Through the Looking Glass

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

The Resulting Story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beast Must Feed

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

The Resulting Story: The Family Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zahak, consulting about those snakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

Ghosts, Presences, and More

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This Week’s Prompt: 116. Prowling at night around an unlighted castle amidst strange scenery.

The Resulting Story: The Old Castle On The Hill

This weeks research brings us again into dark and unknown places that are at once somewhat familiar—the castle at night, being navigated perhaps by a mere lit candle. The stories of hauntings are numerous, and we’ve covered similar stories before here and here and here.  Today, we will be looking at a bit more of an eclectic set of stories that strike me as relevant. Haunted houses and castles are, to be frank, rather rote. So what caught my attention this time?

Mongelvin Castle

Well one such story, perhaps the most mundane but most striking, comes from a penny paper in Dublin. Here we are told about an old castle that is haunted—the specifics of the haunting are recorded as the result of superstition. We are told that a young man came into employment of Mongelvin castle, in County Donegal. The paper notes that, one winter, he was told by a passing fellow that the house was haunted. Specifically, strange forms moved in the night and screams of pain and agony were heard in the night. Every movement in the castle and every sound then became to signs of the supernatural to the young man. Every breeze over the broken roof, a howl of pain. Every play of the light or shadow, a phantasm or monstrous figure. At last, he went home one morning and begged to leave his employment.  His family thought this was an excuse, and sent him back.

Sadly, the fate of the young man is predictable. Perhaps he too now haunts that castle. There is something to the nature of ghosts, driving men mad and thus perhaps multiplying their numbers.

Taking a step to the more fantastic, in Clare county a number of ancient fortresses are haunted by shapeless forces. These forces are sometimes called horned, and unlike the madness ghost of Mongelvin, they take a more direct approach to murder. These creatures often are active in winter nights (as our ghost or superstition above was, perhaps a common trend when nights grow longer).  Clare county also has haunted castles—some that have divisions of yellow dragoons (which! Might be the source of Lovecraft’s Yellow Dragons that I discussed…here. God, where has the time gone?) still running their practice drills. Rosslara Castle is haunted in an eerie way, with strange shapes that fly out at night, whispers and laughs and rustling in the hedges.

Carriagholt Castle, where the yellow dragoons and Lord Clare have been seen.

An inhuman inhabitant lurks in another house on the island of Wallasea. This house was supposedly commissioned by the Devil himself, who hurled a beam into the air and declared the house to be raised where it landed. A witch’s familiar called this place home, and showed its displeasure with new inhabitants by beating its large wings to frighten them off. It’s favorite room it made freezing cold, and often it took on a variety of appearances to scare it’s victims. Once it appeared as a great ape, and drove a man to suicide with its harassment. Another time, it appeared as a mere mouse.  The house was destroyed in World War 2, and to my amusement appears to have belonged originally to a man named Daville.

Moving to the more fantastic, there is a story from Japan regarding Minister Kibi. Minister Kibi is sent from Japan to China as an envoy to the Tang. However, the Chinese grow jealous of his intellect and talent and seize him. They lock him in a great tower, where prisoners die over night, hoping to put an end to his career. It turns out, the cause of death is an oni—one born of the dead and restless soul of Minister Abe no Nakamaro, who was starved to death in the tower under similar circumstances. The oni, however, simply wants to know the fate of his descendants in Japan. Minister Kibi no Makibi informs the oni, and gains knowledge of the Chinese’s coming tests and aid in fooling them in exchange. Eventually, he wins his way home after the oni appears to devour the sun and moon, and the living minister threatens to keep the land in darkness.

Abe no Nakamaro,

Why have I focused on haunted places? After all, this story merely requires a castle, darkness, and strange locales. Why not some of those locales that change places or move across worlds? Like Brazil, an island I’ve discussed here that appears and disappears depending on the season, or the many lands of fae. And the answer is—well, partially the answer is I am reserving those for inevitable discussion of other dimensions and invasions from unseen worlds. Those are still coming, if I recall correctly. The other reason, however, is that this does remind me of a specific Lovecraft story. A story of a man who knows nothing of the world beyond his decrepit manor, except what he reads in books. Until he finds a collapsed opening in the ceiling and climbs outside—to arrive in a graveyard, from below.

The castle that is dark and full of strange locations, prowled by some strange and unseen force, feels closer to that place of darkness and the dead than most places of wonder. It reminds me, yes, of another very specific building, but let’s leave that house behind. Focusing on the present, the ghost stories I found attracted my attention not just for their spread, but because of their often inhuman or uncertainty human inhabitants. The oni and familiar and “strange things” stick out to me as still hauntings, even if the nature of the haunting thing is unclear. The overlap between worlds here seems perhaps more than just the past back to haunt the present as a concrete and human figure.

We are, after all, going to see strange and alien sights. Why not strange and alien dead? Often ghosts, and I admit this approach is common here, are confrontations with past traumatic events. Usually ones that stain a place, a community, that are violent and terrible that they are metaphorically and literally felt decades or centuries later. But I think we can postulate further, into the fear and uncertainty that is death—that is dying. Less on the scars that dying leaves, but more on the nature of death as a lurking, heavy thing that follows us steadily through our lives. A thing that is ultimately unknowable, who’s form is mutable, and which resists our attempts to make it like us and therefore make it knowable.

I read a comic (here) that once presented a similar fear of death. That death, unlike many spirits and forces of the world, resisted being woven easily into stories and thus resisted form and understanding. And when it did appear, separate from fear, it appeared not as a man but as an insectile thing, small and dark. Resisted the becoming something that was easily discussed or cast away. I’m not sure that is truly the case—it is hard, with the Grim Reaper such a strong symbol and one of many many such symbols in the world, to call death formless.

Our story, I think, will follow someone trying to make sense of this home they live in. This home that they cannot open the doors of, but that sheds light onto many strange and sometimes wonderous places. A home they are not alone in, but who’s other inhabitants they cannot see—I considered “who cannot see them” but that seems to lean strongly towards the twist of the Outsider, which I’d rather avoid—but that they can precieve by other mean. Sounds, moved objects, odors even, reflections of the uncanny. Why are they here? Why can’t they leave? What is this palce, this perverse and morbid Aleph, this place between places?

Those are all questions we will answer…perhaps…next time.

What hauntings by the inhumane do you know of?

Bibliography

J. A. H. “Mongevlin Castle, County of Donegal.” The Dublin Penny Journal, vol. 4, no. 186, 1836, pp. 240–240. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30003540. Accessed 11 Aug. 2020.

Maple, Eric. “Witchcraft and Magic in the Rochford Hundred.” Folklore, vol. 76, no. 3, 1965, pp. 213–224. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1258588. Accessed 11 Aug. 2020.

Reider, Noriko T. Seven Demon Stories from Medieval Japan. University Press of Colorado, 2016. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1g04zg4. Accessed 11 Aug. 2020.

Thos. J. Westropp. “A Folklore Survey of County Clare (Continued).” Folklore, vol. 21, no. 3, 1910, pp. 338–349. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1253861. Accessed 11 Aug. 2020.

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Waterfalls

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. Protests have continued for a month and show no signs of slowing. You can find links to donate at the end of the research, in place of our normal Patreon link.

This Weeks Prompt: 115. Ancient castle within sound of weird waterfall—sound ceases for a time under strange conditions.

The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING

Waterfalls are the source of a number of strange spirits and stories, often based on what is just behind them.  Given the description of an ancient castle, we will begin our examination of the spirits here with a few European creatures. The first ones I found in my searches were located in Northern Europe, especially Iceland. A mighty troll in Arrow-Oddr’s Saga from Iceland, named Ogmunder, has a mother who is all the fiercer (a hold over or comparable example to Grendel’s mother). She is described as fanged and with long claws and a mighty tail, each holding a sword. Her shout was enough to kill five men, and before her slaughter ended, she slew sixty men.  This grotesque transformation is defeated by the hero, using a magic Irish shirt and dwarven arrows, but for our purposes its important to note the power of sound and that Ogmunder’s mother dwelt under a water fall.

The Fossegrim are a type of spirit, more alluring then the trolls, that live beneath waterfalls in the North of Europe. These spirits perhaps fit the description Howard wanted even more—they play a fiddle beneath the waterfall, with wind and water as the source of their sound. They can play so well that furniture and trees will dance to the tune. If one makes an offering to the spirit of sufficient quality, they will teach this talent for music to the supplicant, such that the student can play so well the trees will dance. If the offering, a he-goat or some mutton stolen from a neighbor, is not sufficient they will only the pupil how to tune the instrument. That might be better in any case—the instruction of a Fossegrim involves pressing the fingers to the strings so tightly that they begin to bleed.

A more dangerous creature in Norway, however, is the Nok. The Nok is a greedy water spirit, demanding human sacrifice every year. It can transform into any number of valuables, and those who touch it in this form fall under its power. At least one lived under a water fall, and caused the death of many persons until at last a priest arrived. Journeying into the river with four stout men, the priest managed to seize the Nok and drive him into a nearby stone mound—and the creature has bothered none ever since.

Moving away from one island, we’ll cross to a place where it is wealth that hides behind the waterfall. In Bohol, during the war between the Americans and Filipinos (narrator’s statement, not my own), a tree was found growing in front of a water fall—an indescribable language covered the tree, and behind the waterfall dwelled a wealthy spirit.  This spirit gave a poor girl money and jewelry, under the condition she told no one where she got it. Her mother however eventually forced her to reveal the origins of the wealth—and soon it was entirely gone.  When the Americans went to find the treasure themselves, it was impossible—the weather turned against them, even if it was sunny out. This follows a tradition of lost treasures in the Philipines.

In Sagada, we have another story of waterfalls—one that is a bit more comical. Here a man and a woman, who are waterfalls, dwelled for sometime. They irrigated Sagada, pleasing the people and rice fields of the area—but not the inhabitants of Tetep-an. They were a jealous people, and so would go to the water falls and drop pots and cigarettes and other things into the waters.  The waterfalls tired of this, and the wife asked to move—the husband waterfall agreed, and they moved to a secluded place called Todey. However, this didn’t please the wife. Here she could not be seen! What was even the point! So again they moved back. And again, the Tetep-an dumped trash in them, until the lady waterfall was again asking to move. Now, the husband was tired of moving and did not want to break their new lease—yet the wife persuaded him with several blows with a heavy club. The pair then moved to Tadian, where they remain admired for miles around to this day. From afar, you can still see Mr. Waterfall’s hunchback from the last bout with his wife.

In Japan, there is a story that I haven’t been able to find an English text for. This story is centered around the Joren falls of Izu. A wood cutter was sleeping near the falls when he awoke to find spiderwebs around his legs. Confused, he placed them on a nearby tree—and the tree was torn into the waterfall. The spider spirit there, a jorōgumo, had meant to ensare him. The man told the village of this, and most people sensibly avoided the place. One day, a foreign wood cutter came and chopped axe near the falls—only to lose hold of the axe and drop it into the watery basin. AS he left, despondent, a beautiful woman with dark black hair appeared and returned it to him. She warned him, however, to never tell anyone of what he’d seen. The man kept the secret for a time, but eventually it wore on him. He got drunk at a banquet, and revealed it to the whole crowd.

The man went to sleep…and never awoke. In another, more nightmarish version, he was pulled outside by an unseen string—and was found floating near the falls. This is the bad ending. Another tale from the same area has the man fall in love with and visit the beautiful black haired woman—but each visit he grows weaker and weaker. A nearby priest realized he was taken in by the spider woman, and proved so by reciting some sutras to keep her strings away. Nonetheless, the man went to ask the local tengu, as lord of the spirits of the mountain, for the woman’s hand in marriage. The tengu denied him, but the man went back to his spidery lover and was never seen again.

Our final story set comes from Niagra Falls and it is a set I’m…suspicious of. The first one tells a story about a cave behind Niagra falls. The Seneca were suffering greatly—first crop failure, then an epidemic.  One day a young Seneca girl was bathing in the waterfall, when a large rattlesnake attacked her and she stumbled into the rapids, down into the cataracts. The water swirled her into the Cave of the Winds. Here she found the Good Spirit of Thunder of lightining who created mists and clouds. The spirit told her the Evil Spirit of famine and starvation also lived here, and commanded a great water snake. This snake was poisoning the water that the Seneca were drinking. The spirit told the girl that they must move away from the falls to survive. The Good Spirit would follow, and strike down the Evil Spirit and the Water Snake if they followed. And when the tribe arrived at their new home, they found the dead water snake behind them and the evil spirit hanging from a pole.

Then there is the story of the Maiden of the Mist. I have two sources for this, both primarily online. The first is frankly a conversion story—it claims the Iroquis regularly sent people over the falls in canoes as offferings to a water spirit. A French explorer and missionary protests the sacrifice of the Chief’s maiden daughter, but is ignored. The maiden is sent down over the falls—and to the shock of all, the Chief in grief followed her in a canoe. The two then became spirits so pure that the roar of the falls was like music to them. The maiden became the Maiden of the Mist while the Chief became the ruler of the cataract.

There is then the story of the Maiden of the Mist presented on the Niagra falls website. This one says a suicidal widow drove her canoe over the edge, praying to Heno the Thunder Spirit, who dwells in the falls, that her courage would not fail and that she would pass quickly. As she went over, however, Heno caught her in his arms and took her to live with him and his sons. She eventually married one of them, and lived beneath the falls, having a young son. She wanted, however, to see her people again.

Heno then tells her, one day, that a great serpent had descended down to poison her people’s water and devour them until they are wiped out. The Maiden requests one hour with her people to warn them, which Heno grants. The serpent, seeing the people were gone, tried to pursue them upstream. Heno, hearing it hiss, killed the serpent. The body of the serpent, vast as it was, redirected the falls and caused the water to rain directly into the god’s home. So he and his family ascended up to the sky—there Heno thunders like he once roared in the falls.

These stories…well, they feel off to me. The idea of a thunder god beneath the falls and a watery serpent makes sense, but on the other hand a maiden sacrifice to a poisonous water snake is close enough to Continental folk stories that I’m suspicious of it.

Regardless, for our story, what do we have? Well, we have the idea of sacrifices to the water. The noise of a water fall, either a roar or musical tone, stopping seems to indicate displeasure. And certainly, a silent waterfall would be unnerving. The nature of music in Lovecraft—as something that the outer gods communicate with—might lend an otherworldly-ness to the affair. But we don’t need to go that far. The waterfall contains a few elements at its base here: a treasure (either a spirit or a literal treasure) that is a secret from most, a sacrifice that is made to the waters, and the danger of its loss if someone learns the truth. Placed near a castle, perhaps we should expand to a family secret or rite, at the base of the water or in the cave hidden behind it. Perhaps also keep the strange and otherworldly spirit that lives there, just out of site.

Biblography

 Benjamin ThorpeNorthern Mythology: comprising the principal popular traditions and superstitions of Scandinavia, north Germany, and the Netherlands, 3 vols. London: Lumley, 1851–52, OCLC 656592812, Volume 2 Scandinavian Popular Traditions and Superstitions,

Kelly, Piers. “Excavating a Hidden Bell Story from the Philippines: A Revised Narrative of Cultural-Linguistic Loss and Recuperation.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 53, no. 2, 2016, pp. 86–113. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jfolkrese.53.2.04. Accessed 20 July 2020.

Puhvel, Martin. “The Mighty She-Trolls of Icelandic Saga and Folktale.” Folklore, vol. 98, no. 2, 1987, pp. 175–179. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1259977. Accessed 20 July 2020.

Scott, William Henry. “Sagada Legends.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 74, no. 291, 1961, pp. 57–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/538199. Accessed 20 July 2020.

“Jorōgumo.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 May 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jor%C5%8Dgumo.

“The Original Legend of the Maid of the Mist.” Niagara Falls Reporter, Niagara Falls Reporter, 13 Dec. 2014, http://www.niagarafallsreporter.com/Stories/2014/DEC16/MaidLegend.html.

Welker, Glenn. “Niagara Falls.” Indigenous People’s Literature, 8 Feb. 1996, http://www.indigenouspeople.net/niagara.htm.

Welker, Glenn. “The Sacrifice at Niagara Falls.” Indigenous People’s Literature, 8 Feb. 1996, http://www.indigenouspeople.net/sacrific.htm.

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Death Lights on the Marshland

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

The Resulting Story: Marshlights

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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5. THE TREVOR PROJECT: Founded in 1998 by the creators of the Academy Award®-winning short film TREVOR, The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25. https://give.thetrevorproject.org/giv…

6. THE COMMUNITY BAIL FUND: Protests mean arrests, arrests mean bail. Bail threatens the economic security of those fighting for justice. Help ensure safety of those arrested and donate to the community bail fund here: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/bail_funds_george_floyd

7. THE NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE FUND: The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. is America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans. LDF also defends the gains and protections won over the past 75 years of civil rights struggle and works to improve the quality and diversity of judicial and executive appointments.

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.