In The Walls

This Week’s Prompt: 107. Wall paper cracks off in sinister shape—man dies of fright.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

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This story  is one of the rare few that I believe can be traced directly to an existing inspiration. The Yellow Wallpaper  was published in 1892, and while it does not feature the exact prompt here, the detail of the shape of the cracking wallpaper calls to mind that story. The story itself deserves a full treatment, as it proves foundational to a number of horror tropes and notions—the unreliable narrator, as a start, but also malignant architecture and strange sights. The story itself has been interpreted as being a feminist work about the poor treatment of women, particularly the frequently suggested cure of the time of essentially ceasing intellectual activity to avoid hysteria. You can read the full story here.

CaskOfMonteEgro

The idea, however, of the walls containing something malicious isn’t unheard of past this story. Staying in the realm of horror, before venturing into folklore, we have Mr. Lovecraft’s own Rats in the Walls, where things lurking beneath the walls prove the maddening undoing of the main character. We have Edgar Allen Poe’s story of the Black Cat, where a woman’s body is buried in the walls after a murder, and the specter of his guilt manifests on the wall—and the Tell Tale Heart, where the thumping of a long dead heart.

In folklore, the idea of malignancy being placed within a building is an old one. We discussed, when talking about thepower of magic, the Tibetan death curse that must be planted in the roof of a building. We’ve also discussed how within walls, we canbury guardians to secure our fortune here. But today I’d like to examine a few more examples of how things hidden, just out of sight in our architecture, can spell misfortune. And how they can bring blessings.

Horn Tibet

A common example of this is found in witchcraft stories—one I’ve discussed on Patreoncomes from Basque country. Here a witch has afflicted a princess with a terrible, wilting disease, by placing a toad beneath a statue. Until the toad is removed from the garden, she cannot hope for a cure—and by this means the witch seeks to inflict untold misery on her victims. The day is saved by an orphan listening in and going out to undo the harm. We see similar uses of toads elsewhere, where their mere presence causes trouble as discussed here.

In the astrology treatise of Al Hakim, a number of talismans are noted—prepared properly, these talismans can work a number of magical wonders. They can destroy enemies, corrupt cities, prevent marriages, assure positions of power, end crops, and more. These talismans operate with the power of celestial spheres, which exert power over men’s lives and minds already. The power of talismans, utilizing these spiritual forces, is something almost divine. Of particular note are terrible talismans that bring enmity and hatred among lovers and friends. Placing these at meeting points can unravel relationships entirely. Many of these talismans require specific stones to be engraved at the right hour, to better call down the spirits and forces at work. Among Coptic talismans, many are aimed at the relationships between families—cutting marriages to achieve one’s love, transfiguring a woman into a horse, and so on.

Talismans Symbols

Talisman Scripts, from the above text.

Albanian stories of witchcraft suggest that with careful application of pig bones, one can bind an evil into a building. By creating a cross of the bones and hanging it outside the door of the building (particularly a church), this will trap them in the building and cause a panic. On the first of march, you can keep them from entering by driving horns into the ashes of a chimney, or hanging scissors at the door—a wise choice, as that is the night the witches gather.

Protection and curses worked into the foundations of the household or building are thus rather common in European folklore and practice, as well as in places beyond. The family in particular is vulnerable to madness by the house—something that perhaps ties back to the haunted houses we had discussed in the past. The house thus is the hearth, the home, the source of vitality. And there is not much more research I can say on that.

Except to discuss where we might take this as a writer. Now, the original story of Yellowed Wallpaper certainly features the decline of the domestic relationship in an almost gothic way. The unreliable narrator begins to see strange things, goes mad and even assaults her husband for her poor treatment, her mind gone by the end from being trapped in such a place. And most of our stories have played, perhaps, on a similar notion of madness in their own way.

If there is something archetypical here, in malevolent architecture as a conceit, I would suggest it is in fact the haunted and cursed house. But not the house that is haunted by necessarily a ghost—not by necessarily a precisely human and anthropomorphic phantom. Strange patterns on the wall call to mind the mathematical regularity of fractals and geometry that Mr. Lovecraft feared stretched to infinite. Terrible shapes here remind me of fungus, and the cracks in the wall from Edgar Allen Poe resemble a cat. A house that is wicked in its own way, terrible in-it-self, not by housing some other intellect. It reminds or suggests to me another house entirely, and perhaps a more sinister version of miraculous images that we discussed here.

Caanite Teraphim Gods

Household gods like these often served as protective talismans for the household.

We have also a prompt that is very much the climax of a story. This is not a full tale, but rather the ending or mid point of a story of domestic madness. We could follow prior writers here and suggest that this strange breaking shape is a product of an existing neurosis. An ill omen taken shape in the wallpaper itself. If these walls could talk indeed. This cursed narration I think should have an unreliable narrator—both because of the original story, the Yellowed Wallpaper, and the other story this reminds me of.

Writing an unreliable narrator is somewhat difficult, I find. If done well, it provides a layer of mystery to the events—it provides intrigue and a question of reality. But it is a device that, to me, always begs the question of why. Unlike a third person omniscient narrator, or even third person limited, with an unreliable narrator we are deep within the mind of our main character. The character needs a reason to be telling us this story. Attention needs to be drawn to “how did we come across this” in a way that other stories often lack.

Now, there are some reasons to tell such a story. One is part of a confession—a somewhat common reason, in many cases. While not a literal confession, this is the function that the Tell Tale Heart and the Shadows Over Innsmouth and even, arguably, Crime and Punishment. Here we begin with being told the guilty party justifying or explaining his crime, in someway as to make us sympathetic. However, there are other methods. There are stories like the Yellowed Wallpaper, where no justification is needed—the story is simply presented as is. Others function as a found manuscript—a story we were perhaps never meant to see, or one that has been restored by an outside agent…ah, I keep thinking of that house. It must be the weight of the plague on my mind.

So which will our story be? Well…I prefer the edited manuscript. It is perhaps from being too deep among the books this week in research, trying to find half remembered stories to fit this article, but there is I think something more horrific and mysterious about a manuscript you stumble across then one that is given as pure confession. In the case of confession, it is hard if not impossible to avoid the idea that they have clearly committed a crime. What is and isn’t true is much more apparent, I think, if you know they have already done some wrong doing.

But textual corruption, editing, age, and omission by the writer and others who have had their hands on it all can contribute to changes and secrets. References to common aphorisms, long forgotten, can easily make a text almost incomprehensible. That is something that fits my tastes much better than before.

What cursed houses have you heard of?

Bibliography:

Atallah, Hastem, translator. Picactrix: The Goal of the Wise by Ghayat Al-Hakim.

Durham, M. Edith. “121. Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans”. Man, Vol. 23 (Dec., 1923), pp. 189-192. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Monteiro, Mariana. Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People. New York, New York. F.A. Stokes 1891.

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Terrors in the Night

This Week’s Prompt: 106. A thing that sat on a sleeper’s chest. Gone in morning, but something left behind.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

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Mr. Lovecraft has here given us a terror that is very common in the world, rife with folklore explanations, and that plagued the man himself in his life. Sleep paralysis is the experience of waking up, but being unable to move, speak, or in anyway act. Victims often hallucinate, and commonly report the sensation that someone or something is in the room with them—something the brain processes as dangerous.

Such an anomalous sensation is the source of many terrors of the night—the most famous perhaps being the nightmare or night hag. In documents across Europe, the night hag finds sleeping people, binds them, and then rides them—like a mare—to her various delights, before returning them exhausted.

At various points in history, the nightmare has been its own spirit, either a being named Mara or a dwarf or the like. However, in English, the spirit quickly became associated with the more common source of supernatural evil: the witch.

Nightmare witch

Witchcraft reports from England suggest that such enchantment requires the insertion of objects—often sharp and deadly ones, such as scissors—into the victim for the magic to work. Some of these witches sent spirits, supposedly, to disturb the sleep of their victims. Often a these spirits took the form of cats (the recurring internet meme of cats making it impossible to move when they lay on you has some ancient parallels it seems). Other times, the shadow figures are witches themselves, who attempt to strangle their victim as well as prevent them from sleeping.

In South Carolina stories, the night hags are even more nightmarish. They often drink blood of their victims, and sometimes ride their victims without skin. With salt on the floor or certain rituals in a bottle, the Night Hag can be captured in a bottle while trying to reassume her skin. An informant claimed that the hag left a detestable slime when struck by salt—perhaps indicating there is something not entirely human beneath their skin. These hags might go door to door begging for food or hitchhiking, cursing those who show hospitality in a perverse inversion of regular witchcraft.

Witches in Nigeria were also believed to also engage in terrible acts during the night. They might make off with the breath of children, or feast on the souls or psyche. Meetings between witches, in both Africa and Europe, were often described as out of body experiences—as where some of the transformations a witch would engage in. These psychic feasts and meetings are the cause of illness, sickness, and death among communities—often by weakening the victim’s body such that more mundane illness can enter.

NightmarePainting

Of course, human intervention isn’t the only potential source. In China, Thailand, Poland,  and Uganda (among others) it is the dead that harass the living this way. The kokma of St. Lucia is a ghost, but rather specifically a ghost of a dead child that leaps on and throttles its victims. In Zanzibar, there is a terrible bat like demon that assaults people in their sleep. In Cornwall, the creature is instead a large hairy thing that binds a man down and called the hilla. In Ireland, it is instead a great bird with many talons and wings called tromlui. Beyond cats (who are easily the most common), sheep and roosters also appear as oppressive spirits in the world.

That isn’t to say there is no protection from these powers! Salt in some communities will work, but one particular charm from Anglo Saxon Texts protects against a spidery dwarf creature that enters illness upon the victim:

“Against a dwarf one shall take seven little offerings, such as one has worshipped with, and write these names on each of the offerings: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martimianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards one shall sing the charm that I say hereafter, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, and then above the top of the man’s head. And then a maiden must go and hang it around his neck, and do so for three days; he will soon be well. Here he came in walking, in spider form. He had his harness in his hand, he said that you were his steed, he put his traces on your neck. Then they began to travel from the ground; so soon they came from the ground, then their limbs began to cool. Then came in walking the beast’s sister; she put an end to this then and swore oaths that this would never harm the sick one, nor that one who might find this charm or knows how to recite it. Amen.So be it”

NightmarePainting 2

Here, we see the Seven Sleepers invoked as they often were to protect against sleeping illnesses and the like (We discussed the seven sleepers here). Other cures exist through out the world, from the aforementioned traps to cleansing to finding the witch responsible.

We come then to our story of horror. One of the most fascinating things, implied here, is that an object is left behind by the creature, spirit, or witch. This parting token to me marks not a gift, but rather a cursed object returned or some calling card—I am reminded of the discarded ring from our Netherlands stories that were in fact the doom of the woman who found them. Terror in the night for Lovecraft is not uncommon—the Witch’s House deals with dangerous dreams from living in a cursed place, and the threat of nightmares is common in horror (we could also consider the Hugenot house and other haunted places that torment victims in their dreams). But here, the presence has a dreadful physicality. It is not just terrible dreams—which might precede or follow from the spirits presence—but it is the arrival of something terrible and barely visible in the night.

We had a  similar story with the night monsters earlier—the aswang was our creature then, that slowly revealed itself and well. The story is here. But still, we need I think a distinction between this story’s terror, the vampires we’ve discussed, and the earlier version of this story that we examined with the Horla (here). Making things a bit more difficult, the night hag and it’s many other names does not do much. It sits on a person, it strangles them—an experience that I can say personally is terrifying, but difficult to communicate a whole story about.

Strange isn't it?

For some surely unknowable reason, all the artistic representations of sleep paralysis and nightmares sitting on people feature attractive women in distress.

Perhaps we can build on the notion or terror of SUNDS—sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome, a phenomenon referenced in some of my works as being related to nightmares and their kind. Mysterious and horrific deaths work better than a single stalking thing in the darkness. I have the notion now of a rash of mysterious deaths and killings, as creatures of darkness and night begin to swallow up a town or city—things that perhaps resemble our earlier aswang, that wait until nightfall to make their presence known, while walking in the day in more innocuous forms.

We can play with forms of horror here, I think. There is an existential fear, of falling asleep and not knowing if you will wake up—of falling asleep, and being started awake by some unseen terror—of waking up to terrible news while you were powerless. There is something we can wrap into and work with this story, as well as a monster story that has a resonance with the sleep deprived and brightly lit modern era.

 

Bibliography

Adler, Shelly R. “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome among Hmong Immigrants: Examining the Role of the “Nightmare””, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 411 (Winter, 1991), pp. 54-71. American Folklore Society

Davies, Owens. “The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis, and Witchcraft Accusations” Folklore, Vol. 114, No. 2 (Aug., 2003), pp. 181-203. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

Gay, David E. “Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charm 3 against a Dwarf: A Charm against Witch-Riding?” Folklore, Vol. 99, No. 2 (1988), pp. 174-177. . Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

Ross, Joe. “Hags out of Their Skins”. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 368 (Apr. – Jun., 1980), pp. 183-186. American Folklore Society.

Parrinder, E. G. “African Ideas of Witchcraft”. Folklore, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Sep., 1956), pp. 142-150. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

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Romanian Vampires

This Week’s Prompt: 105. Vampire visits man in ancestral abode—is his own father.

The Resulting Story: Forth Coming

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We’ve discussed the nature of vampires many times—in fact in the last six months, we’ve discussed it at least twice, once focused on the Philippines, once on the Balkans. For this third venture, I decided to move to a more precise examination of the Vampire as Family member, especially in the Romania. These vampires have something in common with their Balkan kin, but are strange and horrifying in their own ways.

One early difference is that not all vampires in Romania are dead. People destined to become vampires when they die can send out their souls or even bodies far from their bodies—akin to the story of the Jack we discussed last time, where a solider sent out his form with a playing card. These living vampires can be contrasted with the dead vampires that possess their corpses to wander out at night. There are other types of vampire we will discuss.

Like Balkan vampires, Romanian vampires often target their families. However, unlike most of their Balkan counterparts, reports exist of vampires returning home at night and doing house work or tending to children, even as they feed on them. And the life cycle of a vampire is more expansive than in the Balkans. A vampire, after seven years, will devour its whole family, then the whole village. Eventually it returns to life, and leaves to another country (or at the least, a place where a different language is spoken). Here, the vampire will settle down and start a new family, with children destined to also become vampires when they die. Thus, the vampiric plague spreads outward and onward, from one community to the next.

The signs of a vampiric fate are readily apparent. The most common is to be born with a caul, but others include simple wickedness among men and women, especially witchcraft. A child that is unbaptized will become a vampire after seven years, and its burial site will become unholy if not well looked after. If a pregnant woman doesn’t eat salt, her child will become a vampire. If one can break the fate of a vampire, the person becomes an omen of good luck. Suicides can become vampires as well, and have to be carefully treated to avoid that fate. Those doomed to be a vampire, in some reports, leave their bodies at night. Their soul emerges as a fly and goes about the world—a true vampire’s soul emerges as death’s head moth, which can cause sickness in a home. These can be pinned to prevent their escape or mischief, although most are unwilling to subject even a vampire to a second death.

Deaths Head Moth

A deaths head hawkmoth

Vampires have a variety of powers, even while alive. In one town, Michaela, vampire women were said to be tied to specific animals or phenomena from whom they drew power. Drawing this vitality is dangerous for the victim—a vampire who draws from bees may render them unable to gather pollen, and thus starve them. Another, more domestic vampire drained the power of bread from other households to make her bread the best anyone could manage. On St. George’s Eve they gather this power, either for themselves or for others—a vampire might gather beauty for a woman, rivalry for men, and so on. The women appear as red faced and dry, often in rags on St. Andrew’s Eve. The male vampires are bald and have hooves and a tail.

St. Andrew has a few other ties with vampires. One informant claimed that St. Andrew helped vampire women who had achieved their state rather than being born into it. St. Andrew’s Eve is also when they begin to travel the world, and are at their strongest (except wizard or witch vampires, who are strongest at the new moon). They weaken in spring, with either St. George’s Eve or Easter, no longer able to work as terrible powers as they once could.

The most dread vampire is the varcolac, a species of celestial vampire. These creatures cause eclipses, and bloody the moon when she is red or coppery. They appear as dogs, dragons, many mouthed creatures, and more when they go to eat the moon. Otherwise, they dwell in mortal bodies that enter a deep sleep when they sally out to eat the stars.  Their origins range from again cursed children to spirits born of dust swept towards the sun, and some of the stories are almost comedic—for instance, that spinning by moonlight allows them to ride the string up to the Heavens and eat the moon and sun.  The sun defeats them with the lion he rides on, while the moon is too strong to be so easily devoured. In one story, it is God that has given them this mission, to inspire penance in humanity.

Solar Eclipse

A recurring story in Romanian Vampire lore is the vampire who takes a lover. In one story, a young man and a girl were deeply in love, and carried on a tryst without the girl’s family knowing. Eventually the young man’s relations approached them for marriage—and were rejected, as they were very poor. So the young man hung himself and became a vampire, and continued to visit the girl—except the girl did not love him, evil spirit he had become.

A wise woman advised her to attach some yarn to the coat, and follow the thread. She followed him back to his churchyard, and waited at twilight. She then saw him feeding on the heart of a dead man. When the vampire confronted her about her delay, she denied knowing anything. Even as he threatened her father, she asserted she knew nothing. And so her father died. The next day, she again refused, and her mother died. At last, he threatened to kill her—and she claimed to know nothing. She instructed her relations that she was going to die soon. She asked to be held in wake near an opening in the wall, and buried in a forest not a church yard.

And so it came to pass. She was buried in the woods, and a wonderous flower grew over her grave. The son of the emperor passed by one day, and saw this flower—and took it with him, digging it up and transplanting it to his garden. At night, the flower became the girl again, and she and the emperor’s son came to be married. She would not leave the house, however, in fear of the vampire—except once, when her husband asked her to go with him by carriage. And there by the road, who should they pass? The vampire himself! She fled the carriage at once, and the vampire pursued, until they came to a church. The girl hid behind a holy picture, as the vampire reached to grab her. And then that holy picture fell down, and struck the vampire, rendering him to dust.

Variants on this story can be found, repeating the same pattern and tricks. A detail that isn’t mentioned in this version is the meeting on St. Andrew’s day. Some variants specify she can’t go to church for four years—and going early, her vampire lover murders her husband and son. Her grandmother provides the solution, with water of life and holy water—the first to revive her family, the second to murder the vampire.

St. Andrew

St. Andrew, wondering why he’s associated with all these damn vampires.

Another tale about vampires and women tells of how a vampire approached a group of girls at a river, disguised as a youth. He told such wonderful jokes and made such good conversation that the whole group could not help but laugh. But there was one girl in particular that he teased remorselessly, pinching her until she was black and blue. Such torment caused her to drop her distaff with linen—and see his tail. Realizing what he was, she tried to leave with her friend—but her friend’s laughter made it impossible for her warnings to be understood. So she fled into the woods alone( “into the forest as old as the world and as black as her fear”, which is such a lovely phrase). Her companions waited for her return, until it became apparent she was not returning. The vampire, enraged, demanded he be found—and when she wasn’t, he brutally murdered the other girls.

He then found the girl in the woods, and asked her to come with him—and in her state of shock and fear, she followed the monster to a hole in the woods. He asked her to descend, but she insisted he descend first. He agreed, and she trapped him with some linen before fleeing east to a house. Here she found a strange sight—a dead man with his arms crossed over his breast and a torch at his head. She decided to sleep her, and would have slept well if not for the pursuing vampire. The vampire arrived, and fought the dead man for some time, both vanishing when day arrived—for the dead man was also a vampire. Awakening three times in the night, the girl was terrified—except the third time, when she beheld the beauties of the woods. At last she left in the morning and returned home, telling her parents of all she’d seen.

And she began to sink into the ground. For the vampire had enchanted her, and she too had become a vampire.

This tail, a unique signifier of the vampire here, is the source of another amusing fact of Romanian vampires—when they wash, it rains. Unlike other vampires, for whom running water is a bane, Romanian vampires cannot drown and always float.  Kings would send their armies to bath during drought, in case one turned out to be a vampire.

The Romanian Vampire is much more a creature of nature than some its counterparts—we have a strong association with power over natural things (bees, beasts, and insects), we have them living in wild places, often on the borders of villages or in ancient woods. Some are great, terrible, even cosmic threats that consume stars, while others are much more mundane and lurking creatures. And their capacity, nay, fascination with family works well for this story. We anticipated this in our story about the returned father before—I admit, this prompt was on my mind even then. But this story I think could take a stranger, darker turn—the vampire’s Gothic roots and the notion of it as a hereditary condition are all at play in a way that was less relevant for the Balkan vampire. What horror will we weave? Come next week and see!

Bibliography:

Murgoci, Agnes. “The Vampire in Roumania”, Folklore, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 320-349. Taylor & Francis, Ltd (Dec. 31, 1926).

Perkowsky, Jan. Vampires of the Slavs. Slavica Publishers, Inc. 1976

 

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Dutch Tales About the Sea

This Week’s Prompt: 104. Old sea tavern now far inland from made land. Strange occurrences—sound of lapping of waves.

The Resulting Story:

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Did you know “made land” means reclaimed land from the ocean? I didn’t! I spent a slightly embarrassing amount of time trying to find places or folktales about where the sea has receded before at last finding stories that fit this prompt (somewhat). The only one I found there had to do with the Norse God Thor and while it was…interesting, and connected to drinking, I think I’ll save it for another time.

No for this week I decided to delve into the folklore and urban legends of a part of Europe I admit I knew little of before hand: The Netherlands. The Netherlands have been making land for centuries, and unsurprisingly they have many stories about floods, storms, and the sea. Some of these are fantastic, some of these are rather mundane.

For instance, the story of how the north sea became salty. Once, there was a ship over one hundred kilometers long. It was so vast that a man on horse had to relay orders up and down the ship, taking six days to deliver each command. Where this vast ship came from is unknown—certainly it is a magical marvel, lacking telephone or telegram, and yet almost a small island in scope. But as perhaps was inevitable, the ship and it’s many crew members where wrecked at sea. The salt needed for such a vast ship is almost incalculable, and so the entire North Sea became salt water instead of fresh water.

Ships of same build if not scale were in the employ of a Woman of Stavoren. She was wealthy beyond compare, as a widow running a vast shipping empire. One day, she demanded that the most valuable thing money could buy be brought to her—and in time her ships returned, full of rye. Enraged, she ordered the barley be thrown overboard. All this was seen by an old man on the quay, who told the woman that one day she’d be poor. She swore to him that she could never be poor. To prove it, she hurled a ring into the sea and said she was like to get that back as to be poor again.

The next evening, a cook served her fish. And inside, the woman found the ring. Needless to say, storms struck and sank all her vessels—and she was rendered destitute, forced to beg on the street. The rye still grows where it was thrown, according to rumor. They bare no fruit.

Witch Burning 1

But let us leave the sea behind, but not to far—and venture into taverns and cellars. One story tells that there is or at least was a wine cellar well known by older women. Here, witches flew to meet and drink and enjoy themselves. One woman, after her first trip to the cellar, decides to bring a younger friend along. However, she is too excited to recite the spell to bring them there properly. Most importantly, instead of “Afterward home again” she says “nevermore home again”—and curses the two of them to be forever lost on the road. The younger friend realizes the trouble their in—and as they can’t get home, the devil will come soon to snap their necks. In true college friend fashion, the two decide that if they must  go to hell, they will go drunk.

Later, the two are found passed out in the cellar by some workmen, with incriminating brooms. They are found guilty of witch caft and sentenced to burning—they awaken during the burning, however, and manage to escape the devil by converting on the stake. The devil, having appeared as an owl over head to seize their souls, leaves enraged.

Another tavern cellar had a more dangerous creature lurking in it then two drunk witches. Down in a inn at Utrecht, there was a basilisk. The basilisk was born of a rooster’s egg, laid by a snake. The creature was born down there, unknown to the inhabitants. It was first discovered when a man went down to get a drink—and never returned, as the venomous eyes of the basilisk killed him and ground him to dust. This first victim was dismissed, many assuming he had just gotten drunk and passed out—until a second man went missing. And a third. At last, the innkeeper was about to investigate when a monk happened to come in and stop him.

Basilisk1

Now, the discovery of a fire breathing—the story mentions this offhandedly, and so shall I—murderous chicken-snake is of course bad for business. So the innkeeper asked for anyone to help, offering a hefty reward. At last a street urchin came in, with a plank of wood as his only tool. Despite the pleas of the adults, the child descended to fight the cockatrice—and triumphed! For to the beasts surprise, the otherside of the plank was a mirror! So the beast died to it’s own gaze.

A more comedic inn story comes to us from Zuiderwoude. A solider was playing cards with his fellows, to pass the watch. Off hand, he offers to send the Jack of Clubs to fetch some jenever. The others laugh at such an impossible trick—but the solider insists. And with their agreement, he goes unconscious. He turns as pale as paper and sweats like a pig, as the jack of club vanishes. A few minutes later, to the horrified soldiers shock, a bottle of jenever appeared with a jack of clubs in its neck. The original solider drinks heartily, and they all join in.

The next day, they walk pass the main gate and learn someone assaulted the guard, nearly knocking him out and slipping past unseen. When they pass a local innkeeper, he accuses them of making a terrible ruckus last night to get nothing more than a bottle of jenever. When they deny it, he singles out the solider with the jack as having come to him in the night. The storyteller asserts said solider was a sorcerer, who never truly left the room.

But one that stuck out to me for our purposes is the Herring in the Bucket story. It is a short and simple and rather mundane story.

The story goes, a farmer was drawing water from a well. When he brought the bucket up, he saw there was a herring in it—a fish swimming in his drinking water. It occurs to him that the fish must have swam into the well—and if it swam into the wall, the ocean must be seeping beneath the earth. A single good storm would sink the entire area, washing it all beneath the sea. And with this in mind, he became miserable and angry, until at last the storm came—and when the waters receded he was found dead.

Herrings

This sort of story has a few other variants—the maintaining of a dyke is a communal activity that the rich and arrogant often neglect and are ruined for ignoring. But what to me works here, in this small simple story is the horror that it displays. The growing realization that the buried sea is ready to rise up again and swallow it all. I pondered for a moment, why the farmer didn’t leave—but how could he? He is a part of this land as well. In our story, the old sea tavern is perhaps safe—it is where the coast once was, after all. But the made land is unstable—the symbolism of unstable lives, of long buried tensions coming to surface is apparent. Especially considering in vino veritas. There is a lot here, with simple and growing signs of impending doom.

Whether we take it to be the utterly mundane terror of a rising tide—something that is topical these days—or if it has some supernatural to it (we have many many many examples of the sorts of strange things that lurk in the sea), the story has I think a firm and clear footing. What stories have you heard, about seas, taverns, and tavern basements?

Bilbiography:

Meder, Theo. The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

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A Lightless Room At Night

This Week’s Prompt: 103. Sealed room—or at least no lamp allowed there. Shadow on wall.

The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING

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This prompt is an interesting one—and one that has a number of routes we’ve covered before. The most apparent to me is the hidden rooms of Eros and Bluebeard—often here, the bedroom of the husband or some other secret room is forbidden. In the case of Eros and Pysche is even specific about the oil lamp that wakes and frightens off Eros. We’ve also discussed Balkan Vampires—ones that in fact do fear light or are kept in secret places and pits. However, there is no shortage of strange and monstrous creatures in the night. And one I would like to go over tonight is a vampire from another part of the world: The Philippines.

The creature in question is the aswang—a vampire like creature that has a long tongue with a sharp tip, which it uses to suck blood or viscera from a victim. There are other sorts of creatures called or compared to the aswang in the Philippines, which we will discuss further on. The vampire, however, has some key and common traits. Vampiric aswang are often foreign husbands or wives, who feed on their partner or use their partner as a home base from which to work their havoc. The vampires that are dead returned to the living live in distant forests by day, and come to feed at night.

Viscera Sucker

The viscera sucker, sometimes called naguneg in Iklo and kasudlan in West Visayan, like wise has a long mosquito like proboscis or long tongue—but this isn’t sharp. At night it’s arms become wings and it abandons its legs to go hunting. It leaves these in a closet, on a bed, or hidden in a banana grove—if they are disturbed or salt is tossed on them, the creature will die. The viscera sucker targets pregnant women and the sick, drinking phlegm or feeding on internal organs using it’s straw like mouth. They may live in a jungle, hanging from the trees or in small huts, but a number live as wives in villages. Unlike the vampire, their fears are clearly documented—spices, light (as our prompt requests), big crabs, sting ray tails, salt, fire, guns, and knives.  I find these last three fears to be well founded in general, frankly. Salt of course is a weakness of the creatures—and marine life reminds them of that dangerous mineral. Lastly, a bamboo stake in the back of such a creature will kill it instantly. One becomes a vsicera sucker by either eating food spat up by another viscera sucker, or by eating a creature that emerges from a dead viscera sucker’s mouth that resembles a black chick.

A comparable creature, with the same fears, is the weredog. This creature resembles a man during the day, but at night becomes a large dog or cat. It sets upon people in their homes and—perhaps a bit tellingly—on youngsters who are too loud. The weredog and the witch however especially fear the sting ray whip—wounds it suffers from the whip appear again when it becomes a man. Villagers suspect wandering salesmen and laborers on government projects are suspected of being weredogs often.

The next creature of the aswang variety is a witch. The witch is a vindictive man or woman—usually woman—who slips cursed items and talismans into people’s orifices to get their revenge. Witches are described as having eyes like a cat or snakes, which reflect images upside down. They therefore avoid eye contact. They are also shy and live on the edges of town, in abandoned houses. They employ insects as agents to spy on victims or plant curses, and some cases argue they also make use of dogs for this purpose.

The last of these creatures is a ghoulish one. These creatures have long nails, fetid breath, and sharp teeth. They can hear the groans of the dying miles away, and eagerly gather at night around trees in cemeteries to feast on the corpses within. If they come across a funeral, ghouls freely make off with the living and the dead. Loud noises and fire frighten off the creatures, however, so proper celebrations keep them at bay. If they manage to get the corpse, they will turn it into a pig and make off with it—and try to feed it to another human being, turning them into a new ghoul.

The aswang first came to my attention from an episode of Grimm. I don’t remember any of the other elements of that episode, but the image of the long tongued creature horrified me. I don’t believe it separated its body as it does in these stories, but the distinctive appearance and feeding habits have made the aswang famous. There is even a resource on Philippines folklore and mythology, the Aswang Project, named for the creature.

A story from nearby Java also caught my attention. Here two men are lead to a cavern, to marry a magical serpent. They went to a spirit gateway, and after burning incense and making offerings, they were told to close there eyes. One obeyed, the other kept his eyes open. The one who closed his eyes waited until told to open them—and found the cavern replaced by a great palace, the dirt road a grand highway. He was invited in and asked to choose a princess to marry. They were married and agreed to meet Monday and Thursday, and she would give him money each time until she ran out. After that, he would return to serve in the palace.

Candi Naga

The friend who kept his eyes open saw none of this—just a cave full of large snakes. He of course didn’t have the heart to tell his fellow about the illusion. Here the revelation isn’t dangerous itself—rather it denies one the benefits and luxury they might have had.

Our story is thus about finding and revealing secrets, although the sort that are perhaps not disclosed in full. The prompt mentions a shadow cast on the wall, which calls to mind an onlooker. Crouched near the opened door frame, looking into this forbidden room. Another has come into the darkness. A light is lit—and their familiar silhouette appears on the wall. Only, moments later, something horrific wakes. Perhaps a winged shape emerges, or perhaps long clawed appendages reach out. And the intruder is gone.

There is a Lovecraftian creature this reminds me of—the Haunter of the Dark. This creature, associated with the artifact the Shining, can go anywhere abroad at night. It cannot emerge during light, and thus modern electrical lights leave it trapped in an abandoned church. Yet when the power grid comes out, it seeks the one who freed it—on black wings, with three eyes, on a whirlwind it arrives. This creature has since been viewed as an embodiment of the great Nyarlathotep, which then possessed the body of the viewer. He and it perished luckily when lighting struck.

Haunter in the Darkn.png

This Lovecraft story is situated between two other stories by Robert Bloch, which feature an invisible vampiric creature that rides on cold winds to devour a man from Providence after being summoned and a Doctor Ambrose Dexter being possessed by the lord of a thousand forms. While working on nuclear weapons, which of course is a horror all its own. The details of this creatures functions can be found examined on Lovecraft Science here.

Our story could be instead arranged around this as a midpoint. The discovery of a strange monster in the darkness of a room—one that, drawing upon the Bluebeard stories and Vampire ones, wants its presence hidden—could serve not as the rising climax but as the discovery that incites action. In the middle of the night, you might see strange shapes coming from the older house or the abandoned churches, down from the hill in between flashes of lighting. I do think Lovecraft’s idea, a blackout in a modern city allowing it free and a thunder storms lighting bolts revealing the creature for mere moments, before it flees and moves away. That’s a strong way to build tension in a very visual way—one that I think can be communicated in writing, albeit in a way that would be more clipped than my normal writing.

Oh the terror.

What creatures of the night do you know and dread? What things fear the light or despise it’s presence? Comment below!

Bibliography

Ramos, Maximo. “The Aswang Syncrasy in Philippine Folklore” Western Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 238-248.

Wessing, Robert. “Spirits of the Earth and Spirits of the Water: Chthonic Forces in the Mountains of West Java” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1 (1988), pp. 43-61.

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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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Conspiracy!

This Week’s Prompt: 101. Hideous secret society—widespread—horrible rites in caverns under familiar scenes—one’s own neighbour may belong.

The Resulting Story:My Father’s House

Here we entertain another one of Mr. Lovecraft’s fears or tropes of paranoia—the widespread secret society that spans the globe and conspires against the existing world order. This topic, include it’s particular note that the rites are done underground, comes up in the story of Red Hook among others. We addressed some of Red Hook’s more egregious problems here with our writings on the Yazidi. Beyond that, the nature of secret societies is a difficult one to navigate.

I happen to have purchased a book entirely on secret societies, cults, and conspiracies last year, almost precisely for these sorts of prompts. And in reading a rather extensive catalog of them, the results are often far less fascinating and arguably more horrific than one might expect. Broadly speaking, a secret society tends to only form for a few reasons: it is an extension of a criminal operation, it is a resistant movement among a minority group, it is an exclusive club of wealthy men and women looking to secure their fortunes, or it is an outgrowth of a mystery cult of some sort. These are not exclusive operations, of course, and frequently intermingle. The 1356 reports of what the British would later term the Thugee cult, for instance, are both criminal operation and mystery cult.

KGC

The cover of a 1860s tell all history of the Knights of the Golden Circle

Instead of replicating all the secret societies and criminal organizations and cults that dot the world, I’ll focus on a select number of these groups that struck me as interesting. The first of these secret societies is the Knights of the Golden Circle—an organization founded to promote a slave holding empire over Texas, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. This would make a 2400 mile circle with Havana at the center. This society made news all over the North: warning of incoming terrorist attacks on New York, efforts to fund sabotage with Copperheads—Democrats who wanted peace with the Confederacy, and folklore and rumor claimed both John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James. Of course, this society failed at every turn. No terrorist attacks emerged. The two invasions of Mexico the group funded in 1860 failed. The Copperheads did little to dissuade the North. Jesse James and John Wilkes booth did in fact perish, and there is no mysterious golden reserve hidden away for the Southern states. The organization first came to my attention in a comic series, Atomic Robo. As villains, they almost seem like stories of Operation Werewolf, or the Garduna.

The Garduna were a group of bandits in Andalusia who targeted Muslims until the Reconquista was finished and had its origins in the remains of an army that resisted the invading Moors. After completion of the Reconquista, the Garduna took on the role of the Inquisitions hit men, targeting suspected Jews and appropriating their property for the Inquisitors. The Garduna met their end in 1822, with a mass execution in Seville. In addition to the arrests, the police seized records dating back 147 years, that accounted for over two thousand assignments from the Inquisition. These included not only murders, but thefts, abductions, and robberies.

La Petit Journal.png

Another group of robbers in Europe were the Chauffeurs. The Chauffeurs lurked in France, and were famed for putting their victim’s feet to the flame in order to locate their valuables. In some stories, they held their own religion and had a unique language for their communications. The reality of the group was that, while France saw an uptick in banditry during the Revolution and while there were mores and language commonalities in the underground, there was no unifying conspiracy spanning the whole of the underground.  Their story was told by Francois-Eugene Vidocq, who inspired Edgar Allen Poe and Victor Hugo’s works.

Having covered some criminal groups, I’d like to examine or at least honorably mention one rich men’s club that might work here. Hellfire Clubs were gentlemen’s clubs through out England in the 18th century—young men with money gathered there for all variety of pleasures and discussions. Of these, the one most relevant here is the Order of the Knights of Saint France of Wycombe or the Monks of Medmenham (when they moved to a leased a 12th century abbey). The group had the motto “Do what thou wilt” engraved over the door. Further, they repurposed a nearby chalk mine with Gothic carvings and furniture. Down here, the club held masked revelries and supposedly conducted Black Masses. Some authors asserted pagan revivals, which seems unlikely given the founder’s work on The Common Book of Prayer.

Agartha.png

Setting aside these grounded beliefs, lets examine some more fantastic ones. One of my favorites is Synarchy, an alternative to democracy conceived of by one Joseph Alexander Saint-Yves d’Alveydre. This system would be a pan-European government, ruled by three councils (an economic, a judicial, and a spiritual one). After an encounter with a man claiming to be a “the Guru Pandit of the Great Agarthian School”, d’Alveydre became convinced that the real rulers would be a race of supernatural subterranean beings, the Argathians. These beings were refugees of Atlantis and Lemuria, and were ruled by a council of symbolically important individuals. These may be related to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s race of vril users, who used manipulation of atmospheric magnetism to control the weather, to control minds of men and animals with animal magnetism, and to control odic forces. These masters of electricity were compared to the romances of the great mystics.

A more entertaining story comes from the Cult section of the book—specifically, one Koreshanism. This religion was founded by David Cyrus Teed. A former Union Solider, from a “burned over” region of New York, David suffered a severe sunstroke and had to be hospitalized do to nerve damage. Later, when working with his uncle’s practice in Utica, David electrocuted himself during an alchemical experiment. Then he beheld a woman, who revealed a cosmic truth—that we are already inside of an earth! Teed took this notion into a new religion, crafting an internal cosmology and a belief that this knowledge was direct transmission by an intersex God. He even constructed large measuring instruments to determine whether the earth was curving concave or converse. After confirming to himself the truth of his belief, he moved from community to communities.  He opened a number of medical practices, he  lived with the Shakers. He was accused in a few places of impersonating Jesus Christ and having affairs with women. At last, in 1894, with some four thousand followers he had gathered, he founded New Jerusalem.

This community was a socialist utopia, clean and ecological. They manufactured mattresses, hats, baskets, and bread and put on plays to raise money for the community. There was absolute gender equality, and most of the community were educated women. Sadly, conflict arose when they attempted to incorporate themselves to receive road taxes. In the end, David was injured in a street brawl and died two years later—despite his promises of a return, he was buried after nothing happened. A small core faithful remained there for fifty or so years.

These cults and secret societies I mostly selected because they seem fanciful—I have left off ones responsible for Sarine gas attacks in living memory, mass suicides, and other monstrous activities because during this winter season I am not in the mood for them. That said, this is a horror story of paranoia. The fear mentioned, that even one’s own neighbors could be a part of the secret society, is clear on that. It’s a paranoia that has often gripped the country—that anyone could be a foreign infiltrator or, in the McCarthy era, a communist. They Live plays on the same sort of fear, replacing the fear of secret communist infiltrators with the secret and monstrous forces of greed and consumerism. The book series Animorphs from Australia features terrifying slug creatures that live in underground pools. These creatures, Yeerks, control the bodies of others by worming their way into their brains and mastermind a campaign of infiltration and control over the entire world. The fear that everyone around us is planning against us in someway—that there is a secret club ordering the world, for whatever purpose, is common. And perhaps comforting.

So, what to do with this notion in our story? The answer I think depends on how we approach the society. Is our character someone in a community, who is now learning the terrible secrets the community has and the things it does in the dark? Or are they new arrivals, and thus targets for induction into the cult? Or potential victims of it? We have to tread carefully here. Stories about secrets sometimes get lost in translation.

 

Bibliography

Goldwag, Arthur. Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illumanati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order, and Many Many More. Penguin Publishing, August 9th 2009.

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