Death Lights on the Marshland

This Week’s Prompt: 114. Death lights dancing over a salt marsh.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

Strange lights floating over wild places are well accounted for in Northern Europe and beyond—the dancing will-o-wisp or Ignis Fatuus is a rather common trope around the world. A number of countries ascribe their origins to the dead stuck wandering the world—they are in Sweden the dead who have left unfinished business, in Denmark they are spirits of unbaptized children seeking baptism by leading to water. In parts of England they are torches carried by lantern men or by the famed Robin Goodfellow. Stories of their origins however are varied.

One from England tells us of a man named Will who spent a life time of wickedness as a smith—yet when a traveler was in need of a new wheel for his cart, Will quickly repaired it. As luck would have it, the traveler was none other than Saint Peter, who granted any wish Will wanted. Will asked to live his life again and—instead of repenting—lived another life of debauchery and wickedness. Having now finished two lives of sin, he expected hell’s gates to open for him. But they were barred. The Devil told Will that, with his experience in sin, he would easily overcome the Devil were he let in. So he was sent back. Of course, such deeds barred him from Heaven as well—and so Will now wonders the world, with only an ember of Hell to keep him warm on the swamp lands.

A comparable tale—traveling Saint Peter, blacksmith given wishes, banned from Hell—comes from Thuringia, Germany. This time, Saint Peter granted him three boons—as long as he didn’t “forget the best”. The man asked for two magical powers, that none could enter his house without his permission except through the keyhole and that any who climbed his pear tree couldn’t come down without his permission. And for his third wish, rather than eternal happiness, he asked for a never ending bottle of schnapps that granted eternal youth. And with these, he trapped both Death and the Devil and lived happily. That is until all his neighbors and friends died. He then went to Heaven’s gates, but Saint Peter rejected him for not asking for the Best—that is, eternal happiness. This smith then dwells under the mountain with the Emperor, shoeing his knights until they return.

In Wales, a man named Sion Daffyd made a deal with the Devil, on the condition that if he could cling to something successfully the Devil could not take him. The Devil eventually came and seized him—but Sion begged he be allowed to taste an apple to wet his lips for hell. The Devil consented, and predictably Sion clung to the tree for dear life. The Devil relented. Heaven however still banned him, and so Sion became a fairy.

A similar Jack exists in Nova Scotia, Canada—perhaps unsurprising given the colonial origins. Here, notably, the Devil is the one to grant the wishes instead of Saint Peter. Still, the effect is the same—the devil is bound first to a spot, then up a tree, and then told to transport sand from one side of the counter to the other, one grain at a time. At last, he gives up in frustration and casts out the all to clever Jack.  He gives him a lantern to roam with, ever after.

In Cambridgeshire, in the Fens, there is a particular kind of will-o-wisp. This apparition appears to be a man on horseback, running and holding a lantern aloft. We can find also a strange fiend here called the Lantern Man. While it’s not specified that this particular marsh fiend glows, his name associates him with the other foolish lights. Hunters keep some distance from the creature, as whistling for dogs will attract him and the only way to escape his wrath is to lie face down and fill your mouth with mud so that the fiery fiend will pass you without incident.

In Nova Scotia, there are stories of strange balls of fire—flames of unknown origin, more often then just the dead. A man walking home once saw a rabbit on his foot, and when he kicked it, it erupted into painless fire. The man was then struck by an immense weight until he managed to get home.

The Lantern Man connects us to a more distant group of ominous fires. In Trinidad, we have a variant of the demon tree story, associated with local witches. These witches, as we mentioned here when discussing swamp creatures of Louisiana and the surrounding region, shed their skin at night to take the form of flying balls of light and gather blood for their patron held in a tree. Louisiana itself has another strange swamp creature, Nalusa Falaya whose young are said to resemble children and float glowing in the swamps to lead travelers astray. They manage to float by removing their innards, allowing them to be perverse balloons. The Nalusa Falaya’s face is so dreadful that, if seen, it will knock a grown man unconscious. And while they are fallen over, the fiendish shadowy creature will put a curse on them to spread to all they meet.  

The Choctaw also tell of the Hashok Okwa Hui’ga in traditional stories. This being can only be seen at night, and even then only its heart can be seen. It lives near swamps, and attempts to lure people astray. In order to avoid being trapped, one must look away immediately upon spotting the glow. Otherwise, you will wander in circles without end.

Back to Wales, we have another swamp light—a creature called the Ellylldan. This creature lives on the edges of swamps, and glows with light. As it passes, nearby swamp creatures grow silent—and its light fades as one approaches, reappearing brilliantly as one moves. Often these creatures dance in the marshes and put men to sleep, and at least one account claims they are the same as the Pooka. This creature appears often in stories, mischievous and cruel. For our purposes, he too carries a lantern and leads travelers astray—often to high cliffs, near rushing rivers, where they nearly fall in before he escapes laughing.

One note I came across that interests me about these lights is the gradual decline of the creatures, as bogs and swamps are drains. In Wales and Manx, the cultivated field of the farmer explicitly made the region difficult or impossible for the fires to survive in. They thus have something of a tragic quality, as their environment is consumed. In Cambridgeshire, an observer noted that the loss of the bog and the increase in light pollution meant there were less and less will-o-wisps seen these days. There is, perhaps, a metaphor for the retreat of magic from modernity in that image. The fools light was dangerous and mischievous, but perhaps missed in the current times.

But beyond that, the nature of these lights from European lore seems durable. They are alluring lights, often of dead men but not always, who strive to lure you away from your path and often to your doom. Many are nefarious, wicked creatures—some the remains of men so clever and wicked that even the devil himself couldn’t match them. They live in swamps and often traveled but uninhabited places, and are often knowledgable in some way. Very few stories, strangely, mention actual deaths resulting from the lights. They are a nuisance more than a menace, which means drawing horror from them might require some stretching and creativity.

I have excluded two other mysterious lights for now, as not being exactly, well, marsh related. One is St. Elmo’s fire, a sea born anomaly where parts of a ship appear to be aflame. More extreme and out of my normal study—although not too far out—is the appearance of lights as UFOs. Most famously, there are the Foo Fighters (ah, not the band) who were sighted by World War II bombing crews. The idea of fairy concepts being repurposed into alien imagery is not without precedent—there has been research and discussion of how alien abduction and changeling or other fae stealing stories are markedly similar in details and distribution.

The other thing is the phrase “death lights” and the alluring, transfixing nature reminds me of Stephen King’s It, where the Dead Lights preform a similar role. In It they are of course more malevolent, consuming forces instead of mere tricksters—they drive men mad and consume their soul! There is also one of the most famous lights in Lovecraft, that haunts a blasted heath—the Color Out of Space, which is dangerous to have contact with and behold.

Bibliography

Bushnell, David I. “Myths of the Louisiana Choctaw.” American Anthropologist, vol. 12, no. 4, 1910, pp. 526–535. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/659795. Accessed 7 July 2020.

Cashen, William. Manx Folklore. Published by Douglas Johnson, 1912.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.

Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. James R Osgood and Company, 1881.

Lives Well Lived

Before getting to this week’s story, I wanted to take a moment to address the recent events in the news. Police violence and systematic racism has resulted in the death and imprisonment of countless innocents, the destruction of properties and futures, and produced irrevocable damage. At the Undead Author Society, I try to mostly focus on folklore and horror stories, mentioning politics only when they intersect with the material. But it feels wrong not to say this clearly: Black Lives Matter. You can find links to donate at the end of the research, in place of our normal Patreon link.

This Week’s Prompt: 113. Biological-hereditary memories of other worlds and universes. Butler—God Known and Unk. p. 59.

The Resulting Story: The Lives of Sam Dedric

I do love when I get a precise page number from H.P. Lovecraft, it can narrow these quotations down immensely. The section in question by Butler posits that the memories of an entire species might be traced backwards from a single member—and that the memories may lead to apparently unrelated places. In the same way two leaves on a tree appear to have no relation, if we remove the branches and trunk, so too could worlds and creatures appear utterly distant without the fossils and time between them.

This notion ties into ideas that some in Lovecraft’s circle, and Lovecraft himself, professed interest in. In particular, the interest in past lives and memories of earlier forms of humanity owe a great deal to Theosophoy. The Lovecraft story this most reminded me of was one that was, in part, written by a Theosophist, Through the Gates of the Silver Key. In this story, Randolph Carter makes contact with a being outside of time and learns the entity and he are the same—the entity is the Supreme Archtype, of which Randolph is a mere facet. In recognition of Randolph’s accomplishments in earlier stories (I suspect particularly The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath). Randolph asks to visit another world that he has dreamed of recently, and the entity grants this wish, sending him into the body of an alien wizard. However, Randolph forgets his symbols and rituals that would allow him to return to normal. Instead,  he ends up trapped in the body of an alien wizard, detesting each other. Eventually, he does find a way to maintain power over the body and arrives back on earth to acquire the sigils and rituals, and disgusies himself as an Indian man to attend his own funeral. The results of the story I won’t spoil, but it is…interesting to say the least.

The idea here and in general lead me to a text I had in my collection for a long time but never actually sat down to read—a collection of stories about the past lives of the Buddha. I wasn’t able, of course, to read the book in it’s entirety in the week or so I had—I managed about a third of all the text. The concept of the text is that the Buddha is instructing others on life lessons, based on experiecenes he had in prior lives. These lives range from being born a merchant to a prince to an elephant and so forth. And some tell rather incredible stories.

A favorite of mine has a man who seems determined to not learn the value of money. He begins rich, and is on the verge of being rich enough to leave home when his mother sends him to a monastery. There, he spends a year listening to the master teach, but comes home none the wiser. His mother again tries to stop him from leaving—but the man strikes her dead and leaves on a trade vessel the next day. On his journeying, he comes across many wonders at sea. He comes across a series of fabulous palaces, inhabited with supernaturally beautiful maidens, and delights in their company until they fade away after a week or so. He arrives at last at the Ussada Hell, a place that to his deluded mine appears to be a great city. Walking through it’s streets, ignorant to the torment, he comes to a man city with a great wheel of blades cutting into his head. The man, the king of the city, also slew his mother and is relieved to see our merchant friend. The merchant mistakes the blades for a splendid crown—and demands an exchange. The king is happy to do so, even after warning the merchant. It is only when he dons the crown that the Merchant learns the truth and is struck with horror. He then meets the past life of the Buddha, who happened to be in town—and in a set of stanzas, the punishment is made clear to the man, who bemoans his folly.

Another story tells of a wise man who knew the seas well in his youth—yet the spray of salt made him blind. None the less, his hands remained perfect for knowing the nature of things—and so he could ascertain the history of a horse from a touch or an elephant from gracing his hand along it.  Eventually, he grew tired of his work for a king—which paid very little, and in fact was unfufilling. So a group of merchants hired him to guide them on their journey—for he alone was wise to all the seas. Over his protests, the blind man went with the merhcants. And a good thing too! For the merchants quickly found themselves ina  sea where the fish had the bodies of men and razor snouts, and lept out of the water to slay men who sailed near them.  The wise man knew that this ocean had diamonds on the floor—and if the told the merchants of this, they would sink the ship to get to the gems. So he advised they lighten their load, while tossing his own net behind and trawling up diamonds for himself. Soon they came to another ocean, one that blazed like the sun. The merchants were afraid, but the wise man gave them the correct advice and they again passed through—and the merchant grew richer, for this ocean had gold. Next was a sea of milk, full of silver, and a sea of grass full of emeralds. At last, however, they come to a sea they cannot cross—for here the sea churns into a whirlpool, the waves rising like walls around an endless abyss. The wise man steps forward then and, with an “Act of Truth”, transports them back home to where they began. Richer for the journey, it seems.

Leaving the oceans for a moment, we can find lives of the Buddha among the nobility in a few fantastic stories. In one, a man establishes a tradition of almsgiving , and for this his next life he becomes the king of the gods. For five generations, his children do the same—they become in turn the sun, the moon, the stars, the heavens, and so forth. At last, the sixth son ins greedy—and in fact tears down the almsgiving house and gains a reputation for being a nuisance. So the five incarnations descend, and take the form of beggars. They then go about testing their descendant, and find him wanting—and

Another story of family issues in incarnation deals with a man name Kamsa. This man is told that his sister’s son will in time destroy him, and so he seeks to lock her away—but alas, her maid servant allows a prince to visit her, and a child is conceived. The brother promises to kill him if he is a son, and the mother too—and so the gods ensure that the child is switched with the maid servants daughter. And so the ten sons are born to the maid servant, each with prostigous gifts. They became a nuisance, bringands the lot of them, and soon the king attempts to have them humbled and defeated by summoning a pair of wrestlers. The ten sons easily over power the wrestlers, and kill them—and the king, with a chakram. One wrestler, however, calls out that he will be reborn a “goblin” of the woods and devour the man who killed him.

The group of ten then go out to conquer all of India, running into difficulty only with a city that was inhabited by “goblins”. One “goblin” would take the form of an ass and wait near the city—seeing an invading army, he would bray. The “goblins” would then lift the city out to sea, and wait for the enemy to retreat before returning it. The ten brothers, in frustration, finally captured the donkey after determining from a teacher that it was the source. The donkey gave instructions for how to prevent the cities escape, and it was captured.

The brothers then divided the kingdom into 10 parts—one member declined his share and gave it to his sister. Here however the story gets…confusing for me to follow. We are told that people lived 10,000 years during this time—and certaintly, that is a common trait of previous epochs—but there is a reference to them dying and passing their throne down to their descendants, who engage in a cruel test of a wise man and kill him. And then are themselves killed by their parents.

In the end, the goblin of the woods and a hunter finish off the last of the sons, and only the daughter remains ruler of the world.

A later, sweeter story invokes past lives a bit differently. A brahmin’s son died young, and was reborn as one of the gods. The man went and paid tribute to his son every day at the graveyard. The son sees his mourning, and descends down—dressed nobly, but his identity obscured. He tells the brahmin that he has lost his chariot. The brahmin offers to make whatever chariot he needs, but the son asks for a chariot with the moon and sun as wheels—a request the Brahmin rejects as ridiculous, for such a thing can never be made. The son then admonishes his father, for wanting something impossible—to see a ghost or to have an immortal son. He reveals his identity and tells his father to make this an alms day.

Another peculiar story tells of how a man’s past life provided him with a weakness for the future. Two asectics lived in a village. A robber in town decided to hide in the house of an ascetic—the guards pursuing him determines that the ascetic is actually the robber in disguise. At the king’s command, he was to be staked in a cemetery. However, all the stakes that attempt to pierce the man break. Thinking over his past lives, the ascetic concludes that there was once a time he pierced a fly with an ebony stick and thus calls for a stake of ebony to pierce himself with. His fellow asectic comes to meet him, seeing him impaled. He is worried greatly, but the first ascetic tells him he has no ill will to him. None the less, the second ascetic remains at his side—even as the gore of the impaling stains his golden skin black.

Eventually, the king comes by to see that the ascetic is punished—and finds the second ascetic, who proves the first’s innocence. The king tried to have the stake removed, but it can’t be done. Instead, the stake is cut on either end, leaving the first ascetic with a peg in his chest.  This man latter goes forth to cure poisons with recitations, driving out snake venoms when they come into men and more. Here the past life memory not only explains circumstance, but is bodily marked.

These stories work best with past lives reconciling or reckoning with past affairs, past deeds, and guilt. A story of our kind deals with perhaps more extreme notions—the ideas of forgotten roots, forgotten parts of the human species or human family. Memories of lives before this one, ages before this one, worlds separated—worlds perhaps as fantastic as flying cities, palaces of jewels, seas of fire! A story I think would reckon with what these memories lead to. Do they reveal secret treasures? Lost knowledge? Lost people? Ideas and dreams forgotten in the haze?

Let us see, next week!

BIBLOGRAPHY

Butler, Samuel. God the known and God the unknown. London : A. C. Fifield, 1909. Accessed: https://archive.org/details/godknowngodunkno00butliala/page/60/mode/2up June 18, 2020.

Cowell, E.B. The Jataka or stories of the Buddha’s former births. Cambridge University Press, 1895-1913.

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Long Pig

This Weeks’ Prompt: 112. Man lives near graveyard—how does he live? Eats no food. 

The Following Story: Gerald Report

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Cannibalism. The answer is cannibalism. I mean, I suppose we could look into more esoteric explanations, about smuggling food in or feeding off vapors. We might even indulge in the idea that the man who lives near the graveyard is not a man at all—he is some spectre or spirit that is never seen eating because he does not eat. He is something numinous and otherworldly and frankly the simplest answer seems most fitting her. Cannibalism.

Cannibalism has a long history in folklore—I’ve discussed some of the creatures that live near or in graveyards to feed on the bodies interred within here, and the aswang here, and the witches sabbath here, and the nightmare here. I decided to go a bit further afield this time, to see what I could find that involved cannibalism, so today will be a survey of a number of stories and characters associated with cannibalism.

 One story that stuck out was from Swedish Finland, and recounted the fate of a poor girl who was lured into a cave or grotto by a band of robbers. The exact number of robbers varies from telling to telling, but she was married to all of them and forced to cook, clean, and bed them for nine years. Each year she gave birth to a child, and each year, the bandit king cooked and ate the child’s heart. After nine years, they came to trust the girl and sent her on some errand—however, she escaped and told the towns people, who had assumed she was dead.  They went and arrested the murderous robbers, and buried them alive in a nearby wall. The spot is marked with painted hearts, one for each child eaten. Many of the stories mention that the cannibalism was preformed to gain immortality or devilish powers, such as flight.

Ghoul 3

Among the Xam people of South Africa, we have other stories of cannibalistic monsters. One was ||khwai-hem, translated as “All Devouring”. The creature’s appetite was enormous, devouring sheep, then trees, then objects and finally people with a great firey tongue. It was so large it’s shadow resembled a cloud, and was so bloated it’s stomach reached to the ground. It was invited by one of the chief gods to take part in the bounty that resulted from the liberation of livestock. Another such creature from the Xam is the !nu!numma-!kwitƏn, a beast of prey who ate crying children.  While monstrous in appearance, these creatures were not human and thus not “cannibals” in the technical sense. However, their attributes—and the attributes of their more normal relatives, the lion and hyena—were attributed to European settlers by the Xam people during the colonization of West Africa. 

In Russia there are of course the famous cannibals, revenants and vampires. Often the result of sinful corpses buried in the earth, they are restless and may hunger for unwholesome meals. Interestingly, the dead being hungry is not limited to the monstrous—wholesome and clean dead may still be hungry and thirsty for their last forty days on earth. But the unclean dead long for terrible things—flesh, blood, clothes of children. Their monstrous forms can include long tongues that reach to the crown of the head, iron or steel teeth, and large heads. They might sharpen their teeth with a whetstone or grind them together rasping as they hunt their prey, and they caused poor weather near their remains. They in some ways resemble of course the nearby Balkan and Romanian vampires which we covered before–both in the possession of iron teeth and in the draining of vital energy and fluids from not only people but the landscape.  

Then there is of course the Arabic ghoul or ghul, a creature that may be a demon, a male genie, an enchantress,or any of the above depending on the tale. The creature lives in deserts, with cloven hoves and an ugly appereance, and seeks to lure travelers away from the road to murder and eat them. Sometimes this ghoul feared iron, and often needed to be dispatched with a sword to be done in. Many could shapeshift, and some had even more incredible powers—one common one was that a ghoul must be killed with one blow by a sword. Two and the ghoul would survive until one thousand more had been delivered. 

Ghoul 4

A Palestinian folktale has a young farm boy guarding his father’s flock after several sheep have gone missing. When on watch, he catches a ghoul stealing the sheep, and taking them to a nearby well. When he descends the well, he finds many beautiful women and swears at once to save them—striking the ghoul dead and ignoring its please for a second strike. Here the ghoul, like the weather stealing vampire, drains vitality from a region and stores it up elsewhere (see our writings on similar creatures on our Patreon here). Another tale tells how a group of women accepted milk offered by a ghoul, against their friends wishes—alas it was poisoned, and they all perished. 

 However, not every ghoul fed on human flesh. Some provide guidance for humans during their life to achieve their own ends, while others married and lived happily with mortals until they grew homesick. In this way they resemble vampire’s we have discussed earlier—and in fact, some blurring of the two is to be expected. One of the common traits associated with ghouls, that they dig up and devour corpses in graveyards (which I reported above) appears to be mostly an invention of the French translator of Arabian Nights and explains the confusion. Another paper places the confusion in Persia, where the ghoul is the shapeless monster of ruins who feeds on the dead, and is repelled with the name of the prophet–the closeness of this to the notions of the vampire makes me wonder which writer is confused.  The Persian ghoul faces and is defeated by the great heroes of the land, such as Rostam, a hero I must cover in detail some day.

By chance, this week I was reading on Tanith Lee’s Tales from a Flat Earth: Night’s Sorceries, which features  a city of such ghoulish delights. The city’s origins begin with the scheming of cruel vampire lovers in long forgotten tombs, cannibals that fed on the blood of the living and marrow of the dead. They are creatures that think themselves immortal from their cannibalism, and have gained superhuman strength and invulnerability to blades and fire from their feasting. Only their shadow remains vulnerable.  Their children possess even greater strength, and cunning power over the dead. I won’t spoil what becomes of this city of portioners, but it is a fate that is common to those who can only devour.

Ghoul2

Mr. Lovecraft himself presented ghouls in graveyards in a number of stories–most particularly, Pickman’s Model and Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Here we encounter ghouls as graveyard living creatures, very solid in nature, relatives of human kind. Relative enough that they are capable of changeling plots, and traveling between the Dreamlands and the waking world. They are canines as well, recalling the Bendanti who traveled to do battle with the devil as werewolves. 

That sort of grand pulp nightmare is a bit beyond the scope of this story, however. This reads more as a local oddity. In fact, such oddities do appear in British folklore and beyond murderous food stuffs. Dickens gives us reports of men being quietly murdered and baked into sausage, and another of Captain Murderer who resembles in no small part Bluebeard’s more cannibal forms, killing and devouring his wives. Cannibalism and those who feed on the dead are fine nightmarish creatures for a small story I think. We could approach this as an investigative and overly curious lead learning the truth of an otherwise normal but eccentric seeming neighbor. Or we can take the opposite approach than the sedate state suggested, and present the man in the cemetery as a proper ghoul–perhaps hunting for the last heart he needs to attain mystic powers.

Part of the nature of the ghoul, what makes the cannibalistic creature terrifying, is not just that it turns men into meat, flesh into food, but also that it is the spectre of death itself. Rare are ghouls who lurk in safe places–the haunt of caves where the underworld is close by, the graveyard full of corpses, the butcher shop where meat is ever present–all these are the calling cards of the ghoul. The man who tends to the graveyard, the undertaker, is something like this–a man who is familiar with the dead, yet is among the living. I think that familiarity breeds suspicion and distrust, something that might lead to uncomfortable questions if the man is in fact innocent for our tale.

How about you–what strange and terrible tales of cannibals have you heard?

 

Bibliography

Al-Rawi, Ahmed K. “The Arabic Ghoul and Its Western Transformation.” Folklore, vol. 120, no. 3, 2009, pp. 291–306. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40646532. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Lindow, John. “Kidnapping, Infanticide, Cannibalism: A Legend from Swedish Finland.” Western Folklore, vol. 57, no. 2/3, 1998, pp. 103–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500215. Accessed 27 May 2020.

McGranaghan, Mark. “’He Who Is a Devourer of Things’: Monstrosity and the Construction of Difference in |Xam Bushman Oral Literature.” Folklore, vol. 125, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43297730. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Urban Legends in The Pickwick Papers.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 96, no. 382, 1983, pp. 462–470. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/540985. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs Concerning the Unclean Dead and Drought, Within the Context of the Agricultural Year.” Folklore, vol. 122, no. 2, 2011, pp. 155–175. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41306584. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Ruins in Alabama

This Week’s Prompt: 111. Ancient ruin in Alabama swamp—voodoo.

The Resulting Story:  Bath Bombs and Abandoned Houses

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Here we have a number of topics that I want to try and plumb. We have first an ancient ruin in Alabama—which to me means something made by the First Nations of Alabama, including the Alabama tribe. Then there is the notion of voodoo brought up again—a topic which I will try and discuss where relevant to Alabama, but which I have done considerably more research on in Louisiana. And then we will attempt to synthesize the two forces with other folklore of Alabama, in order to produce a framework for a horror story next week. Needless to say, this may be more grounded then the horror of the Isle of Curses.

My first stop in research, after reframing around Alabama, was a work titled Popular Beliefs and Practices from Alabama. The notion of voodoo put in my mind to go the Supernatural section. I found only had one reference to voodoo by name—that one could chant the word “modi” at a child, to sap their strength—but a number of supposed practices that seemed similar to popular conceptions of voodoo (and perhaps were called such by Mr. Lovecraft—for more of Mr. Lovecraft’s own reasons for invoking voodoo, see my article here).

For instance, to reverse a hex, one might stick pins in an image of the hexer. One can keep the devil at bay by putting on shoes in the right order. Those born with a caul can see what the author calls “hants”, which seem to merely be a local term for ghosts or “haunts”. Or one can lay jars of nails and urine down to prevent hexes, or grains to keep the devil at bay—these last two remind me of many traditional wards against devils, fae, and night hags. Likewise, with horseshoes or wearing clothes inside out. I admit, scattering red ants to keep away witches is a unique and interesting idea.

Horseshoes

The fire place seems to also be a source of witchcraft in the text—letting fires run long help keeps witches away, and if you wish to find the witch, there is a rather simple ritual to work. Remove each brick of the fire place, repeating the names of suspected witches. When you are done, bury water among the ashes and wait. The first of the named who calls you is clearly the witch.  Placing water bottles in the fireplace or green trees on the chimney keep them at bay as well.  The other ritual for removing witches is to take a piece of wood that’s been heated (a fire place connection again) and connect it to a picture of the witch, and then shoot it with a silver bullet.

The section on the magic is arguably more horrific—a number of rituals make use of black cat’s bones, acquired by murdering the cat and boiling it to get access to the bones. In one case, by running the bones through your teeth, you can find a bone to turn invisible. You can also wear these bones, to gain either good fortune or the powers of a magician. By killing a salamander or lizard in a bucket with the image of a person you can give them a rash, and if you manage to bury a snapshot of the person, they will perish. One could take a crow, cut them open, remove their innards, sew them back up to detect a witch. Anyone who, seeing the body on the road, looked at it curiously was a witch.

Curiously, the only animal use that is not abused is if you suckle on a sow—you might learn to see the wind that way. What this means isn’t elaborated on in the notes. I presume to see the wind is to see the world invisible. One creature I found…interesting was a large insect responsible for sleep—by beating its wings, it set out fairies, who in turn beat their small on the brows of those who ought to rest. I wonder if such fae creatures are allergic to coffee…None the less, a giant insect that is responsible for all sleep in the world, living in the woods, is a tad horrific and wonderous.

Moving on from these practices, we can look into stories of the Alabama people. These stories were collected long after contact with the first settlers of course, and bear clear signs of that (references to fire arms and bullets and so on). The nature of the collection means I’m not entirely certain of their veracity. One of the more interesting stories was of the Bear People. A bear stopped a man traveling in the woods, and asked how many people lived in his village. The man told him. The bear said he would kill everyone who lived in the village if they did not put up a white skin, or in one version, move across to the other side of a river. One story suggests the cause of this violence was a man killing a large white bear that was the chief of the bear people—another seems to make it arbitrary. Some people listen to the man, while others do not. The bears come, and murder all who did not listen, despite their fire arms—a veritable horror scene of bears upon bears, cubs and elders.

Bear Wrestling

Another story details the origin of deer. The first dear was a fawn. It was at first guarded by wild cats…but the wild cats ate it. Then it was guarded by a wolf. And the wolf ate it. Then it was guarded by Panther…and the Panther ate it.  And each time it was revived, until finally, it is guarded by “Bird-that-sits-on-deer”, which eats ticks and flies off from the deer every now and then. At last, as the deer grows big, the bird flies off for winter. When it returns, the deer is gone.

The people then gather to find it, and eventually the wise members of the community determine it is in the south. Then they form many ranks to hunt the deer, and summoned it with a cauldron and song. The deer’s approach shook the earth like a railroad. The men stood ready with arrows, with ghosts behind them, and behind them panthers, and behind them wolves, and behind them at last the wild cats. As the great deer approached, the wildcats fled. The arrows and ghosts proved useless, but the panthers and wolves killed it, with the wildcats ripping out its throat.  Each hair that falls from the beast as humans cut it to pieces becomes a deer, and runs off.  The image of this…wave of deer is also almost terrifying. A great progenitor beast that releases miniature versions of its kin out into the world.

There is a large reptile that is worth mentioning—despite the description, the foot note says it appears as a scorpion with a red mouth. The creature lives in a tree, and is disturbed when a group of hunters start a fire in its hollow, looking for a bear. It chases down the hunters, one by one—and one by one, they grow weaker and are devoured. One man survived by diving into the river, where the lizard could not see him. He later returned with some Shawnee to kill the creature—and they made the land boggy to trap it, killed it with axes, and then put tobacco in its mouth to prevent its return.

There are other stories, but the collection seems to dwell on animal fables that are not…relevant in my opinion for horror stories. We also have stories from voodoo—the most interesting to me was the notion of the zombi, as a man robbed of their wits or soul, and forced to preform labor for another. The victims were often believed to be the homeless or those who deviated from society, although research on the matter can quiet obviously be difficult to acquire. Most of my research was also focused on Louisiana not Alabama, and thus the applicability is…questionable. Still, the banality of having a zombi to man your shop was and has been interesting to me. As more than one person has observed, the fear of the zombi in the New World is that even death is not an escape from subjugation, and the notions I found in the article of entire secret plantations of zombis were horrifying.

With that in mind, what can we make of this? What ancient ruin can we find, that has some voodoo connection?

The obvious answer to Lovecraft I suspect would be to invent a city or settlement of the Alabama or other First Nations of the area (I did not have time to dig into each historically, the Alabama had towns as did many other groups in the Southeast). Or to make some almost pre-human settlement, where dark magics were prevalent. But that seems…hm. Uncomfortable to approach. A more recent ruin, like the plantations that were so fearful of voodoo might be better, but runs into the problem that we had earlier from two weeks ago. Perhaps a ruined house that was were adherents of these traditions lived…we might elide the issue of race in this story by making them white but…hm. Well. It is a puzzle, one I’m sure we can solve. I feel this is a story that is easily grounded. One notion I have is to place this story in the civil war, with a ruin found by Union troops in Alabama—but that would require more investigation into that part of the war.

What do you think could be done here?

Bibliography

Swanton, John R. Myths and Tales of Southeastern Indians. Washington, US government print office, 1929.

Browne, Ray B. Popular Beliefs and Practices from Alabama. University of California, Berkley press, 1958

Ackermann, Hans-W.; Gauthier, Jeanine . “The Ways and Nature of the Zombi”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (American Folklore Society, Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494

 

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Taboos and Makutu

This Week’s Prompt: 110. Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.

The Resulting Story: The Island of Curses

 

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For this week’s research, I decided to try and examine things as locally as I could—albeit I misremembered this prompt as specifying Polynesian, when it only says Pacific. Still, a vast region to examine, and one where zooming in on a specific culture can be greatly beneficial. This prompt to me seems clearly one of the many that lead to the Call of Cthulhu—although in this case, the Cyclopean Ruins are the center of the cult, and are there all year round instead of rising and falling into the ocean. To supply some ideas and inspiration on the matter, I decided to look into witchcraft and sorcery of the region.

Witchcraft and sorcery are topics that often have broad similarities across the world, and thus it is in the details that things grow interesting.  In the reports I have, witchcraft is again associated with lower class and elderly, often the feeling of envy. Shamans and traditionally knowledgeable members of the community also faced witchcraft accusations—although colonial authorities justified the criminalization of such acts not because of feared harm of witchcraft itself, but the belief that traditional medicine was leading to neglect and death in the communities who had few alternatives.

The sources I stumbled upon were focused on Maori descriptions of witchcraft, specifically makutu. Makutu is a form of magic that takes many familiar forms—often it is employed by those who have been wronged against others. One thing of particular note is that the practitioners of makutu can pass down these powers to others through objects—and that in some cases, secret societies are rumored to form around these objects and their usage. The topic is not one commonly discussed, by all accounts, meaning my most common sources were either old or very specific.

But more to our interest, is a report by one S. Percy Smith. Here we are told that the origins of witch craft—the various forms of which include death dealing lizards, gods of withering flesh, and more from the power (mana) of Miru. These powers included the ability to send invisible bullets with the tip of the tongue, the power to render objects and water sources taboo, and to render environments taboo. Those who drank from the waters made taboo or trespassed on islands were attacked by horrific sea monsters called taniwha. The natures of these creatures is unclear to me, although a connection to sharks was mentioned in one article. Some witchcraft could be passed on in taboo places, others were unable to be passed one at all.

Taniwha A

An artist rendition of a taniwha, which looks more lizard like.

A separate source claimed that the origin of witchcraft was with a defeated god, Tane, who wished to keep his mother and father close together and the world forever darkness. In order to wreck revenge on the world, he created all the ills of the world—he in a way poisoned it to make it inhospitable to human beings. He taught, as one of these efforts, witchcraft which is among the worst dangers.

Those who practice these spells do so with a proper incantation, and then let an invisible bullet fly from their tongue. Their victims die, sometimes in gruesome shriveling ways as their arms shrink or wither away. Sometimes in more sudden ways, as if quite literally shot. Afterwards, that it was a wise man who did so is apparent, although which isn’t for sometime.

But makutu is not limited to murder or invisible bullets. Envious sorcerers who are rejected by women may drive them mad in response. These women would tear their garments and go naked, able to see the sorcerer’s spirit and describe it to others. Other victims of sorcery could see the sorcerer in wicked dreams, and recognize him. I wonder if this had the effect of spreading dread, or dooming the sorcerer’s endeavors.

Taniwha B

A sculpture of a taniwha, from the side.

Objects could also work sorcery—particularly carved objects of stone or wood. A sorcerer might attack someone with a gift, which if not returned within five years, will cause untold suffering. Objects stolen from a sorcerer likewise attract the ire of a sorcerer, who may send the taniwha to retrieve it and murder the thief.  Carved stones and objects can be rendered taboo—and in some cases, those marker stones from ancient times have truly terrifying creatures guarding them. For this reason, these stones are left unmoved, least the creatures beneath murder those who would move them. Many of ancient places left such terrible wards behind according to an informant, infecting the whole world with wickedness that even plants might bight back against a man who picked them.

Perhaps the most destructive use of this sort of magic is when a sorcerer wants to kill a community. He first must find the ceremonial center of the community. By burying a prepared piece of wood in the ground here where none saw him, a makutu practitioner can murder an entire people if not stopped. Those first affected dream of the cause, and if they alert a healer, the object can be dug up and swallowed.  Those first afflicted will still die, but the community as a whole will live.

Other reports indicate that a star appearing visible during the day has been sent by a sorcerer to curse a victim. Some sorcerers instead dispatch the less visible bird to make their ill will known. In either case, reciting a proper prayer can reverse the harm, sending the doom back to the sorcerer.

Some of these are easily stopped—the use of lizard gods to cause illness, for instance, is relatively easy to end for priests who specialize in such matters. And charms to keep sorcery at bay are common knowledge for many. But others are more direct and harder to stop, moving to quickly to be caught.

Even death may not end these torments. Reports from the 1950s indicate that some practitioners could pass on their skills and talents, or even that such dead practioners still rode the wind. Whether these are exaggerations of practice or not is hard to say—the documentation reminds me of claims of witch practices in the countryside, and the language of the documentation is…of its time.

Location Ryleh

For those wondering where Lovecraft’s pacific island was, here are approximate locations of Ryleh.

So where does that leave us for this prompt? I think there’s something very interesting about the assertion of a house from which all evil things originate—one source even said that the first people to bring these powers into the world sacrificed one of their own to keep the powers permanent—that is considered by all taboo. The idea of ancient stones and places that are filled with something like a poison is fascinating.

The other notion that strikes me is the passing down of powers through generations to endow mastery and greater powers beyond. The writer of that section suggested the stories came from or were related to the old testament stories of Elijah and Elisha—and that may be the case. But for a narrative that traces itself back to a truly ancient time (antediluvian being before the great deluge that wiped the world clean), such notions of continuity are important. Which brings us round to what sort of narrative we are working with here.

We are given here a location more than a narration. The Cthulhu story has this strange island rising, and being stumbled upon by nearby sailors who interrupt the waking creature by ramming it. Yet, I don’t think I want to repeat that particular idea of just ‘stumbling across’ such a hidden and dangerous place. One idea is following someone to their first meeting of a horrific conspiracy—or perhaps being dragged back there, in a case of mistaken (or misplaced) identity by someone fleeing the conspiracy. The idea of vengeance or having wrong the witch or sorcerer in question is a common one that I think could also play into the idea. The question at the root then is what is the horror about: Being inducted into this conspiracy or being the victim of it, when one is dragged to this island of horror where even the trees try to bite at anyone who sets foot on them?

 

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Bibliography

Palmer, G. Blake. “TOHUNGAISM AND MAKUTU: Some Beliefs and Practices of the Present Day Maori”. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 63, No. 2 (June, 1954), pp. 147-163

Voyce, Malcom, “Maori Healers in New Zealand: The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907”. Oceania, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Dec., 1989), pp. 99-123

Smith, S. Percy. “The Evils of Makutu, or Witchcraft.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol 30, No. 119 (1921).  Accessed here: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document//Volume_30_1921/Volume_30%2C_No._119/The_Evils_of_Makutu%2C_or_witchcraft%2C_by_S._Percy_Smith%2C_p_172-184/p1

A Difficult Conversation

This Week’s Prompts:

  1. Educated m***tto seeks to displace personality of white man and occupy his body.
  2. Ancient n***o voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.

There is no Forthcoming story.

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Nothing is more essential to someone than their identity, a sense of self. Second, however, to a sense of self is a sense of community—both in time and in space. From community often but not always comes identity. It is thus no surprise than when understandings of self are threatened, many resort to their understanding of community, imagined or real, temporal or spatial. If these were secure communities, or places that were imagined more than real, there is a strong impulse to ensure they are authentic. That they are unchanged from what was once the font of identity. Sometimes this manifests in a want for fundamental restoration, other times as a culture of purity, other times as seeking real and living members of that community. There is a strong desire to return to apparent roots, even if they are buried deep in the ground and architecture. It is this want that animates the prompts above. It is also that want for community and identity in the face of oppressive adversity that gave Vodou in the Americas its power. It is a want that mobilized nationalizing forces in the Balkans cities, and a want that mobilized African Americans to enter into traditions of West Africa in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. It is a want that leads back to roots, and sometimes growth, sometimes death.

I have dreaded these two prompts since I began this blog. I hoped when I started out that by the time I got to them, I’d have some interesting or compelling piece to write. And what I’ve concluded…well, I’ll save that for the end. Today, lets talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft, folklore, “voodoo” narratives of the 1920s and 1930s, and more. It’s going to be a long ride.

We will start with a discussion of Lovecraft’s relationship with folklore and folk culture. These will be more relevant to his approach to stories, and in particular some…connective tissue I see between Lovecraft and Voodoo that the man himself wouldn’t want acknowledged. And frankly, this is a discussion needed for a blog like mine, where folklore is almost more common than horror these days.

Lovecraft was as much anti-modern as anything else. A member of his local historical preservation society, an avid investigator in architecture when he traveled, fascinated by linguistic changes and traditional forms,  Lovecraft had a love of regional culture and history. Not only was he invested in the preservation of art forms and traditions, he was interested in their evolution over time. He commented critically on many revival efforts that merely brought back architectural features, not expanding on fundamentals. Mr. Lovecraft once criticized this as restoring a land that never was, an idealistic copy instead of a continuation. His interest in folklore often appeared in his stories—by using architectural features or local folklore of places he visited, he felt he helped ground his stories. His interest in a fluid form of storytelling and connectivity is why the Mythos has become a Mythos and not merely a small story off in the corner. This interest in participation in a greater story, a temporally if not spatially, appears as a source of fear and motivation in many of his works.

This interest in regional purity, of course, leads us back to Lovecraft’s racism. It is an uncontroversial and increasingly commonly known fact that Howard was racist, and racist to a degree that was shocking for his time. Howard’s fear, manifest in New York most prominently, was that the mixing of diverse and regional groups would lead to the dissolution of culture, tradition, continuity, and thus meaning. “Impurity” was, to Howard’s mind, synonymous with death.  And this of course also meant a fear of miscegenation, a fear of the other ‘infiltrating’ or ‘decaying’ the culture of an area. There are a number of stories that Mr. Lovecraft wrote that focused on this fear—where immigrants entered into an area and brought about “decay”. That Mr. Lovecraft for the most part did not perceive the value in syncretism or co-habitation and growth in a more fluid line speaks to some understandings of folklore—ones that around his time also strove, for instance, in the Balkans to demarcate the exact origins and national character of peoples under Ottoman rule.  Purity and traditionalism, especially in identity building, are common bedfellows.

One of the clearest examples, and most relevant to this prompt, is the swamp-cult in Call of Cthulhu. Here we witness a scene that must have haunted Lovecraft: a swamp ceremony, with wild dances around a strange object, where all sorts of peoples mix and mingle with death and passion. To the puritanical and chaste Lovecraft, this entire event is an abomination. The end of this encounter is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of violence by the white police department to put a stop to the child murdering cult, who’s conspiracy spread all over the world through distant dreams. It is the violent destruction of another terrible conspiracy that Lovecraft feared in large cities—we can examine Red Hook for a similar fear, including the strange immigrants and child murder.

This scene draws, I don’t doubt, from reports of Voodoo in Louisiana by journalists across the country. The emphasis on violence to women and children is a tell tale mark, as is the police raid and the dancing. These stories and articles were common during the Reconstruction all the way through the 1960s.  If you check the bibliography, you will find my sources are much more recent than normal. I have a tendency to rely on older works, especially folklore collections in the public domain or available through college libraries. This means many sources are from the 1800s to 1900s—although on many topics I will find more modern research (particularly if older sources have…suspect concepts or phrases), I don’t have the funds to purchase more recent collections of folktales. Such writings exist on Voodoo in Louisiana in abundance, but I consulted only two and cite none below. This is because writings from that period are, while telling and relevant for understanding these prompts, gross exaggerations to say the least.

These reports describe orgies, cannibalism, violence and human sacrifice, and other efforts to construct an image of blackness that is innately dangerous and primitive and infectious. Fear of miscegenation is clear with the many references of white women in particular being endangered—white men are rarely mentioned, and portrayed universally as low brow laborers. The image then becomes one of fear that white women will be stolen and children being murdered[1], and that the mixing of races is something that only occurs (if at all) among lower orders of society, who are too primitive to be considered.

But why?

To answer that question, we have to first answer what is Voodoo. In Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo:

 (a) Usually spelled V-o-d-u-n, it refers to the traditional religion of the Fon and Ewe people residing in today’s Republic of Benin, the former kingdom of Dahomey, West Africa; (b) spelled Vodou, it is the popular syncretic Afro-Creole religion of Haiti; (c) commonly spelled Voodoo (in the 19th century usually spelled Voudou), it addresses the Afro-Creole counterculture religion of southern Louisiana; (d) but as mentioned above, Voodoo is also the common term in American English for any African-derived magical or religious beliefs and practices, often associated with black magic and witchcraft.

Of these, b is the most common—and derives in part from a. The Vodun belief system of the Yoruba featured a number of divinities that had patron cities on the West coast of Africa. These divinities arrived in the Americas by way of the slave trade, often bought after being captured in war. These primarily came to Cuba. Vodou, as practiced in Haiti however, was not just the Vodun system of the Yoruba—in fact, in the 18th century, slaves from Yoruba were a minority. Instead, the Haitian system featured beliefs from the Kongo and the Yoruba’s often times enemies the Dahomey. The Kongo divinities often influenced Petwo. The Petwo include some particularly famous staples of Voodoo imagery—Baron Samedi (Baron Saturday) is the ultimate divinity of this court of the dead. Yoruba divinities, such as Legba-Elebga, appear with some frequency. Papa Legba stands as the ultimate spirit of the threshold, while Ogun (the lord of iron, blacksmiths, and warriors) becomes Papa Ogou and has his own cluster of smaller spirits.

There was a time when Haitian Vodou was considered the sole ancestor of Louisiana Voodoo, and a more spiritual form at that—antebellum New Orleans being more hostile than Haiti to the practice. However, recent work suggests Louisiana Voodoo had it’s own practices that evolved separately from Haiti’s, coming from neither Yoruba nor Dahomey sources but instead from the Kongo and Senegal basin. This resulted in comparable rites, but very different spirits. La Grand Zombi served here as the chief deity—the word zombi here not being the walking corpse, but rather a derivation from the word Kikongo nzambi (God, a term used in Bible translations). St. Anthony of Padua was also prominent—many of the enslaved already being Roman Catholic, and thus fond of the patron saint of the Kongo. St. Anthony is a common in other Yoruba traditions, especially associated with Legba. However, in Louisiana, Legba can be found as the only definite Yoruba divinity under the name Papa Laba and is associated with Saint Peter.

Haitian Vodou does have a more concrete connection to American Voodoo literature, however, than as origin. Haitian Vodou is often viewed as instrumental, by both detractors and proponents, to slaves in Haiti successfully overthrowing the existing plantation system there. This revolt, that defeated Napoleon’s armies, resulted in the Emperor of France selling Louisiana and other territories to Jefferson for an extremely low price. The fear of a similar revolt likewise informed antebellum Southern views of Voodoo—and in the post-war climate of New Orleans, fear that Voodoo and emancipation would permanently cast-off white male control of the country and the economy. The reports I mentioned earlier provided shocking imagery of what such a loss of control would mean—they painted an image of blackness as bestial and primitive, in order to define and justify white supremacy. These fears took on a sexualized nature in the post-war articles, instead of the more common police raid and political fears before. Hatian Vodou was an existential threat to the plantation way of life and understanding, for it granted power to slaves who many plantation owners believed were made powerless by God.

Voodoo was also, in Louisiana, a religion lead by women. The fear of a loss of control over women—particularly white women—was present in many of the reports that placed otherwise respectable women as bewitched or lured by passions into what was presented as primitive savagery. The role of these reports was then not only a violent assertion of white supremacy—and it was violent, playing into or advocating reprisals against imagined slights—but also of patriarchy. That women would leave the roles of society—even, perhaps especially, respectable women of class and means—was unacceptable. In a society focused on blood and purity, lest we forget the one drop rule that was common, loss of control of women was loss of control of the future.

Voodoo’s threat to the status quo then was granting the subaltern power and the ability to change the world, and by undermining the social structures of the existing governing bodies. As one writer put it “These religious practices and beliefs have provided practitioners with a way to ideologically order the world, negotiate bondage and exile, communicate with gods and ancestors, protect themselves and loved ones, solicit revenge or financial success, pro mote illness or recovery, influence love and desire, and challenge the exercise of white power in and over their lives.” As the modern state emerged in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, control over the populace—over the body and the future—was the growing preoccupation of culture. By the state, I do not mean just the overt functions of government. I mean the entire apparatus of social control. Vodou served a useful purpose, a subaltern group that could be kept at a distance and provide a definition of the community while at the same time justifying the expansion of state apparatuses. Stories of Voodoo provided justification for legal and violent assaults on African communities, in an effort to stamp out the emerging progressive movement.

One of the  articles I read while preparing this piece, however, drew me to a notion about Voodoo that I was unfamiliar with—the revival movement in the 70s and 80s, where a number of African Americans sought to reconnect with their roots in Africa to repair the damage of 500 years of active oppression. The logic and prospects are the same, on one level—Voodoo and traditional African religion provides a way to reconnect with an intentionally suppressed culture. These individuals rightly believed that securing political rights with the Civil Rights movement was not the same as achieving true equality, as their own cultural signifiers and traditions were not equal to the hegemonic white Christian ones. This scholarship that searched for meaning was often multi-layered—individuals would be initiated into multiple traditions, some in the Americas, some (finances permitting) in Africa. This was a search for a community and identity that was separate from the oppressive hegemony—one that was truly the members, that was authentic.

This search for self, for meaning and a sense of place in the world outside the current one, fascinates me in this context, because in a strange way it seems an echo of Lovecraft’s historical preservationist leanings. Now, let me be clear: the source of these anxieties is wildly different in scale. Lovecraft was not an oppressed minority, nor had he suffered centuries of deliberate cultural erasure. But nonetheless, part of his anxieties was the feeling that his regional identity was decaying—on the one hand, yes, by immigration but on the other hand by means of corporate expansionism and modernity. A modernity that sought to form a single hegemonic identity of “whiteness”, at the expensive of regional cultures and communities. One that to this day has such a dominance over popular imagination that it has to be combatted in the streets, where people very much like Lovecraft—who fear change and loss of place, and who have been socialized to blame the Other for their failings—persist in an almost pathetic way.

Lovecraft’s anxieties lead him to focus on purity and xenophobia, but it was an anxiety that worried about the fate later African Americans confronted—of having one’s own context stripped from them. In a way, Lovecraft was also looking for roots that he felt were dying. They resemble, to me, the movements in the Balkans towards nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century—which sought a romantic and essential character to the regions, that could be revived and made pure and bring about a new dignity. These found resistance in country sides, often to their confusion. Nationalists from the cities bemoaned the lack of existing national pride in their communities. Given the involvement of such romantics in folklore studies, this comparison is unlikely novel, but the result of such investigations and promotions are far less positive than elsewhere I feel. I wonder if the response of purity seeking, as opposed to seeking a plurality of traditions, is what leads to nationalist responses and dreadful results.

I’ve been told on a few occasions that Cosmic Horror is truly a horror only possessed by privileged people. The argument goes that there is, for the oppressed, nothing revelatory about being told you are insignificant. That the fear of lack-of-power or relevance is one that only matters to those who are a part of the hegemony. For those already oppressed, there is nothing strange or even unusual about a hostile world order trying to extinguish you, unrelenting and uncaring in its malice. There is truth to that—but at the same time, I do wonder if the idea of death of meaning, the death of even artificial meaning in the face of either time or active suppression and opposition, doesn’t cross that divide. Cosmic Horror I think is overly typified as “the fear of being dwarfed by the Other”. That the terror is only the scale of Cthulhu, the sheer size of the cosmos. I’ve suggested elsewhere that Lovecraft’s fiction is better typified as “the fear of being consumed/assimilated by the Other”. That other often takes the form of the past, of superstition, of the foreign, of the novel, of the alien and the vast. The story that is in a way most typical is not the story of the rising elder god at sea—rather, it is of the slow change by foreign customs, it is the gradual transformation into something accursed in your family home, it is to look into a mirror and see that you are a monster. It is more Pickman’s Model and Shadows Over Innsmouth than it is Cthulhu. I think in these contexts, to paraphrase H.Bomberguy on a similar topic, the marginalized and oppressed do see that uncaring and hostile cosmos Lovecraft could only attempt to describe.

While reading these articles, I was reminded of a recurring thought I’ve seen online—the struggle for young white men to find a cultural identity that is divorced from white supremacy. The period in which Voodoo was demonized also actively, particularly in the 20th century, sought to erase the regional and cultural differences among white American’s to create a single racial block that could enforce hegemony. This hegemony has cracked over time, as it always does. And as it cracks, those who’s culture was hegemony in large part—who’s identity was tied very strongly to the old order, or  It is little surprise then, that young white men (particularly but not exclusively well off) resort to fascism when they feel their status is threatened—and that those same demographics sometimes feel crises of identity when they move towards more progressive stances, attempting to reject the social order and system they were socialized in. While again, not nearly on the scale of African American cultural erasure and suppression, there have been suggestions to follow the example of “returning to roots”—of going back to the cultural forms that the Modernist and related movements erased in order to support empire. To correct the decay Lovecraft’s…shall we say regressive mind did understand. We can see this in a variety of places—some see it in neo-pagan revival movements, others in genetic testing and genealogy services, others in historical preservation.

These suggestions, to be personal for a moment, have never sat well with me. They feel…insincere at times. Or perhaps overly optimistic about the failures of Modernism. To me, the erasure has always seemed far more complete than supposed. I am fortunate to know a good deal about my family history, and to have had a few brief visits to places my family is ‘from’. Yet I would hesitate to describe myself beyond “White American”. I haven’t ever felt the pangs that some have described to me, where there is an emptiness that needs to be filled. I suspect a better solution lies in the other end of Lovecraft—perhaps we need not just a return to roots, but an attempt to create a new tradition, a new meaning when one has been lost.

These thoughts slosh around my head as I sit here, thinking on the prompts. I have spent over three years now working on prompts, knowing these were hanging over my head. I have written over two hundred thousand words on these prompts, and we are only this year approaching the half way point. I’ve already discussed twice now Lovecraft’s racism, his crippling hatred of the poor, of the immigrant, of the modern. There are other personages that people draw inspiration from, who are frankly disgusting people. Sometimes in their personal lives, sometimes professionally. To take a simple example, Aristotle’s feelings on women are well known, Plato’s totalitarian leanings more so, Carl Jung has a history of right wing disciples.

For all that, there is something different about Lovecraft. Lovecraft is…well, apart from terrible in the ways that have been publicly and privately demarcated, he isn’t exactly good. His writing is often overly verbose, many of his stories—fantastic or horrific—avoid character growth or dialogue, his structure is antiquated. It is clear, as one author suggested, that Lovecraft is more comfortable with buildings than persons. I did once aspire to write like Lovecraft, but why? Certainly I’ve stopped trying to imitate his prose, his format, and to an extent even his mythos—or at least the form as it currently exists, in some cases far to systematized.

Perhaps why I’m still writing about Lovecraft’s prompts is that want of tradition—that his stories, and the stories that are around him ‘feel’ like mine. They feel more like my experience of the world than most folk stories I do read—a world that is at times hostile, uncaring, and increasingly doomed by forces I cannot control and can barely fathom. Perhaps Lovecraft’s great trick, of seeding other stories with his own works to give the appearance of a folk tradition, work in his favor. Writing in ‘the Mythos’ feels like writing in something much larger than one story, in a way that is increasingly hard with corporate control over media and independent works. Perhaps it was the sense of discovery and exploration, of finding and learning and glimpsing the illusion of a greater story. The idea that there was this vast, barely seen thing full of wonder.  Something vast, terrible, and immortal. Something infectious, in away—something that, to make contact with would move one beyond the mortal world.

Please pardon me, if my words have become absurd. Back to the topic at hand.

In this case, however, I have to draw a line. The prompts, it is…transparent that these prompts embody all the worst fears of the Voodoo reports. The fear of white supremacy being overthrown, the fear of loss of control and power, specifically by supernatural means (the same supernatural that overthrew white supremacy in Haiti). I could write a research article on similar tropes in folklore—but these would be more revisions of a racist fear, simply in older clothes. Exchanging these prompts to discuss stories of Romani shape shifters or the like would not exactly be more tactful or appropriate, and I try to avoid feeding into tropes such as these.

While I have notions on how to write stories like this in an acceptable way—one could write a story, for instance, where the horror is discovering the true horrors of the replaced white man’s deeds, or something—they would by their nature be stories about race. And while, perhaps one day I’d feel confident in writing such a story…Not in a week. Not in three weeks, not in a month, not in a season. That is a topic that I would have to practice considerable more editing, sensitivity reading, and more before I attempted.  So, no story this week, I’m afraid. I can recommend (from the first 100 pages), for those interested, the book Lovecraft Country, for an examination of Cosmic Horror and race. I have heard good things about Winters Tide but have not made it far into the book. There is, I believe, a wealth of literature on the topic that delves deeper into some of Lovecraft’s character—I did not have the time or ability to read multiple biographies, letters, and more that would be required for this article, even with the extended deadline.

We will revisit some voodoo/vodou/Vodun practices later, in a month when we come to a…slightly less racially charged prompt. Next time, we continue an examination of cosmic horror—this time the idea of a vast witch conspiracy centered in Polynesia.

Yes, no political issues that might be related to a global conspiracy of witches. None.

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Bibliography

Evans, Timothy H. “A Last Defense against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft”. Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan. – Apr., 2005), pp. 99-135. Published by Indiana University Press.

Fandrich, Ina J. “Yorùbá Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo”. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, No. 5 (May., 2007), pp. 775-791 Published by Sage Publications, Inc.

Gordon, Michelle Y. “ “Midnight Scenes and Orgies”: Public Narratives of Voodoo in New Orleans and NineteenthCentury Discourses of White Supremacy” American Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 767-786. Published by John Hopkins University.

Mazower, Mark. The Balkan: A Short History. Modern Library 2002

 

 

[1] It is impossible to observe these obsessions and not consider the now infamous “14 words” common among white supremacists and fascists, as well as the Qanon and Pizzagate conspiracies. Somethings, it seems, do not change.

In The Walls

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

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

This research in part brought to you by our patrons on Pateron

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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