The Root of the Mountain

This Week’s Prompt: 70. Tone of extreme phantasy. Man transformed to island or mountain.

The Resulting Story: Forthcoming!

The creation of a mountain or island or even the world from a single person or creatures is far from new. We discussed last year the tradition of murder at the dawn of time—of great primeval crocodiles and serpents and monsters of the sea that oppose sky gods and are murdered for it. Among these many beasts, there are a handful that in turn are laid out to form the foundation of the world—a testament to their size and to their importance in the world.

Tiamat

Marduk fighting Tiamat

The first example of such a creature we will discuss is the most malicious. Tiamat is a vast mother goddess, the primordial salt water sea that rages at the death of her husband the freshwater sea. In her war with her grand children she :

Made in addition weapons invincible; she spawned monster-serpents,

Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;

With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.

Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,

With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.

Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,

Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.

She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu,

And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men,

And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams;

They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.

Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;

After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven [kinds of] monsters.

Her exalted commander, Kingu, bore the Tablets of Destiny and power over all the gods! Tiamat’s shape is hard to say. While moderns may think of her as a great dragon, she appears in some cases more like a cow with great udders, and certainly odder then most reptiles with her lips. Each portion of her is divided up to make the cosmos—the sky is held by her ribs, her tears are the Tigris and Euphrates, the Milky Way is her tail. The blood of Kingu was used to make mankind.

Ymir.png

Ymir and his cow

The other example is Ymir—First living thing of the Norse mythos, born when the lands of fire and frost met. At this point, the great first giant emerged—Ymir. And shortly after he found his great cow companion—to my knowledge, this is unrelated to Paul Bunyan. He persisted like this for a time, fathering the frost giants. Eventually, however, the sons of Bor—Odin, Ville, and Ve—slew him and arranged the cosmos from his body. From his skull, they made the heavens. From his hair, forests. His bones became the hills, the seas run with his blood. His brains were made into clouds, his eyebrows were men. And in one case, the maggots that fed on his corpse became the dwarfs.

Pangu.png

Less malicious is the act of Pangu. Pangu is from Chinese myth, and takes on his form not from a violent ambush or great war, but as he comes to old age. In his early years, with the aid of four beasts, Pangu separated the earths and heavens to make a habitable cosmos and cut Yin from Yang with a great ax. But as time went on, he came to grow old and die at the age of 18,000. Slowly, he takes on the form of the world as he passes on into death. Like Ymir, his body is divided up into various parts of the world. The wind is his breath, the thunder his voice, his left eye floats upwards to be the sun, his right eye is now the moon. The fleas on his body became animals, his beard became the milky way, his head mountains, his bone marrow great diamonds.

Svyatogor.png

Svyatogor coming on his steed

There are other, debatable examples. Typhon, for instance, was trapped beneath a mountain and an island in one version of his myth. But trapped is not the same as became, I don’t think. More directly linked to our tale is the Russian bogatyr, Svyatogor. Svyatogor is a mountainous man, who eventually lays down in his own stone coffin to die. He passes his strength on to Illya, the greatest of the bogatyrs, through his breath.

Mt. Mayon.png

Mt.Mayon–yes, the smoke formed like that naturally.

Perhaps the least malicious, even less than Pangu, is Mt. Mayon. Mt. Mayon is the result of a tale of love between Magayon and the prince Panganoron. The two’s relationship enrages the failed suitor Pagtuga, who gathers his warrior s and steals Magayon’s father. The ensuing war sees the lovers victorious, but Patgua’s warriors shoot one of the two—versions differ—on the way home. The other commits suicide, and are both are buried. After their burial, a mountain arises from their graves—Mt. Mayon, a still active volcano.

Fictionally, I’m again reminded of the story of YISUN from Kill Siz Billion Demons, who destroys themselves to create a pair of gods, who in turn make all gods. This generation of gods in turn gives themselves over entirely to death in order to create a world each—with life and creatures spreading forth from their holy city of Throne.

The stories so far touch mostly on great cosmic creations. I think ours will be more like Mt. Mayon—a place of legend, yes, but not as grand as the entire world. Our story, as one of ‘phantasy’ instead of horror, I feel a cataclysmic battle less of interest then the slow, gradual expansion of a mind. We start with a body, a man or woman, and slowly they become something more—something vaster, and often covered in life. We can consider, perhaps, that both mountains and islands are found in groups—ranges and chains. At the same time, they can be quite lonely places. A deserted island or a lonely mountain is not an uncommon description.

The nature of this story will be, I think, entirely atmosphere—it could be horror, but it feels more calm and meditative and thus perhaps a bit strange for this blog. Still, it will be an engaging story to write and place to explore. Spacing and pacing the progress from mortal to monument might be difficult. It requires attention to sentence length, to description, to punctuation, and to variation. Atmosphere and mood are, in my opinion, far harder to grasp and far more essential then action or characterization. To make a house feel alive is no easy feat.

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

It’s a Masquerade!

This Week’s Prompt: 69. Man with unnatural face—oddity of speaking—found to be a mask—Revelation.

The Resulting Story: And Off Fell His Mask

This prompt is a fascinating one. Partially because, again, it calls to mind a specific pulp story that inspired it. Partly because masks are such a fascinating thing to me—masks and personages and disguises are so strange. This corpse has a good deal of promise, I think, especially in my reading between the lines that our man with a strange face is a stranger arriving—a form that has some folkloric resonance with revelations.

The first unwelcome and amazing guest I can think of in the realm of Folklore is the Green Knight. The Green Knight is a variant of the Wild Men we discussed long ago—however, he is a more civilized sort. He dresses in knightly attire—all green, with a great green axe, a green shield, and a green horse. His most famous incident is the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. Arriving on Christmas, he offers to play a game in King Arthur’s court. The game is simple: someone strikes him with the ax, and he returns the blow in a years time.

Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight after his game.

King Arthur initially rises to take the challenge, but Gawain steps in. Gawain reminds the king that without him, the kingdom is naught, where as without Gawain it is…well, probably going to last longer, but that’s another story. Gawain steps up and takes the ax, and lopes the Green Knights head off, presuming that the lethal blow will end the game there.

The Green Knight, a poor sport, takes his head, wishes everyone farewell, and rides off. The rest of the story, including the final confrontation between the Green Knight and Gawain can be found here, and is an interesting read if you are interested in English Poetry.

Moving our folklore away from the British Isles, let’s consider the Popul Vuh. Here, the Hero Twins are our guests of honor. After their first death at the hands of the lords of Xibalba—they got better, don’t worry—the hero twins became traveling magicians. They burned down buildings, and then used magic to restore them. They slew animals, and used magic to resurrect them. And then at the end, one twin slays the other, and restores him to life.

HeroTwins Preforming Thier Act.png

The Hero Twins doing their favorite trick, on the left.

It was this last trick that drew the attention of the thirteen Lords of Death. Intrigued, they invite the two magicians to preform. At the end, the Hero Twins invite One Death and Thirteen Death to partake in their greatest feat of slaying and raising the dead. Of course, on this occasion, the Twins do not raise either of the Lords, and force concessions from the other eleven to restore them.

We can also consider, with the element of a mask that resembles a face, the story recorded as from the Pima Indians, regarding the masked man and the turtle. The masked man, Nahvahchoo, travels the world unearthing treasures and dangers in every direction, learning the might of the winds in each of the four directions, and meeting a powerful bow at each part of the sky.

Bals De Ardents.png

Then there are more absurd or strange instances. The Ball of the Burning Men—Bal des Ardents—was a masquerade ball held by Charles the VI that ended in rumor, fear, and death. The masquerade included a performance of various members of the court, including Charles, dressed in wild men outfits and, according to contemporary chroniclers, baying like wolves and shouting obscenities at the audience. A celebration of a lady-in-waiting’s marriage, the ball became gruesome when Charles’s brother brought a torch to close to the five dancers. All but two dancers died in the ensuing fire, as the costumes took light. The dance’s wild nature, and the gruesome result, lead to public outrage and rumors of sorcery in a decadent court. Fear of revolt drove the king and his brother to offer penance at Notre Dame Cathedral shortly after.

The king’s brother Orleans is of interest here, to me anyway. He was accused of sorcery at this event and later ones, and was considered to have made an attempt on the kings life. The event itself is fascinating in consideration of our prompt, as the wild man costume resembles a man with a deformed or strange face. Here, however, it was a guest without a mask that started the terror, instead of one of the masked men.

Masque of the Red Death

It may have, however, inspired a famed horror story that keeps to the idea of mask and revelation: The Masque of the Red Death. This classic tale of horror sees the nobility sequester themselves off from the rest of the populace as a plague—the titular Red Death—sweeps the land. As the prince Prospero celebrates in his castle, decorated with seven rooms for the seven sins, an uninvited guest arrives. Dressed in all red and with a strange mask, the strange guest worries the party, until at last he is chased through the halls by the Prince Prospero. After his arrival, the plague strikes all the members within dead.

And then there is the play that is both before and of the mythos: The King In Yellow. A short story collection that predates Mr. Lovecrafts own work, the King In Yellow is a collection of horror stories that feature the recurrent element of a play. The play is normal, until the second act. The second act is maddening and terrible to read or witness, driving others out of their wits.

King In Yellow Book Cover.png

The play is, for a feature of the mythos, suprisingly detailed. We know, for instnace, it features a kingdom called Carcosa, features at least 3 characters (Cassilda, Camilla, and the Stranger). It deals in one way or another with a place or thing called Hastur, and the arrival of a guest who’s mask it is revelead to be his face. The play is given vague description in Repairer of Reputations:

He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. “The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever,” he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King.

The end of the first act, in the same tale, ends with the terrified Camilla’s line “Not upon us, oh king! Not upon us!”

The King in Yellow is a reccuring symbol in the Mythos for one of it’s most peculair entities: Hastur. Hastur to me is of especial intreast for a few reasons. One, Hastur proceeds the mythos as a body of literature—he appears first in an Ambrose Bierce tale as a god of shepherds and is rather benign. When he appears in the King In Yellow, Hastur is again strange and an entity of uncertain providence. Mr. Lovecraft and Derelth later rendered him more malicous in later works, a sort of rival of Cthulhu. Later still, AD&D’s Manual of Divinity gave him another strange aspect—Hastur’s capacity to be summoned by reciting his name three times in a row.

Now, what’s interesting to me in all this—and a portion of Hastur and the King In Yellow that is not often discussed in my opinion—is an odd parallel. We have here a deity, ancient and vast beyond compare, who is fond of shepherds, passes judgement–”not upon us oh king!”–and is served by strange servants. The usage of this being’s name infuriates it, it detests and wars with another old being in the sea, and its judgment leads to the end of the world. Why, I have heard of such a god before.

Bacchae.png

The Climax of the Bacchae

Well, I’ve heard of two. One that I will mention here, returning again to Greece, is the tale of the Bacchae. Here, Dionysus returns to his home to conquer it. He is seized by his brother, Pentheus, and not recognized—Dionysus has disguised himself as his own priest—and then imprisoned. After breaking free, as gods are want to do, Dionysus unleashes fire and earthquakes before confronting Penetheus. At this confrontation, shepherds come and tell of strange madness afflicting women in the hills. Some are tearing animals to shreds, or braiding their hair with serpents, or suckling on wild animals. Included among these revelers is Penetheus’s mother. The farmers tried to seize them, but were in turn torn to shreds by the women’s bare hands.

Penetheus, alarmed at the madness, plans first a massacre. Dionysus, however, persuades him to instead spy on them to learn their secrets. As he dons his disguise, Penetheus begins to see strange visions—two suns overhead, and horns emerging from Dionysus skull. Convinced of his limitless strength, he goes out to spy on the cult. He is found and murdered by his own mother, convinced he is a mountain lion. Cradling her trophy, Penetheus’s mother comes to her sense at the words of Cadmus. She and her followers are driven into exile for their crimes, and Dionysus turns Cadmus into a serpent before leading a barbarian horde to conquer the city.

This has the elements that clearly resemble the King in Yellow—there is madness, royalty, fear, and the end of a dynasty. As Hastur evolved, he too acquired a reputation for debauchery, although more of an upper crust decadence then the more barbaric and countryside madness that Dionysus seems to specialize in.

I think a retelling of the Bacchae is the most interesting route to take. It deals in many ways with the themes that are common in Lovecraftian horror—the arrival of an other, the terror of madness and affliction, the decay of societal norms (perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse), and with the victory of the unknowable over the known. We also have a handful of roles or characters at the center of the drama—Penetheus, Dionysus, and the Maenads, with a few nominal characters. Of course, there should be some alterations. As is, it might read that the Other, the outsider, the non-authoritative is the dangerous and thing to be feared. And while that might be the intent of Mr. Lovecraft at times, such phobia of the powerless is hardly the work of fiction.

What about you? What masks do you fear? What revelations to they hide? What horrible things wait?

 

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

Hold Fast!

This Week’s Prompt: 68. Murder discovered—body located—by psychological detective who pretends he has made walls of room transparent. Works on fear of murderer.
The Resulting Story:
Dr. SuSan and…

The prompt this week brings us to something of a genre these days: the detective with supernatural or near supernatural capabilities. Pysch, The Mentalist, Monk, the BBC’s Sherlock, and so on. All these shows feature uncanny detectives who pretend to have psychic or unnatural powers, or in the case of Monk, Columbo, and Sherlock they use less conventional modes of thinking to achieve similar ends. The detective in reality possesses only human faculties, but these faculties are exaggerated to the point of unfailing power.

From a literary perspective, this prompt reminds me of one particular story by Edgar Allen Poe: The Tell Tale Heart. Poe’s influence on Lovecraft as a horror author is indeed vast and in need of reconciliation. Here the fear of the murderer is the greater force. The noise of the imagined heart still beating in the floor boards drives the murderer to madness and compels him to confess his misdeeds to the officers of the law. This story likewise plays on the fear of discovery—of more than the murder, of course, since the body is located early on. The detective must suggest that he has seen more by making the walls transparent then merely the body.

From the perspective of folklore and other traditions, the detective has an intreasting lineage. A common capabillity of sorcery and magic is the location of the unseen or the lost. The abillity to find and retrieve missing objects or to ascertain unseen causes can be found in various places around the world, often as the cause of illness or despair. For instance, among the !Kung, shamans locate unseen arrow heads that cause illness among the living. Shamans of the Netsilik deal with invisible casues of illness as well, from extra souls sapping life force to the strange tupilaqs.

More elaborate attempts are also recorded. The Key of Solomon supplies one spell, which deploys the rope of a hanging and sieve to locate a thief that has made off with an object. The Lesser Key gives three demons who can find those things lost or hidden (Foras, Kimaris, and Vassago, pictured below). The Book Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friends is a grimoire of more recent origin in the United States which supplies ways to imoblize thieves and compel them to return stolen goods, as well as locating hidden treasures beneath the earth such as water and iron.

Demon Sigils.png

The detective interacts in a similar way here—despite the fact that his magic is a farce, he is playing off the world of the unseen. While fear has physical symptoms, feelings and experiences, they are rarely considered the root of the emotion. Like a shaman or magician, the detective plays off the hidden world to reveal things about this one. Psychology’s connection isn’t that far fetched—the term quite literally refers to the science of the soul after all—and so might be an intentional allusion here. Especially in the era Mr. Lovecraft was writing in, psychology’s exact meaning and fate were contested.

For instance, the spiritualist movement we discussed before was a significant part of psychology for a period of time. The science of the soul for a time included things that now are frankly the occult—the sort of beliefs that are more akin to New Age than clinical psychology. We can include here the works of Sigmund Freud and his camp, who’s school of psychoanalysis may not be as credited now as it once was, as well as works such as Mesmerism which sought to use powers of the mind to affect the body—for instance to work healings. Mesmerism and other hypnotists engaged in occult experiments as well, in some cases attempted to glean information on other worlds or past lives from the hypnosis. These ideas often hinged on vitalist theories of life—that there was a cosmic and measurable life energy that permeates the cosmos. This energy is often associated with heat, electricity, and other phenom on. Other examples of vitalism include Odic forces, which produce bio-eletric fields and is referenced in dowsing(and were delightfully used in an Atomic Robo story here); elan vital, which contains the bedrock for consciousness and gives rise to evolutionary changes; and Orgone, which is past Lovecraft’s time, but which supposed that everything from illness to weather could be effected by these internal forces of the body.

Orgone Cloud Buster

Wilhem Reich’s Cloudbuster, a device based on Orgone to manipulate the weather.

Other works that blended the understanding of the body and the soul, to unfortunate results, was phrenology and race “science”. The discredited field tried to explain the nature of the soul by examining physiological differences in skull size. Given Mr. Lovecraft’s proclivities and racism, we can throw it on the heap of more bizarre uses of psychology.

I pursued this line of reasoning further, as the field of pseudo-science and strangeness is interesting to me. According to Wikipedia—a good resource for my cursory research—there are a number of pseudoscientific theories I was unaware of: graphology, the analysis of handwriting to determine the psyche of an individual; primal therapy, the idea the individuals are most effected by prenatal experiences; and the law of attraction, that by thinking on a thing we draw it closer. These various pseudosciences and discredited theories do place the idea of a psychological detective as essentially supernatural or magical detective as plausible or believable.

So, with all this in mind, how should our story proceed. The prompt has the detective deduce the murder, but drive the criminal to confession by pretending to be magical. We thus begin the first act with the discovery of the body. We would then go on to examining the house searching for evidence. Three instances, I think, of ‘finding’ hidden evidence and then the confrontation. Now, I think this particular drama could end one of two ways. Either it ends with the murderer and the police being lead to where the detective found the body, and thus the murderer confessing. Or, the murderer is driven by fear to lash out against the authorities and attempt to flee or kill them. Either ending could work, and I’m not sure which is better in this case.

I recently concluded that our psychologist might not be the best character to take as a point of view–rather, a more interesting character would be an associate of his. A Watson, a character who like the audience is unsure of what is coming and going, but nonetheless curious. As written, it seems our detective knows the murderer, and that seems far less entertaining of a story then one where the audience and one of the characters is partially in the dark as to the proceedings.


Now I know this is normally the end of things, but today I’d like to draw your attention to the Patreon account we’ve created. If you would like to help support our excursions into horror and folklore, are interested in our work in RPGs that we’ve alluded to, or are generally in a good spirit, we encourage you to donate here.

The Dread Horsemen

This Week’s Prompt: 67. An impression—city in peril—dead city—equestrian statue—men in closed room—clattering of hooves heard from outside—marvel disclosed on looking out—doubtful ending. [“DISSIPATION?” by Dan McCoy]
The Resulting Story: The Ruins of Dimov

Ah, a good long prompt with something like an arc already backed in. It feels like it’s been a while. We start with a brief scene of the city in peril, and then return after it’s destruction to a number of squabbling men in a small room near an equestrian statue. The statue it seems comes to life, and upon seeing this the story ends. Nice and simple.

Now, I think there are things to be expanded upon. I think the choice of a horse at the center of destroyed city is interesting. Horsemen in mythology and folklore, especially in non-chivalry contexts, have associations with destruction. There is the Wild Hunt, a host of fae or the dead, lead by one of power—the devil, Odin, Eric of Wales, or any other storm power—which pursues its quarry from the sky. The viewer often dies, and war and terror reign for some time after wards.

Horseman of the Apoclypse.png

Beyond this band, there are the horsemen of the end of time—four horses with five riders: Conquest(Not plague, don’t listen to modern authors!), War, Famine, Death, and Hades. These riders, atop multicolored steeds are the heralds of a quarter of the world dying by various means. Found in art and popular culture, these are ruiners of cities and men alike. The Book of Revelation also includes the host of destructive angels who ride out to cause misery on the world again. This locust horde of the abyss that resemble armed horses are terrors onto the world for the suffering.

And then there are the centaurs, Greek creatures that resemble horses but with the upper bodies of men, and who are known for their uproarious and provocative behavior with the sole exception of Chiron. Their most famed conflict was the abduction of the women of the Lapiths in a raid at a wedding—an incident that reminds me in passing of the Satyr’s tendency to cause terror at weddings. Variations include the centaurs of Dionysus, sent by Zeus to protect the wine god, and the centaurs of Cyprus who are horned.

Of course, the Greeks do not have a monopoly on dreadful horsemen. Akin to the centaur are the people of the Kinara Kingdom in India, who’s exact form varies from “horse necked” to hybrids like the centaurs. In the Philippines there’s the Tikbalang, a horse headed humanoid that can be found in the mountains that some reports suggest can be tamed with a piece of it’s own hair. While the Aswang project reports it as generally harmless and a trickster, others indicate that the Tikbalang is more malicious or even cannibalistic, at times resembling the Wild Men type we’ve discussed earlier.

Nuckaleeve.png

And then there is the Nuckelavee—a creature that resembles a man on a horse, with no skin. It’s head is three feet wide, or sometimes it has two, with a horses head that exudes toxic vapors. It is plague and famine, with it’s breath wilting crops and poisoning wells. It’s eyes are fiery. In some cases, the Nuckelavee is even blamed for the withholding of rain and water, causing massive droughts in addition to it’s personal harassing of those it meets.

Folklore about horses can have more various forms—to ride a horse backwards, for instance, causes illness. A trio of horses of the same color are signs of death, and a dead horse hoof buried beneath the stable secures them against enchantment. Horses that are startled have seen dead men, or the soon to be dead.

The Chinese Classic of Mountains and Seas includes a number of creatures that take the form of the horses. There is the creature called which-lake on Mountain Hiddenabyss, which has a horses body, bird wings, a serpent’s tail, and a human face that enjoys giving humans a lift. On Mount Belt there is the ugly-coars, a creature which resembles a unicorn with a ‘hard grinding shell’, and that appears immune to fire. Twenty of the forty-three of the deities of the Western Mountains are horses with a human face. And on Mount Dam, there is an animal that resembles a horse with four horns, ram eyes, and an ox tails—the appearance of this creature, the far-far, causes a rapid increase in fraud. And so on.

The horse sacrifice is a kingship practice in Hinduism—a horse is sent around the kingdom, and if none dispute it, the horse is returned and sacrificed to secure the king’s undisputed rule. Needless to say many epics include sections of conflict disputing this—the Mahabhrata and the Ramayana both feature these sections for instance, before their climatic battles or wars.

Horses and kings are associated elsewhere. Mythical, many king gods have wondrous mounts—the seven headed horse of Indra, the eight legged horse of Odin, the taltos steed, the mythical horses born of the golden fishes. Poseidon, a god of the Greeks who was supreme for that lost Mycenean age, was lord of horses and earthquakes and islands. The epic hero King Gesar was a horse lord of great prominence, the most important throughout northern Asia. Horse numbers were also prestige markers among the various tribes of the Plains Indians of the American west.

Blucifer.png

A more modern equestrian statue, that perhaps was once possessed, is Blucifier. The large Blue Mustang statue outside the Denver airport has brilliant red eyes that give it a diabolic appearance was commissioned in 1993. Meant as a symbol of the wild old American West by it’s artist, Luis Jimenez, the horse’s eyes glow and During construction, the massive statue fell on the man who designed it, killing Jimenez. With it’s appearance and the legacy of a frankly disturbing death by its hand, outcry has grown around the statue. A demon horse indeed.

Within the stories of pulp, this reminds me most of one other story in particular: the Story of the Sword of Welleran by Dunsany, which features a number of equestrian statues saving a city in peril from devastation. You can read the full story here.

Now, as I said at the end of the last story, I feel I’ve drifted more into shock and …well, missed the power of horror in character focused dramas. And here, I think, we have an opportunity to work with character drama. We have a group in a small place, in a tense situation—the clattering of hooves outside could indicate rescuers, or it could indicate surviving looters. We have danger, a small place, and a group of survivors huddled together. We just need a cause of conflict and paranoia for the ball to get rolling.

And for that, I think the associations of ruin and desperation of war could work in our favor. We could infuse the story with some paranoia about survival, as the sounds of war are still heard not far off. I think some sort of set up might be needed: why are people suspicous in the wake of the calamity? Are our characters safe from the horde outside? From each other? Is one a looter, a spy, a traitor? Genuine paranoia is a hard thing for me to write, so this will be good practice. I think the most difficult part is forcing a reason for our characters to come together. If they are distrustful of each other, why not split apart? An outside danger might solve that particular problem, but I think some greater pressure is needed to compel a group of strangers inside then the lingering threat of raiders and pillagers in a dead city.

How about yourself. Do you know any devil horses, steeds of Diomedes, or terrors that lurk in desolate cities? What would you write?

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

Networks of the Dead

This Weeks Prompt: 66. Catacombs discovered beneath a city (in America?).

The Resulting Story: The Death of Mr. Donovan

We delve deeper now, from the cemetery and undertaker to the ossuaries and catacombs of the dead. A catacomb is an underground tomb, constructed for resting the dead. Generally these forms in cities, often in cases where graveyards simply will not due anymore. The famous catacombs of Paris were made after the cities cemeteries were flooded by rain, pushing bodies and skeletons to the surface and onto city streets. The catacombs of Rome likewise began due to overcrowding and land shortage, the grim reality that there were to many dead and not enough tombs. And then there are American catacombs that imitate these sites, strange tourist attractions. But we will return to the strangeness of the subterranean landscape of America in a moment.

Catacombs Rome.png

For now, let us focus on the old world. Beginning in Rome, catacombs were constructed by members of the Jewish community as well early Christians, both who preferred burial to the more common method of cremation. The tombs thus give artistic insights into traditions of the era, and have an air of mystery about them. A number of saints are buried there—who are by definition holy individuals and beings—and at least one fringe archaeologist has suggested the grail might be buried there. As the catacombs are under Vatican control, the possibilities have not been fully explored.

The catacombs of Paris have a more infamous reputation. Built out of an old mine, the catacombs here are full of bones from the 1800s. Only partly open to the public, the catacombs have attracted rumor of conspiracy as long as they have been around. The mines they were built out of are rumored to have been the location of black masses in 1348. Bandits and revolutionaries hid in the sprawling labyrinth, as did in more recent years Nazi bunkers and French Resistance members. Even more recently, daredevils and thrill seekers have built an underground art society around the catacombs and mines. Secret pools, murals, and even a cinema have all been found by authorities beneath the city of lights.

CAtacombFrance.png

With walls lined with skulls and bones, the catacombs of Paris certainty have an atmosphere of horror and the macabre, yet somehow still alive and changing and reshaping. It is here that the Phantom of the Opera lived, that Jean Val Jean made his escape, where monarchists and fascists were killed, where black mass and plagues were born.

So, are there any such catacombs in the American cities, locales and lacuna of horror waiting beneath our feet?

The short answer is…not exactly, but something similar. There are catacombs in the United States(Which is likely what Lovecraft means by America, as opposed to Americas). One is a replica of the Roman catacombs in DC. Another is the catacombs near New York, in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and other churches. Another underground locale, that I have little knowledge of, is found in Waterbury, Connecticut documents the life of Jesus Christ. So there are some overt underground burials. But more interesting are those sorts of places that resemble the catacombs in life. Abandoned routes and work ways under a large living city, still mysterious and without exploration being complete.

AbandonedNewYork.png

In New York City, there are large abandoned subways that are not immediately accessible. While trains sometimes run down here, and there are inhabitants, they resemble the catacombs in many ways, with continuous habitation and dangers around every corner, from trains to small spaces. The danger of police and others down in the depths are a continuous problem for those urban explorers who go down there. Images can be found here.

Another set of abandoned works exists in LA, the remains of the trolley system that was shut down in the 1950s, which later on was host to disaster shelters during the Cold War. Since then, development has divided up its remains.

Cincinati.png
The biggest of these abandoned networks of tunnels is beneath Cincinnati. These tunnels run two miles in length and are mostly intact, if sealed. The construction began in 1920, abandoned in 1925, and at last closed in 1950s after being considered for a bomb shelter. The tunnels have some rumors around them still—hauntings, mainly. A connection to catacombs thats more direct than most, as the catacomb is often just that. A realm of the dead that exists in a material form. Its a small demesne of Hades.

A more mythic connection is the sorcererous lair of Afrasiab. While not obvious comparison, it is Afrasiab is a destructive force who holds an advanced and luxurious underground bunker with layers of steel several men thick. It is host to an artificial sky, and four rivers—one of wine, one of milk, one of sour milk, and one of water. Like many of the other catacombs, the abandoned remains of such ruins could be come

Lovecraft, for his part, presents something like those above. The Vaults of Zin—a connection between the Dreamlands and the waking world—are likewise underground remains of a great civilization that connects to the ultimate fate of the dead, and inhabited by the monstrous and cannibalistic ghasts. These tunnels, that make the world between the here and the bizarre less clear, are a place of possibility and disruption. They mark a boundary that we can traverse to a strange and secretive realm, where societies of the living transgress among the dead. More importantly, the catacombs are a from an earlier and abandoned age. Yes, at some point someone was digging the ones in Rome, those in Paris are the remains of old mines, those in the United States re abandoned subways, and even in Rome these catacombs are out of use by now. Catacombs are re-purposed remains of a long lost civilization or time.

I bring this up because, if I were to speculate on the catacombs here, the surprise of their discovery is important. The catacombs are discovered recently, and therefore are previously unknown. This means, unlike the ones we’ve discussed so far, the catacombs are not connected to the current inhabitants. This lays into the United States twice over: Not only is the United States a young country—relatively seeking, of course,–and thus any catacombs would be something of a surprise but it is…how was it once put….built entirely on an Indian burial ground. While catacombs may not be widespread, there are discoveries in the last few decades that indicate intense burial sites at the least.

Building on this, as some archaeologist discovering the remains of a long lost nation and catacomb is…well, a start. Where it goes I’m not sure. There are themes to explore but I’m not sure what to do with a meeting of a forgotten past and the modern present. A lost history might be found, in the images of the catacomb, that belies some history that the modern world denies. But …I must think on what sort of discovery that would be.

What about you? What horrors or wonder discoveries in an abandoned underworld might you find?

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

A Buried Feast

This Weeks Prompt: 65. Riley’s fear of undertakers—door locked on inside after death.

The Story: A Strange Estate

This prompt returns us to the graveyard—a place that of course we visit for horror often. The named person here, Riley, wasn’t someone I could find, much to my frustration. So instead I will pursue the fear of things that lurk in the graveyards and move about the graves. Things that can lock a door from beyond a grave perhaps. Our focus, the undertaker, has some interesting roots as one who explicitly profits from the dead, indiscriminate of the cause.

We’ve talked about a number of dead creatures that are corpses brought back to haunt the living here and here. We also discussed communing with them here.Today, I want to focus on things that actually reside in graveyards—in mausoleums and near undertakers. And as for the fear of undertakers, one particular fear of those who dig among bodies comes to mind for me. The fear of those anthropophagous creatures that feed on the dead, ghouls and worse that lurk near graveyards.

Ghoul2.png

A Gathering of Ghouls from a Persian text

Ghouls proper are creatures from Arabian and Middle Eastern mythologies at larger. Some traditions hold that a blow to the head will kill them, but a second blow will raise them from the dead. The ghoul lurks at times in the desert, taking the form of animals or people to lure travelers to their death before devouring them. The ghoul is at times taken to be djinn that were sired by Iblis, the Muslim equivalent in many ways to Lucifer in Christian mythologies. Ghouls in Iran were demons that entered heaven after being disbarred at the birth of the prophet Mohamed. These demons are also the source of crocodiles as well. Ghouls may feed on the living as well—in some cases, ghouls cause bleeding on the feet and then drink the blood. Others resist invaders or marchers through deserts and are put to flight or even death by the mere mention of God’s name.

The Ghoul is also the name of a distant star, Algol. The star is the glimmering eye of the Gorgon in Perseus hand in the Greek Zodiac. The star’s flickering nature made it seem inconstant, and it’s red shine might be responsible for it’s association with great violence and bloodshed. The Ghoul creates corpses, you see.

AlgolSymbol.png

The Astrological Symbol for Algol

In Germany, another creature haunts the graveyards—the Nachzehrer. This creature is in many ways like a vampire, feeding on the living after death. However, the Nachzehrer does so in many cases by eating itself—the more it feeds on itself. Like many undead, the Nachzehrer are often suicides, but not always. In some cases, they are the patient zero of a plague, and the continuation of the plague is linked to their persistence. The Nachezehrer is easy to recognize—it holds one thumb in the opposite hand, and it’s left eye is open. By placing a stone in it’s mouth, the Nachezehrer cannot continue devouring itself, and thus becomes ineffectual.

Another spirit, not exactly dead but fond of corpses and graveyard, is the Hindu vetala. The most famous story of the vetala occurs with King Vikram, who had twenty five attempts on capturing the creature. The vetala here hung upside down, and inhabited and animated dead bodies. When captured, the Vetala proves helpful, warning the King Vikram of treachery before he is murdered.

Headless

Not the anthropophagous, but commonly mistaken for them. These are the Akephaloi

A more bizzare cannibal, farther afield then the others from a graveyard is the anthropophage, a strange group who are noted as the most savage and barbarous. These individuals were first reported by Herodotus, expanded on by later authors. Pliny attributes them to dressing in the remains of their victims as well. These lived on the fringe of civilization, where most cannibals are placed in the Western tradition.

While cannibalism continues in other places, I will restrain myself mostly to those who feed on corpses near internment, as opposed to those who eat their enemies.

The other layer of this is the nature of the undertaker—a figure I admit I confused with the grave digger. The role of a mortician in society, so close to death, is variable. In some societies, for example third century China, the mortician was often an exorcist who drove out demons and hungry dead from the place the body was meant to be buried. We may also talk here about the role of propriating the dead and ensuring their passage, as books such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead persrcibes. The mortician must be knowledgable of the dead and of the needs and customs of burial.

In one of his better stories, Lovecraft introduces his own race of ghouls. These creatures resemble dog-headed individuals, and move between dreams and waking worlds. Appearing first in Pickman’s Model, the ghouls are terrifying creatures that the artist observes as a sort of changeling tale. The Ghoul as a sort of liminal character, capable of moving between the boundaries of living and dead and dreaming, is an interesting take on the matter.

Saturn

Saturn Devouring His Son, by Fransico de Goya. The work appears in Pickmans model as an example of the painters art.

Whne it comes to the actions of corpses—that of gravediggers and robbers—Lovecraft has at least one story that hits the mark that will not be one I’ll be following on. Partially because it seems ill suited for the prompt, which is about the shock of the dead being awake and denying you passage, and partially because…well. Mr. Lovecraft’s Reanimator story is one that descends from a decent idea into shocking levels of racism by all accounts. For those curious, you can read it here. The story has had a number of movie adaptations, which I admit I haven’t seen.

Another story from the Cthulhu Mythos work of Mr. Lovecraft that touches on grave robbing is of course The Hound, which deals more with grave-robbing then preparing. It is, however, notable as the first appearance of the Necronomicon, and deals somewhat with the ghoul-dog association of Lovecraft’s. You can find it here.

Approaching then the key point in the prompt: the locking of a door from the inside. This speaks to some sort of reanimation as well, although it might be a fail safe from said creatures. If the coffin or mausoleum is locked from the inside it follows rather obviously that it is because someone living inside wishes to keep something out. We know what they are keeping out—our undertakers and cannibals. But what dealings does our formerly deceased have, that has convinced him of the existence of such creatures? Has he seen the ghouls in the night, stalking between grave stones?

Further, who is our main character here? I will say that the dead man and the ghouls are probably not likely. While exploring either head space would be fascinating, I’m not sure if it would be productive or frankly that easy. A monster’s or a corpse’s head space can be difficult to examine. So some of the living must be on hand. Given the principle discovery—the door is locked from the inside after death—the occurrence should happen after the funeral. Which means either a friend or family member, perhaps staying near the graveyard.

Near the graveyard, or in the town at least. Perhaps having inherited the manor of the deceased, our visitor takes up residence. There, he learns in the basement of the dark happnings that have attracted ghouls and undertakers to his family estate, and to that most recent grave. This gives a bit of gothic tinge to our story—and borrows from the Lovecraft story Rats in the Walls a bit. That story also invokes cannibalistic husbandry, breeding human beings to sate the lust for flesh in a family line. Attaching a ghoulish character in this mannr to the story, I think, will wait until later. I suspect—and consulting both Wikipdia and the list this is confirmed—that there will be better times for indulging in the sins of the family as feeding on the dead so directly.

So our plot then will be an individual attending to the house of his dead relative, and over time becoming aware of the strange nature of the gravediggers nearby. I suspect we should have a cast of three characters among the living then—the main character, a friend or neighbor, and the undertaker proper. The creatures at work, the strange ghouls or the hungry Nachzherer serve as characters, but less refind in their form and narrative purpose then the other three.

Works Cited

Harper, Donald. “A Chinese Demonography of the Third Century B. C.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 1985, pp. 459–498. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2718970.

 
If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

It’s Alive!

This Weeks Prompt:64. Identity—reconstruction of personality—man makes duplicate of himself.

The Resulting Story: A Certain Preponderances of Witnesses

The creation of an another form of life is a pursuit that humanity has pursued for a long time. While the intentional creation of a doppleganger is not well known—such things tend to form by chance or anomaly when they occur, and grim visions at that—the idea of continuing on or creating something without a partner is not novel. The horror that can come from these often alchemical projects is vast as well, especially as some are horrific or humorous folklore tales.

A Homonculus.png

The most common example of the formed individual is the alchemical homonculus. The creation of life in this manner was the goal of alchemists as much as the philosopher stone was; in fact, in the Middle East it superseded transmutation as the primary great work. The Western version, found in Parceleus, seeks to create a new living man by use of an artificial womb—specifically a horses womb. After forty weeks, the child is born and can be fed blood to bring it to the fullness of life, albeit diminutive life. The significance of such an event has been noted by other researchers as an attempt at the recreation of life as done in Genesis.

The creation of life from clay has the additional version in the mode of the golem. The golem is a creature of Jewish folklore, formed of clay and enlivened by commands through its mouth. As mighty beings of clay, the golem was a staunch defender of the community if a silent one. The golem in the most famous narrative, Prauge, turns out in its own time to be a danger when it turns against the community—reasons vary from rejection to simple murderous impulse to violation of the Sabbath. Either way, the golem is ended by the hand that created it by removing its scrolls or altering the script on its head that gave it life.

GolemofPrauge

A recreation of the Golem of Prauge.

The horror genre has of course a parallel with the golem, shared as part of the origin of science fiction: Frankenstien’s monster. The monster, like the golem, is a recreation of the forming of life that starts out benevolent—to the farm family at least, if not to the creator himself who has fled. Eventually he turns on his creator, and the rest is as they say history.

There are more modern uses that, like Frankenstein, employ electricity. The New Motive Power was an attempt to create a messianic figure out of electricity and metal. Its creator, John Spear, communed with an electrical host of spirits. Intended as one of many inventions—including airships and mass telepathy communication networks—the mecha-messiah was ritually conceived and born to no avail. In many ways, this ritual creation of life resembles that Babalon Working by a pair of occultists a century later. Neither attempt succeeded, to the despair of horror authors.

This physical recreation had influence for a significant amount of time among scientific thought. In the pre-genetics age, it was believed that the sperm carried a miniature version of the eventual human that would be born of it, and if placed in the right conditions it would form the person without need for another partner. Preformatism had some proponents that placed the miniature in the egg instead of sperm. Irregardless, the theory proposed in essence that humanity had been entirely contained in its original parents, a scientific notion that has a resemblance to mystical notions of Adam as the first man.

Then there are more esoteric notions of life creation or duplication. The Finnish for instance had a tradition of guardian spirits that resembled their shamans, going ahead of them and doing as they do. The Buddha was capable of generating replicas of himself in meditation, illuminating the universe. Boddhistavas, as they approach their state, gain the power of multiple bodies to send forth and convert or exhort more individuals. The Monkey King, Sun Wukong, multiplied himself in battle and trickery on many occasions. The ability to create many bodies can be found among the rddhi in the Oxford dictionary, allowing for many of the dopplegangers so far referenced.

SunWukonFightsALion

Sadly, I could not find an image with Sun Wukong’s self-duplication. However, this fine print was found at http://www.yoshitoshi.net/alpha.html.

With all this in mind, there is another question to be answered: Why? Why is our nameless man trying to create another version of himself? Many reasons for making artificial life are given in folklore. Expressions of enlightenment, need for protection, divine emulation, want for a bride, want for a child. All of these have a history at some point in the history of popular media. However, I think the version here suggests that the source is self-centered. What we have here is not just a creation of life but a recreation of the self. The use of such bodies to cheat death is a surprisingly common trope in media for the mad scientist: The illustrious Doctor Doom has used it after a fashion, as did M. Bison, Rick Sanchez, and a host of others.

Rick and Morty.png

The use of clones as back up has a number of interesting implications from a metaphysical perspective—after all, it confirms a belief on the one hand of a consciousness that can be transferred between material bodies without much difficulty, while at the same time an avoidance or refusal to be restrained to that purely incorporeal state. Or, put another way, such a transfer only seems possible if there is something like a soul—whether as the softward that the brain ‘runs’ or pyscho power or something similiar—but an aversion to taking on that immateriality fully. There is an implicit lingering fear in the creation of a second body—that the soul or minds fate will not be a happy one.

An attempt at immortality then seems the ideal one here. Creating a version of yourself that will presist after your gone, perhaps as vengance against your killers or to torment them? Or just to escape fires eternal? Either way, I think we are again more in the land of mystery. Which means…well, half of the idea has been spoiled by writing this article. We’ve given away the means and most of the motive—although their might be more to it then simply avoiding death.

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.