Polished Silver Distorts The Eye

This Weeks Prompt: 72. Hallowe’en incident—mirror in cellar—face seen therein—death (claw-mark?).

The Resulting Story: All Hallows Night

This prompt brings a few easily linked pieces of lore and understanding—mirrors, faces, and Halloween. We’ve discussed some of these before, mirrors notably here, but there is more to discuss then one post could entirely cover.

The role of the mirror in folklore is often one of truth revealing or deception. A mirror provides a clear reflection, or the clearest we can have, of the world around it. In times of antiquity, these mirrors were rare as well—and often made of silver, making them signs of wealth and the supernatural. It isn’t surprising then that many mirrors were in fact used in scrying and other magic for knowledge.

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The Yata No Kagami

One of the most famous instances in particular of a mirror for truth is the Yata no Kagami, part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. The mirror, dating back to to before 690 A.D. was used to lure Amaterasu back from her retreat into a cave. Like the other elements of the Regalia, the mirror was gifted to Amaterasu’s grandson when he set about unifying Japan and becoming emperor.

Not far from Japan, the mirror has a special role in Buryat and Mongolian shamanism. The Toli is a specially prepared ritual mirror that is capable of interacting with the supernatural. The mirror is circular, and among the Daur people has notable qualities of purifying water, contacting spirits, and healing wounds. In some cases they even contained the horses of the shaman, and might be layered as symbols of power—the more mirrors accumulated, the stronger the shaman was.

In more mundane uses, mirrors have been used as ways of contacting the beyond. One mirror was carefully made for the purpose as a part of the spiritualist movement—a movement we’ve discussed a number of times—that involves allowing the mirror to face nothing but a black ceiling so the dead may enter. By holding a candle close, users may see their dead loved ones.

Another folklore blog has noted a New England tradition by which one would discover their true love by walking down the stairs and looking into a mirror. Reciting words over the mirror while doing so reveals in it the image of one’s true love—or a coffin, which means they will die soon and alone! Of course, given falling down the stares because your focused and chanting over a mirror…well,I imagine it’d be dangerous for spell casters. 

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An Aztec Illustration Of A Mirror

In more ornate cases of mirror divination, various Mesoamerican cultures made use of obsidian mirrors to contact the world of the dead. The Maya depict their mirrors as tools of kings, and often hand held (although some larger illustrations show mirrors held by dwarfs and servants). The Aztecs believed the god Smoking Mirror observed all the world through his mirror of gold (his idol was made of obsidian, implying perhaps that all mirrors were his eyes into the world—a horror concept if I have heard of one). Spanish forces and authors attributed more to the fear and superstition of mirrors. Bernardino de Sahagun described the following occurrence:

The seventh sign or omen is that waterbird hunters caught a brown bird the size of acrane, and they brought it to Moctezuma to show him, he was in the room they call Tlillancalmecac. It was after midday. This bird had on its forehead a round mirror in which could be seen the sky and stars, especially the Mastelejos near the Pleiades. Moctezuma was afraid when he saw this, and the second time he looked into the mirror that the bird had, there he saw nearby a crowd of people gathered who came mounted on horses. And Moctezuma than called his augurs and diviners and he asked them “Don’t you know what this means? That many people are coming.” And before the diviners could reply, the bird disappeared, and they said nothing.”

One of these obsidian mirrors made it into the possession of famed occultist and astrologer John Dee—and is still in the British Muesum to this day.

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John Dee’s Mirror

Another famed folklore mirror is in the one on the wall in Snow White. Here again the mirror serves as a vehicle of truth and vanity—it does not give the answer desired, but the honest one. The other major mirror I recall from folklore—and more accurately, from an original fairy tale—is the one crafted in the opening of the Snow Queen. This mirror is again related to sight, but this time is related to the distortion of sight. The mirror, upon shattering, splinters the Devil’s work across the world. The mirror causes cynicism and despair in those who’s souls it penetrates.

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Another story from Granada deals with revealing of the truth by a mirror—the mirror is held by the barber, to find a potential wife for the king. The mirror will reveal blemishes of the soul on the silver of the mirror, helping the barber find a proper wife no matter rank or birth. This of course has the intended effect, and a proper but lowly wife is found. You can find the story here.

Delving a bit backwards for a moment, and dealing with a mirror that effects apperances and horror, we can consider Perseus. Danae, Perseus’s mother, was cast to sea after giving birth to him—long story, involves Zeus and a prophecy about Perseus murdering his grandfather—and upon washing ashore in Serifos, they were taken in by a fishermen and brother of the King. The King of Serifos desired Danae, but Perseus was a danger to his advances. At a party, Perseus rashly promised the king anything he desired—and the King asked for the head of the Gorgon Medusa, who’s form was so frightening that she turned men to stone with fright. To abbreviate the story, Perseus slays the monster with a mirror shield, avoiding directly gazing on the gorgon. Placing her head in a satchel, and ignoring the two creatures that spring from her neck (Pegasus and Chyrsoar), Perseus heads home to complete his story—which bears little relevance to our prompt.

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The prompt does remind me of a particular Lovecraft story—The Outsider, a Gothic horror story of a man who has spent all his life in a castle. The story follows his escape from isolation and entrance into a world that was naught but stories to him. The story’s conclusion and final twist I’ll not spoil (you can find the story in full here). Other instruments of viewing—such as glass of Leng—stick to the theme of revelation and truth.

The story here more reminds me of the child hood activity of dares—daring someone into the cellar on Halloween night, to gaze upon a mirror in darkness. It’s comparable to the idea of Bloody Mary, who appears by gazing into a mirror in the dark by candle light. Or the Blue Baby story, which poses another legend of a haunted mirror. I think that some combination of the two–the revelation of identity in the mirror and the dare of children–could make for a compelling case.  

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Dealing With The Devil

This Week’s Prompt: 71. Man has sold his soul to devil—returns to family from trip—life afterward—fear—culminating horror—novel length.

The Resulting Story: A Prodigal Son Returns

This month is something of a return to popular topics it seems. Last week, we had the creation of the world out of a person—not that dissimilar to the stories of Leviathan from a few years ago. This week, we return to the archnemesis of mankind and one of the most famed tropes in fiction: a deal with the devil. Through folklore onto plays in Shakespeares day, even into modern television, the Devil is a busy tradesmen and contract writer it seems.

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The first story of a deal with the devil—directly said as such—comes from the early church and Saint Theophilus. Saint Theophilus of Adana was a saint from the early 6th century, who according to the chronicler was a humble man that turned down an appointment to a bishopric. The bishop elected instead refused to give him a post as archdeacon. Now regretting his humility, Theophilus contacted a sorcerer or necromancer, and contacted the devil himself to gain his position. Theophilus renounced the Virgin Mary and Christ, and signed a contract in blood to become a bishop again. The devil fulfilled his end of the arrangement.

Not long later, however, the Saint Theophilus grew afraid for his immortal soul. He fasted for fourty days and prayed for forgiveness from the Virgin Mary. After chastising him, the Virgin Mary went to intercede with God. After another thirty days fasting, she returned and granted him absolution. The devil, displeased, three days later lay the contract on Theophilus’s chest. Theophius takes the contract to a real, non-diabolic bishop, who burns it. The saint then dies of joy.

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This story is among the first we have, but there are many more. Another holy man made a bargain with the devil to complete a bible before dawn in the early 13th century. This holy man had broken his monastic vows, and was in danger of being walled up a live ( a punishment we are familiar with). He prayed to no avail, until at last he called upon the Lord of Darkness. The Archenemy of All Mankind finished the work in an hour, and in memory, the book—now known as the Codex Gigas—contains a large picture of the Devil himself inside.

The greatest holy man to supposedly make deals with the devil was Pope Slyvester II. Pope Slyvester introduced Arabic numerals to the Western Church, and was rumored to have stolen a Arabian sorcerer’s spell book. The sorcerer pursued him, able to see all in heaven and earth by means of the stars, until the man who would be Pope slept atop a bridge in order to evade capture. Later on he used the spell book to summon forth a demonness in order to secure the Papacy, and created a brazen head of bronze that could answer any question posed to it (as long as it was a yes or no question). The demoness or the head warned the Pope that if he gave Mass in Jerusalem, the Devil would slay him—resulting in the pope canceling his planned pilgrimage.

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However, Pope Slyvester II did give a Mass at “The Holy Cross of Jerusalem”. And what happened there is somewhat disputed. One instance says the Pope felt suddenly ill, and requested that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered. Another says the devil did assault the Pope and ripped out his eyes. The Pope, pentient, chopped off his hands and tongue. After death, legends formed—based on a misreading of his tomb text—that his bones will shake whenever a Pope is close to death.

Another man of learning who regular dealt with the devil—although who never lost his soul in the process—was Saemundur Sigfusson. Saemundur’s deals range from transport back to Iceland on a seal, to learning the Dark Arts from the master himself. In each case, however, Saemundur outwitted the devil, often by causing the devil’s end of the deal to become impossible. For instance, the Devil promised to take him to Iceland on the back of a seal in exchange for his soul. Saemundur, wisely, killed the seal moments before it met the shore and walked off.

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John Fian was a more recent man accused of making deals with the devil. A Scottish schoolmaster, John was accused and confessed under torture to being a witch who had signed a contract with Satan himself. This deal granted him, if accusations are believed, the power to bewitch town folk—including a botched attempt that resulted in seducing a cow—and raising storms to destroy ships. The schoolmaster did, to his credit, claim to renounce Satan to his face. Sadly, he then attempted to flee authorities and was predictably burned alive after a rather nasty torture involving nails.

John Fian features in the book of the same time, the Demonlogiae, by King James. The book contains a section devoted to contracts with the Devil, who takes various forms to render various services. When curing disease, he appears as an animal. When answering great questions, he possesses the body of a dead man to fortell the future (an example of Necromancy, no doubt). Other times, a devil may take the form of a ring or enchanted item, and elementals—those angels that occupy the air, fire, earth, and water of the world—are also fallen devils. The services of the devil are often ones of revelation—often of secrets King James reckons are not to be revealed, as God has sealed them up, or of secrets that do not require diabolic aid. Further, the Devil’s work is accorded to be no more than illusions—his armies are but strange shapes in the wind, for true miracles only God can work.

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That of course, does not mean deals were made only for lofty goals of intellect. The tradition of a devil’s bridge is far more practical then the Faustian search for knowledge. These bridges are built with a pact of the devil and are often believed to be constructions of antiquity. Some versions it is the mason that gives their soul—in others, it is the first person to cross the bridge to give their soul. While there are many versions of the story, one version contains another saint—St. Julian the Hospitaller. The Saint, however, cons the devil by sending a pig or dog across instead of a human being.

Another case of practical skill is a man in Shropeshire wrestled or dealt with the devil for power over motion in many ways. He supposedly was able to compel a man to return to him after leaving a bar and hold him there in place, cast illness with his evil eye, and other nuisances.

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And of course, there is the most famous case of dealings with the forces diabloical—Faust. Johann Georg Faust is a historical figure attested to in a number of documents, but his legend makes any accurate statements difficult. Often driven out of town on accusations of fraud, Faust or Faustus—who may have been one or two individuals—claimed to be an alchemist, a doctor of philosophy, a doctor of medicine, an astrologer, and magician. His exact activities as he traveled are recorded somewhat:he preformed a astrology for a bishop in 1520, and banished from Nurnberg and Ingoldstadt in 1528 and 1530—on accounts of necromancy and sodomy. In 1536, he received recognition as a more genuine authority, and is last recorded in 1535 in Munster.

The legends around Faust existed in his life time. A man declaring himself Faustus Junior boasted of being able to preform the miracles of the bible. Other accounts credit Faust as boasting of granting the German Emperor victories in battle with magical means. Faust was rumored to have a dog that became a man servant, of flying, of deceiving men into rubbing their faces with arsenic to remove beard stubble, and more. In 1540 or 1541, Faust supposedly died of an alchemical accident. His body was greatly marred, reportedly as the devil had come for him at last to collect. Faust’s spellbooks have been published for two hundred years, the last one in 1691.

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Faust’s deal with the Devil is recorded in The Historical Faust, a German chapbook. The deal occurred in the Spesser Wald. It is recorded as such:

Now the Devil feigned he would not willingly appear at the spot designated, and he caused such a tumult in the forest that everything seemed about to be destroyed. He blew up such a wind that the trees were bent to the very ground. Then it seemed as were the wood with devils filled, who rode along past Doctor Faustus’ circle; now only their coaches were to be seen; then from the four corners of the forest something like lightning bolts converged on Doctor Faustus’ circle, and a loud explosion ensued. When all this was past, it became light in the midst of the forest, and many sweet instruments, music and song could be heard. There were various dances, too, and tourneys with spears and swords. Faustus, who thought he might have tarried long enough now, considered fleeing from his circle, but finally he regained his godless and reckless resolve and persisted in his former intention, come whatever God might send. He continued to conjure the Devil as before, and the Devil did mystify him with the following hoax. He appeared like a griffon or a dragon hovering and flattering above the circle, and when Doctor Faustus then applied his spell the beast shrieked piteously. Soon thereafter a fiery star fell right down from three or four fathoms above his head and was transformed into a glowing ball. This greatly alarmed Faustus, too. But his purpose liked him so well, and he so admired having the Devil subservient to him that he took courage and did conjure the star once, twice, and a third time, whereupon a gush of fire from the sphere shot up as high as a man, settled again, and six little lights became visible upon it. Now one little light would leap upward, now a second downward until the form of a burning man finally emerged. He walked round about the circle for a full seven or eight minutes. The entire spectacle, however, had lasted until twelve o’clock in the night. Now a devil, or a spirit, appeared in the figure of a gray friar, greeted Doctor Faustus, and asked what his desire and intent might be. Hereupon Doctor Faustus commanded that he should appear at his house and lodging at a certain hour the next morning, the which the devil for a while refused to do. Doctor Faustus conjured him by his master, however, compelling him to fulfill his desire, so that the spirit at last consented and agreed.

Faust’s bargain specified that the spirit sent would serve him for period of time. At the end of this period, he would surrender himself to the spirit. He forsook the Christian faith and signed such in blood. In exchange he gained any desire he wished—although not marriage, as that was a sacrament. The spirit appeared hence as a Fransican monk.

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Faust then inquired many things of his spirit guide, flying into the heavens, descending into hell, learning falsehoods about astrology and others. He stayed in the Pope’s palace invisible, slept with the wives of the Sultan while wearing the sultan’s form, and more. He cursed a knight to have antlers, trapping him in a window; he gathered food for a pregnant countess and created all manner of animals; he conjured Helen of Troy to show his talents of necromancy; he encountered sorcerer’s who could chop off their heads and put them back on again.

In the end, Faust’s students begged him to ask for forgiveness. And he tried to. But Faust was convinced his contract damned him, and so could not genuinely ask for forgiveness. And so he met a gruesome end, which I will not repeat here. Faust leaves a will and testament, granting his butler Wagner all of his belongings. (I will note here: the original Faust chapbook, linked here, is shockingly anti-Semetic in many ways.)

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Later versions of Faust include more details—the play of Goethe add a love intreast that might redeem him, and the role of doubt as near conversion is expanded. Goethe also added a happy ending—Faust at the end of Part II is redeemed by the angels as Mehpistophles lusts after them.

More modern takes on the Deal with the Devil focus on an interesting and specific talent and form of expression—music. Folktales about violinists making deals with the devil include: Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), who was rumored to deal with the devil and who was not permitted a church burial upon death; Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), who wrote a sonata based on his encounter with the devil; Philippe Musard (1792-1859), who’s wild conducting style convinced some that he had also made pacts with the devil; Tommy Johnson (1895-1956), a blues musician who’s brother claimed he sold his soul for guitar playing skills; and Robert Johnson (1911-1936), who made a similar deal. And of course, there is the folk song about the Devil going down to Georgia.

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The deal with the devil persist in popular culture, although the cause over time seems to have changed. The major deals with the devil I recall—such as Futurama’s The Devil’s Hands are idle Play Things or it’s later movie The Beast with a Billion Backs— present deals with the devil as matters of passion and love. The Disney movie Princess and the Frog has a non-literal deal with the devil for status and freedom in a more traditional mode, however. The film Anastasia features a reference to a pact with Rasputin in exchange for sorcerous power—in a way reminscent of the Disney film. Generally, however, deals with the devil are lately things of lost hope and desperation—I have more examples, but they are spoilers for shows worth of material. This contrasts the model that folklore presents, where deals are made not to save lives, but to advance one’s station and power over the world or to increase one’s knowledge. And to be honest, that is more tragic to me.

At the end of the day, a deal to save a life is a heroic sacrifice. It’s tragic, and poignant, and sad, but ultimately it’s a failure to think things through or let go or consider alternatives. The deal with the devil plays on character flaws, but often for a goal that is more easily accepted. The problem is mostly these stories are about saving people—not about the heart of the original deal with the devil, which is the loss of an immortal promise for mortal gain. Some deals change this by making the deal with the devil not about the soul itself directly, but about actions that lead to torment and the path of wickedness anyway.

Our story resembles a song I heard once: The Devil’s Train by Lab Rats. Unlike the more famous song, the Devil Went Down To Georgia, this story features a more diabolical assault. The character features an unspecified deal with the devil and…well, you can watch it here:

The Deal with Devil here is for the soul of the man. The question is, what did the man trade for? What did he receive for his immortal soul? For the story to work, we need I think for the stories unsettling terror and growing fear to work the change should be…less spectacular then Dr. Faust. More practical, more pragmatic. As to what a man is like without his soul…well, I think that is the source of dread and uncertainty isn’t there? That there’s something intangiblelly…unsettling about a person. The deal, of course, should be a secret I think. A trip abroad can change someone, and that gives us some cover for the changes in one of our characters.

The relationships at play here are also uncertain. I have been assuming the man is the patriarch of the family, but on reflection the horror might work better with a young man…it is easy to grow so distant from a person that you no longer recognize them. A trip abroad exacerbates that effect. I myself am going abroad soon, so such changes are on my mind…hm. There’s a good deal to think about for this story.

I will note that I intend to ignore the ‘novel length’ suggestion—The story may be long, but certainty not that long.

Works Referred To:

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

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The Root of the Mountain

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

The Resulting Story: Mountain out of a Man

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

Tiamat

Marduk fighting Tiamat

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

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

Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;

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

Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,

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

Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,

Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.

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

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

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

They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.

Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;

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

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

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Ymir and his cow

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

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

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Svyatogor coming on his steed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s a Masquerade!

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

The Resulting Story: And Off Fell His Mask

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

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

Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight after his game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masque of the Red Death

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

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

King In Yellow Book Cover.png

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

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

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

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

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

Bacchae.png

The Climax of the Bacchae

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hold Fast!

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

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

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

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

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

Demon Sigils.png

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

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

Orgone Cloud Buster

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

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

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

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

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


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The Dread Horsemen

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

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

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

Horseman of the Apoclypse.png

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

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

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

Nuckaleeve.png

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

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

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

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

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

Blucifer.png

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

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

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

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

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

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Networks of the Dead

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

The Resulting Story: The Death of Mr. Donovan

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

Catacombs Rome.png

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

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

CAtacombFrance.png

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

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

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

AbandonedNewYork.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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