjected between the creaking of old panels, the sigh of slanting supports and tarnished silver. They kept pace with my father, and his occasional mumble or murmur—only faintly made out as ‘a little further yet’—were always to this unseen third. Never to me.

Until we came to the basement door. The chain of silver around the handle, free of times touch, seemed unreal amidst the decay. My father paused, a crude iron key in his palm.

“I think its time we talked business.” He said, turning to me. I nodded silently. Words would not come to me at the sudden focus.

“Down there…down there’s the real family business.” He said, pointing with the key. “And it’s all going to be yours. Your brothers, they’ve got a knack for the little stuff. For wandering and buying and selling—they’re good at what they do. But without what’s down there, it’d all have fallen apart a long time ago.”

The door rattled violently. My father glanced over as I started back.

“I’m going to open the door. Someone is going to fall down the stairs.” He said, turning back to the door. “Whoever it is, they won’t come back home. “

“Wait, what do you—” I started before he held his hand up.

“Who ever doesn’t fall down the stairs is going to travel around for a bit. Maybe go and drink themselves silly.” He said slowly. “Then go home and tell your mother that something terrible happened—like what I told my mother. And what I guess my father told my grandmother. And then, they’ll spend a year doing…whatever it is. And then they’ll come back here, with someone else, and someone else will fall down the stairs.

“And if no one falls down the stairs,” He said, seeing the dawning horror in my eyes. “Then things will fall apart. Money will dry up, fortune will twist and bend, and whatever’s down there will get hungry. Some families, they make their fortune off the sweat of a worker or the blood of a farmer, the tides of the sea. We make ours, our business, with these stairs. And when we can’t have enough of it anymore, and we find someone else to take on the job…well. This is where we exit.”

He turned back to the door.

“I’m going to open the door. And someone is going to fall down those stairs. Only one person will know if they were pushed.”

He reached down. The lock clicked open. A noise was made, like a howling wolf. Teeth and eyes were seen shining in the dark. Was there one figure, bent over in the darkness, mishappen claws peeking into the light? Were a hundred eyes owned by a singular mass? Or was the darkness filled by a hundred hungry limbs?

My father’s body struck the floor with a dull thud. The doors were slammed shut. The locks were clicked shut. I found my way in silence.


I like the basic premise of this story–I’m not sure it quite works, and probably the twist is a bit predictable. But overall, I’m happy with it. A good one to revisit on the Patreon. I’ll add in more links about current events when I get a better handle on them. Until then, next time! We see strange images from a different old manor!

The Beast Must Feed

This Week’s Prompt:117. A secret living thing kept and fed in an old house.

The Resulting Story: The Family Business

This prompt resembles another prompt we covered some time ago, about secret rooms in castles and homes. There might be some overlap in what we discuss here and what was touched upon there. There is the creature of Glamis Castle we discussed then—a monstrous, vampiric or amphibian offspring that was kept in a secret chamber apart from humanity. There was the strange beast that guarded the castle Orlando fought. Both of these strange monsters lurk in secret around the castle, but they are not so often described as being “fed”.

For that, the first creature or entity that came to mind was  a spirit from Chinese folklore—a gu . This is a creature, often a centipede, that is created by trapping a number of poisonous insects and animals in a jar, and waiting to see which one emerged victorious. This creature is the most venomous, having absorbed the venom of all the dead creatures it has killed. These creatures could appear, disappear, cause lights to appear, infect food and drink, and in some cases control the souls of dead victims. They resemble all sorts of insects and toads and serpents. More pressingly for us, they were able to shift a victims wealth to the sorcerer who created them. In many stories, this monstrous spirit had an appetite that had to be maintained, so that the family’s prosperity could continue.

Symbols for the Gu poison and Jincan (Golden Silkworm, a related creature)

A comparable sort of spirit was documented in Wales. Some of them are more akin to ghosts, but one knight by the name of Sir David Llwyd had a familiar spirit bound in a great book. He once left home without taking the book with him, and realizing his mistake, sent a servant home to fetch the book. The child, curious as young boys are, opened the book after which the spirit appeared and demanded orders. The boy, in shock, told the spirit to go and toss stones into the river—and the spirit obeyed, filling the air with stones the boy had to dodge, until the river was full. Then, it came back demanding more orders—and so the boy in desperation asked the stones be thrown back where they came from. Luckily, this delay in the books delivery has caught Sir David’s attention and he arrives on the scene, commanding the devil back into the book, ending the chaos as he closes it.  While this demon required no feeding, it is in need of constant  supervision.

Sometimes, these hideous beings do not wait to be bound, but instead bind another.  A lady in the woods was apparently infamous for this behavior, bewitching a man named Einion with illusions such that his wife, Angharad, seemed a decayed old hag, and the spirit the most beautiful of women. He split their wedding ring in two when he departed with the spirit, taking half the golden ring with him. As he wondered under her spell, he by chance looked under his ring, and saw on the horizon that which he desired most. He decided then to put the half the ring under his eyelid to see that spot forever—and while he was trying to do so, a man in white with a staff rode up to him. Hearing his plight, the man offered to take him back to his wife. When Einion got on and looked behind him, he did not see the Lady of the Woods, but only vast hoof prints in the ground. The man in white asked if he wished to see the Lady of the Woods, handing him his staff with which to see the goblin. And the Lady of the Woods was a horrifying repulsive witch of great size. As he screamed, the man cast his robe over him, and took them both to the hill near Trevelir.

The Lady in the Woods, meanwhile, had taken on the shape of a young knight and made love to Angharad—having told her that Einion was dead. And they prepared to marry, as the Lady of the Woods promised to make her the most noble woman in Wales. At the wedding, where everyone had gathered, there was a contest to play  a harp that Einion had left behind, the best harp in Wales. None could play the harp, but at last Einion arrived—appearing to his wife as a decrepit old man—and offered to play. And this won Angharad’s heart, although she could not break the illusion—even with the ring restored. So Einion granted her the staff and she saw the goblin’s true shape. After she was revived from fainting, the illusion ended, the banquet and pageantry vanished, and they returned to happy lives.

A more classical beast in the castle story comes to us from Italy. Here, we have a lady with only one son. Oh how she loved her son. Once, while her son and his companions were out hunting, she was visited by a strange lady. The lady asked to put her horses up with the ladies—who refused, as her horses would mix with no others. As she turned to leave, however, her son and his companions returned. The mysterious woman was in fact a fairy—and she bewitched the entire company to become satyrs. Satyrs, brutish and monstrous until the lady could find one who would marry him as he was.  In the meantime, he and his companions had to stay in the stables away from home.

As  his mother failed to find marriage in the land, the prince waited in the stables for rescue. And espied one day, in the gardens near the stables, the daughter of a duke. With a hand he beckoned her over, because like most satyrs he had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat. She drew near, but seeing his form, was disgusted and ran off.

The next day the same pattern repeated, as he asked if she wished him well and she protested she did not despite her approaches. The narrator informs us that she cannot yet say she loves him, and in fact goes to her mother about the affair. The mother warns her daughter to stay away from the monsters, and she does so for a month—before at last returning. The prince entreats her so sweetly that she is moved—or perhaps it is his promise of suicide if she rejects him. At last, she say she wishes him well—and at last the fairy comes forth and breaks the spell.

Which I admit confuses me, as the fairy swore only when he was wed would the curse be lifted. I suppose the prince was especially fortunate his fairy was fickle.

King Zahak is a more royal example of a hidden hunger. A man of spectacular charisma, but little self control and wisidom, the devil Ahriman advised him to murder his own father and become king of Arabia. Then, the same devil became his cook—and an excellent one at that! For his service, Zahak asked the cook what gift he would want. And the cook asked only to kiss Zahak twice—on each shoulder. Zahak allowed it, and from the kisses sprang two black serpents who attacked and bit at Zahak. The cook took his leave, not seen again as Zahak struggled with this curse. The snakes could not be cut free—they simply regrew whenever they were cut off. Eventually, a doctor came—again Ahirman in disguise—and revealed to Zahak that the only cure for his affliction was to eat a dish prepared with the brains of two men. And so, Zahak turned to grotesque cannibalism.

Zahak, consulting about those snakes

In time, the Emperor of Iran fell out of favor with the people. Zahak arrived to them as a savior, and with a great army drove out the emperor, chasing him down and eventually executing him by sawing him in half. However, his hunger did not abate. His agents find two men each day to give him. Two heroic men, Armayel and Garmayel, seek to rescue these victims by becoming royal cooks and replacing one of the human brains with brains of a sheep. The saved man was sent away to the mountains to live.  In time, after centuries of tyranny, Zahak was overthrown—but that is a story for another time.

Comparable in some ways to Zahak, but also to Bluebeard, is the story of Prince White Pig. Here a boy traveling on a road insults an old fairy while traveling. For this, he is cursed to be a pig by day (although the most handsome prince by night, which…I’m unsure such curses work as intended). His father builds a stone enclosure for him to live in. The prince decides to marry, and a bride is found. Of course, when the pig-groom who has spent all day wallowing goes to kiss her, she slaps him back. The prince than devours her. And a second bride, who undergoes the same ‘trial’. The third bride is kind to him, and thus lives long enough to see his handsome princely nature by night. She must not reveal this fact about her husband, however, or she will need a steel dress and steel shoes to find him again.

Of course, to the surprise of none, the taunting of her mother becomes too much and she reveals at last the real nature of her husband.  Eventually, with the aid of fairies, she finds that her husband is back to being a prince and about to marry a princess.  With the help of a servant, she saves her husband from the princess who was drugging him every night. After they speak, they go to the king, who lets them leave as husband and wife.

Which, I mean, he did eat two other human beings for slapping him, I’m not sure he’s exactly husband material.

There is also of course the  ancient Minotaur. For those unfamiliar with the story, Poseidon once sent King Minos a snow white bull as confirmation of his king ship—on the condition that it be sacrificed to the Earthshaker. King Minos, however, found the bull to beautiful to sacrifice and kept it. In revenge, the god of the sea made the queen Pasiphae fall in love with the bull—and the queen had the inventor Daedalus devise a way for her to make love to the bull. The result of this was the Minotaur, half man and half bull.

The minotaur was a fierce being and, being neither man nor beast, had no natural source of nourishment. So he fed upon human flesh, and thus had to be contained. Daedalus was again employed to create a labyrinth to contain the monster, and every seven years offerings, Athenian youths were offered to the beast. 

There seems to be a common line with these monsters however. These creatures that demand blood and must be imprisoned give or are correlated to an ascent to power. Zahak receives power from Ahriman—and receives his hunger from Ahriman. The bull secures Minos’s kingship…and brings the Minotaur. The gu demon brings wealth but also threatens the family and is used to feed on the populace. Even the pig and satyr princes derive from uses of power and rudeness—and in the case of the pig, turn literally from man-eating monster into heroic prince like night and day. Sir David’s familiar granted him extreme power and knowledge—even if it cost him his curacy—and the lady of the woods took the shape of noble ladies and knights in her travels.

To keep the old power alive, the old monster must be fed sounds like the basis for a gothic horror story indeed. We will see what sort of monster dwells in the old house next time…but until then. What stories of beasts in the basement have you heard?

Bibliography

Busk, Rachel Harriette, 1831-1907. Roman Legends: a Collection of the Fables And Folk-lore of Rome. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1877.

Carrière, Joseph Médard. Tales From the French Folk-lore of Missouri. Evanston: Northwestern university, 1937.

Pang, Carolyn. “Uncovering ‘Shikigami’: The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 99–129. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41955532. Accessed 25 Aug. 2020.

Sikes, Wirt, 1836-1883. British Goblins: Welsh Folk Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends And Traditions. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1880.