A Buried Feast

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

The Story: A Strange Estate

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

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

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A Gathering of Ghouls from a Persian text

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

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

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The Astrological Symbol for Algol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

 
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A Certain Preponderance of Witnesses

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

The Prior Research:It’s Alive!

The day after Orem was hung, there was a collective sigh of relief. I sipped tea as I read the report in the paper. A fraudster, who baited men and women into a world of drugs and prostitution, Orem’s sentence came down in the courts after he stole a well of woman’s gold chain for a spell of his. The chain he returned that was ‘enchanted’ a week later was a forgery of iron with gold plating.

It was, in all honesty, not the most impressive theft of his. He had made off with more in a month before. But the daring had roused enough attention that at last, I had the pleasure of laying hands on him and seeing him brought before learned judges. I had not seen the hanging, but like many things in life, once a sufficient mass of witnesses and reports emerge, the matter can be considered settled.

My office was lined with paraphenelia of the case, even a year later. A small set of ring-circuits were beneath my name-plate, little jeweled metal rings that reflected the electirc light directly overhead. When the mood struck me, I’d examine the small quartz stones, with carefully painted cracks. Orem was no madman, no distant lunatic who had lost touch with reality. Such exquiste and elaborate lies require a certain mindset and planning to be made real. One that I had assumed was unique to Orem.

So, imagine my suprise, when a new edition to my collection was brought to me by a nervous widow. She had found it in her floor board, she explained quietly. Years ago, she had been one of the women to bring testimony regarding Orem’s activites to the jurists.

Is it…one of his?” She asked hesitantly, as I examined the small circlet under a glass. “I thought, once, I saw him in a crowd. Or someone like him once, with his eyes.”

The ring is similair in make…but do not worry, miss. It’s fairly well documented what became of Orem. If this was planted at your home, its the work of a copycat. Someone trying to intimidate you.” I said, looking over the engravings on the rings. Thin painted lines on the small coppr ring, and a carefuly polished black stone—not actual onyx, but a forgery style that was familiar.

Are you certain? A sorcerer such as him, maybe he sent a ghost from beyond the grave.” The widow said shifting. “Ah, I knew it, I knew talking about it was a mistake.”

Orem’s forgeries are just that—forgeries. He was a showman, an actor, and a swindler. Not a sorcerer.” I said as reassuringly as possible. “I will look into whoever planted this—emotional terror is a tool of cowards.”

I had put that aside,when another report drifted in. Someone had seen Orem, near a graveyard outside town. He had a shovel and his old ragged jacket and scarf with charms sewn into it. Another woman came in, with pictures of her ceiling covered in markings that only Orem had made. At last, I set out from the office to the graveyard to investigate for myself. Once a certain numbr of witnesses reliable report an event, it comes dangerously close to true.

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The graves rippled out from larger mauselums, with broken stones and crumbled remains poking out of the dust. Between the graves were those praying for fortune or paying respects. My eyes scanned the dirt for footsteps as clouds gathered over head.

No, I didn’t see him exactly. Just someone out in the graveyard…it could have been a jinn for all I know.”

The first man I’d asked had found the notion of Orem’s return as unlikely as I did. But he had seen someone out in the yard, he couldn’t deny that someone had been out there in the morning mist, moving among the stones. Searching, maybe, for some buried talisman that Orem had used on them long ago. I pressed him to who had reported, before finding near the gates one of the witnesses.

I couldn’t look away. Someone had driven nails into my feet, and filled my mouth with cotton. It was his eyes in the night that did it.”

His eyes were wide, he whispered fearfully to describe the strange presence. A shadow on the moonlight. After the first, the second came unbidden.

It was him! I saw his scarf in the night winds, blowing back. And he walked with a limp—Orem had a limp, of course you remember. And he had that laugh, that laugh like a hyena.”

She was certain and frantic. The shape in the night had been Orem, and she would not enter the graveyard until an exorcist came. I was less patient, and went ahead. He had been seen in the western part of the cemetery. He had been seen where he was buried. My hand felt the small silver ring in my pock, its smooth onyx top.

GraveYardMoroccoAltered

Orem had received a proper burial. He had been given a good set of stones, at his feet and head, with his name written beautifully in swirling calligraphy. I walked around the body, looking carefully. If the new con man was stirring up fears, he would have left tracks. If he intended to dig up the old master, then there would be markings on the grave…and sure enough there are.

The soil’s been disturbed, recently too. The surface was slightly darker, and the marks of being packed by shovel were still visible despite the wind. Faded over the body were footsteps, boots that had left an imprint. There was, covered in some dirt, a small drop of wax. A candlit grave robbery. Not exactly what I had expected…but it confirmed that someone was rummaging in the rubble of Orem. And I knew where they’d go next.

Orem’s place of buisness was not far from the graveyard. From the outside, the building was unassuming. It was bare, even. The sort of thing you’d pass on the street and wonder if it was for rent. It was also therefore hard to find, hard to find again after you’d visited, especially if you went home in a daze of drugs.

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The door had a knocker, but I didn’t bother. On the sides of the frame, visible only from within the doorway, were strips of paper with blue ink scrawling down them. They’d decayed with the lack of inhabitant, curling and warping slightly with the weather so that the script was no longer legible. I pushed the door aside to find the workshop within.

The front room was clearer now then when we first took Orem. The incense was no longer burning. There was no chanting playing through speakers. The maps of the body, with each of its paths outlined carefully, still hung from the wall. An elaborate serpent wound its way along the wall facing the the door, its curves and curls highlighting eyes.

Around the room were various tools of Orem’s trade. Metal bars with sets of dice for geomancy, an apparatus of crystal and metal that he used to “speak with the jinn”, by focusing the energies of the invisible. A brass horn was abandoned, one of many gathering dust that glimmered in the sunlight. It was a more convenient way to “hear” those unseen spirits. But the true horrors were not in the front, were business was conducted.

Parting the beads, I went into the back room…or rooms. The wall seperating the sections had been smashed apart, leaving bits haging from the ceiling. Looking down I saw the chalked scribbles on the floor that I took pains to step over, my flash light shining across for hazards or signs of entry. There were metal cans of dirt, with the skulls of rats and burns nailed down to hold them in place, sewing needles out of their eyes. Small chimes dangled in front of the only window, dust settling gradually over the entire place.

In the center of the rooms was a large pot, one of those industrial pots for feeding hundres of people. Dolls of woven cloth and plant matter hung from it’s rim by piano wire, crests burnt into them and more than one having a cigarreete butt for a head. Walking around it, I saw the cauldron was also full of…well, dirt. It wasn’t quite dirt. It was, but there was a deep crevass carved down it’s center, and stains that were still almost viscous and bright red marred it. Wine, rotted from within, somehow bursting out. The smell of rotting eggs hunger over the wound, my light catching the tattered remains of an elaborate paper cover. Metal bolts were driven into the earth, catching the light ever slightly. Striations and veins marred it, carved after this mass had hardened into something stable.

The wind came in, and the chimes caught my attention back upward, away from the broken metal skull. There was the shelf, smashed open, shards of glass scattered on the floor. Inside were trinkets, books with pages sealed by honey and oil in order to maintain their secrets, and ensure the curses he’d bound inside never escaped. Photos of the shelf had helpedin the trial, but the books and strange bugs covered in careful paint had been left behind. They were too heavy, I remember. Not worth the trouble.

Someone stealing the books was expected. Orem wasn’t the only charlatan out there…and true beleivers would want a taste of that power. Being able to brandish the tools of an old terror was in it of itself worth it. Carefully counting the books, I noted sure enough a few missing. As I leaned down to examine the breach, I heard a rustle of the beads parting. My heart racing, I went back behind the shelf and clicked the light off.

In the twilight of the room all was still and silent for the next eternity. I hoped it was just the wind and nerves. A shadow slinked along th wall, with a small flickering light. The face was turned away from my hiding spot, a hand running along the walls and gently tapping it for something. His hand stretched to the ceiling, searching idly, before rolling his form around.

His face was full illumined as he examined the cauldron. His face, it’s lower half covered by a surgeon’s mask, was stained ever so slightly. The eyes searched the room slowly, reflective like a cats eyes. Yellowed, familiar eyes. Eyes that did not meet mine, as they again turned away, examining one of the dolls hanging from the pot. But eyes that still haunted me as my breath stopped for, that floated there without body in the air, small yellow flames flickering.

I took a step forward, unsure if I should bolt for the door or take my chances and strike him hard in the head. Strike good and hard and send the ghoul back to his grave. Strike, and send this cunning ruse back into the night. Strike, and be done with it. I rushed, and swung away, I heard the crunch of metal on the back of a soft head.

I never mentioned that visit to anyone. I don’t know which thought worries me more at night, when I look at those old rings. The nagging worry that maybe, maybe it wasn’t him. It was some looter, or a homeless man, and I’d killed them or knocked them out in cold blood out of supersitous fear. Or…if Orem had returned.


Adding this to the list of ones I think could be meaningfully extended. Honestly, I had scheduling problems this week, with finals coming up, and so am a little disappointed I couldn’t give this more attention. I tried to capture the uncanny sense that can exist around the dead and, in ethnographic and biographic accounts, around the sorcerer.Next week, we stalk the graves again with stranger creatures–fearsome undertakers await!

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It’s Alive!

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

The Resulting Story: A Certain Preponderances of Witnesses

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

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

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

GolemofPrauge

A recreation of the Golem of Prauge.

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

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

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

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

SunWukonFightsALion

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

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

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

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

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The Brand of Nasht

This Week’s Prompt: 63. Sinister names—Nasht—Kaman-Thah.

The Relevant Research:What’s In a Name?

It started in my left palm when I was five, dying skin forming a single pale letter. It stretched out in both directions like a skeletal pair of wings or an ant with too many legs. There were hushed whispers of what it meant, but for ten years the spreading script in some unintellegible language continued. At last, my mother sat me down in private, as both hands already stung to use and searing marks made their way down my back. And she told me a story. A story of her old life, away from the hills, when she lived on the plains of Kaman-Thah.

On those plains, in the house of a noble queen, a word was spoken in wrath and greed, in prideful seeking of power from old scrolls. And this hidden word, this ancient name, spread along the walls and pillars, like ivy of fire. Those who heard it broke and bent, and the first bearer of the name emerged from the carnival of seared flesh. Within days, her home was changed in way she couldn’t say. The name that scarred the stars in the sky, granted fire to the eyes, and rent the veils to hidden places spread not just in the shouting of the mad man plague, but seared its way into souls through their very eyes. She had fled into the hills, pregnant with me when she reached the hills, among people who nothing of the word, her face bearing scars of that old encounter.

To rid herself of the name that wormed it’s way through her flesh and blood, sketching itself into her eyes and cheeks, she spoke it one more time alone to me. For my first name was that ancient and dread name, exorcised into me as a babe. She gave my second name to me in a proper ceremony, bore it in a sealed talisman, and taught it to everyone so that the children wouldn’t release that poison. But they knew. If not the form, they knew the substance.

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And now, the name long dormant, never spoken for more than a decade, was waking. It was time for me to go, lest it burst free and devour my home. They had considered killing me before now. But they were afraid. The curse might escape in my blood on the ground, or into the air with my dying breath. So I wasn’t going to die. But I couldn’t stay.

I begged my mother not to send me out of the hills I had known. I begged to stay somehow. I begged even for life not that far off, on a hill a day away, in a hut of my own building. But there was no negotiating. I pleaded a way to cure the markings that spread. My mother showed mercy, her diamond face cracking slightly. She knew no cure for that curse, she confessed. But perhaps, in the storied halls where the name had been kept, deep in Kaman Thah, I might find solace. She told me which direction to run, gave me a meal to depart with, and sent me on my way.

My first thought was to go to my neighbors, but there door was locked and they didn’t here my knocking on the door. By the time I gave up on receiving hospitality from anyone I’d known , the sun was rising impatiently on the horizon. Hurry up, it whispered on the morning breeze. You can’t lurk here forever. I set out then, with but a meal and a notion of where to go.

When I wondered into other towns, ones that new my marks and hurled stones at me, I thought of home. I wondered if they wept when I was gone, or if they had done all the weeping when I was born. I learned to wear heavy rags, to scavenge clothes on the days journey, following whispers as hunger gnawed away at me. I barely slept, even on those nights where my bed was the soft grass and my roof a friendly moon. Most nights it was neither.

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A waste encircles Kaman Thah. The ground is a rusty red, a scabbed over wound from long ago. Spires shoot up on the horizon, arrow shafts jammed into the flesh of the earth. I scurried across the crumbling dried mud that made up the cloudless land, forgetting my rags I drew near. There was a faint wind, heaving over the ground and forcing a thin mist of the

I saw the letters that were emerging on my skin inscribed into shattered stones that seemed to pulse as I got close. I saw rotting blots that made the contours of characters on the trenches that ringed the city. When I approached the great gates, broken down and twisted by unseen hands, I saw the cancerous cyan light all around me. The windows and doors of the buildings were bloated and molded into half formed faces within faces, crumbling edifices that if somehow brought together would be a perfect sculpture of the dread sorcerer. Pulsing stars made up their brickwork and mortar, hanging on the skeletons as the flesh of a jellyfish lightly adheres to water.

As I took in the sight of so much mutilated masonry, I heard footfalls down the streets. There, hunched over the twisted fractal fingers that a statue had become, was a thing like a man or dog. Its forelimbs where bent thrice, a jagged line that ended in double-sided hands that seemed stitched together. A tail with a luminous stinger swept back and forth as it observed me, its face a mass of iron that dripped onto the floor. The thing loomed over, white flames slipping out of the shifting eyes. For a moment, I thought that like a stray dog it may be befriended, beast in this strange city that might enjoy company. And then it screeched at me and bolted off.

As I felt the pang of not being of interest, I grew suddenly afraid of a more terribly shape and sound—a drunken and sickly choir making its way toward me, a mass of bodies lurching forward with jaws that reached to their distended stomachs and flesh that folded together. At once they were one and then many, and when that sea of eyes laid on me, they were far less passive. Their bodies became vigorous and the tide surged towards me as I ran down a nearby alley, weaving through the paths that from above formed the start of that name. I hid behind a door of open palms as the mass surged past, its many arms still outstretched to find more food for the fold.

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When I was sure they passed, I slipped back out. Clutching the cloth close over my warped limb, I carried on. I didn’t know what I was looking for…or rather I knew, but not what it would be. My mother had said to seek scrolls for some cure, but I had no illusions that such a thing could be found. Not anymore. No, in this city of broken reflections and copies of copies and recreations that crumbled after themselves, I sought the name in it’s fullness. I sought that thing that was what I might be, what I could become.

I sought to drive a knife into its head and make it bleed for cursing me, to watch it die on the streets of its own shape, until from its corpse I might find meaning and that most basic of life’s blessings that was stolen from me. I wanted to watch that damned sorcerer’s pusling form die in his temple to himself, bleed out in his own ego.

Other creatures appeared, but seemed unconcerned with me. A great winged thing, with a serpent neck and a head full of eyes flew over head. It’s feathers fell sloppily on the floor, cracking the ground beneath the wait of letters they formed. The name was everywhere, but unfinished and poorly rendered. I knew the shapes from my hand, where it still refined and spread even then. I followed the sections that looked most finished, that most resembled my palms brand, for what have been days—for the sun and moon and stars all too were bent stranger here, into writing in glowing lines upon a twisted sky.

Temple Hall1.png

Until at last after days of worming my way through the mass of bodies and brickwork, I found it. A towering temple body. A hundred hands drooped onto the street, pillars of the hunched over form. As I stepped between them, into the interior, I saw that the arms that held the dreadful body aloft were fractal, each composed in turn of a hundred smaller limbs. Within I saw a glimmer of light reflecting off some strange shape inside.

Haggard and tired breaths pushed through the body of the sorcerer, from mouths unseen. The smell was at one time putrid rot, at other times sweet honey. My gaze fell upon the head of the aborrent thing which was made of rust red flesh, colder and less harsh on the eyes than my own limb. In the back, staring over the finger formed iconostasis with a many pupiled eyes it waited. I drew closer, waiting for a snarl. Waiting for a sign, a woven spell, a flash of light, or worse.

Closer, closer, crawling over the bent wall and remains. With a sharp stone in hand, I was close enough to touch that strange pulsing mass of eyes. Carefully balanced, I stared at the infinite inscriptions of the name, each marking and completion within itself. Over and over it worked itsway on the flesh of the temple, symetrical and unbroken if faded with the winds of time. Every blow bled that name in bright colors down its red face, down my hand and on the stone as I smashed it’s eyes and skulls apart screaming vengance, laughing, crying as it bled and as the breath began to stop.

I feel to my knees laughing as the dread sorcerer died, my hundred hands holding me above the ground. My hundred fold eyes saw the temple fade into another corpse, as I stood tall. It was dead, except in my head. The name was gone, and I left that city triumphant and towering over the broken and half-formed progeny of it’s endeavor. The pains of my flesh born limbs were gone, and I set my eyes northward, to show my mother what I had become.


I enjoyed writing this story. I think it could obviously use some work, but this is the first one in sometime that I felt at least had a fun premise and concept. It was nice to write after some more academic work, and to indulge in something like character work–something that is usually lacking in the stories I manage to produce in a week.

Next week! Making life, the new old way!

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What’s In a Name?

This Week’s Prompt: 63. Sinister names—Nasht—Kaman-Thah.

The Resulting Story: The Brand of Nasht

We begin this week with an interesting pair of names that are of note in the world of the Mythos: Nasht and Kaman-Thah are the priestly guardians of the Dreamlands of Earth, preventing the unworthy from journeying there in slumber. This role lacks the sinister overtone that Lovecraft has here described; all accounts point to Nasht and Kaman-Thah being beneficent forces of caution. Digging around the paragraphs or so dedicated to them in the Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath, we find a few suggestions of where to go. They wear crowns of Egypt and have at the center of their temple is a pillar of fire that seems to reference Zorastrian fire shrines. Mr. Lovecraft’s interest in magicians of the middle east—hardly a unique topic for his time—is well noted.

However, the use of names might provide more of a resource. Names are things with no small amount of power. The real name of an individual can grant power over said person. Isis gained power over Ra by means of learning his true name. Ra in turn formed the gods from naming of his limbs, according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These names can be invoked for the safety of the travel into the world of the dead. The name of a god invokes their power—it is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost that Catholic and Orthodox rites are preformed, for instance. The inability to name or create image of the Abhramic God is precisely because of this power wrapped up in names.

TheFuries

The Kindly Ones

This power of names and the divine extends further into mystic and magical arts. Writing the name on pieces of lead and burying it in the ground was a common way to lay a curse on someone in Greece and Rome. The recitation of names is key in conjuring forth demons in the Goetic arts. In the Odyssey, the name of Odysseus has to be learned for the curse of Polyphemeus to lay hold on him. Without the name, the curse couldn’t find its mark and be grounded in the world. Names are often changed for the sake of politeness: The Friendly Folk and Kindly Ones (the fae and furies, respectively), are named not so much for accuracy as for appeasement.

The names of children are of special importance. Many cultures take pains to wait to name the child, especially in regions with high infant mortality. The role of Christening in some countries doubles as protecting the child and marking the child as a social being. The child becomes more real when named. Naming a child after an ancestor honors the deceased and builds protection. The Netsilik and other Inuit people invoke lengthy names, therefore, so that a newly born child has a number of protectors. New names are added to the child’s birth name as life goes on, helping further protect them.

Abraxas

Abraxas

Amulets in particular often have names inscribed on them, in order to ensure the protection of the depicted figures. Amulets may have gods themselves, saints, and so forth. The most memorable of such entities, for me, is Abraxas. Abraxas is a rather strange entity, a god or demon or aeon or perhaps the God, who we know chiefly through amulets that display his form: a man with a rooster’s head and snakes for legs.

The Olympian Spirits—not to be confused with the Olympian Gods of Greece—also provide power by engraving their names on objects, granting long lives, familiars, and other mystical powers. With proper preparation, these strange entities are formidable tools of magic indeed. Sadly, whatever tradition they belong to appears lost to history.

The Sigils of the Olympic Spirits

Symbols of the Olympian Spirits, for use on amulets.

Other times, the actor takes on the name and role—and thus power—of an entity by assuming their name and a mask. This role, often taken up by priests, could give insight into our ensuing plot where one becomes the named entity for a duration of time.

The name then has mystical and magical import built into it. But the problem is greater here, in that theses names we are given are sinister, left handed and wicked. What does it mean for a name to be sinister? Is it a wicked sounding name? In all likelihood, that is what Lovecraft meant, but that is a boring answer so I’ll ignore it.

Hephestus

Hephaestus, the occasional employer of the Dactyls.

As a brief aside, while digging for information on name invocation, I came across an oddity. Now, its fairly well known that sinister has its roots in the Latin for left handed(sinister). The act of theurgy, sorcery, and demonic invocation traces itself back, etymologically, to the left hand Dactyls. This connection, while tenuous, seems like it could be built on. After all, Egypt and Babylon have sorcerer connotations to some (we discussed the implications of that here, in case your wondering). Names then could wrack strange effects on the world.

Another answer is that these names are emblematic of wicked or dangerous powers. These are sinister names, in that they are names not meant to be said or they will draw unwanted attention when invoked. A curse or a demon swear. The names, when given or spoken or taken, work some disturbing change on that which they touch. We can consider the various names that mustn’t be said in this category. Hastur’s supposedly dangerous name, for instance, is in this category.

Another possiblity is that the assumption of this name brings about something sinister. By becoming, in a very real way, Nasht or Kaman-Thah, the person becomes wicked or inclined to wickedness. They become something like a demon by taking on the mantle of long lost powers.

That leaves what has happened. We could do a story that tells how these ancient names became sinster—what force or history made them so corrosive? Alternatively, the names are inscribding on a tablet, a piece of paper, an amulet of some sort that afflicts the people who behold it or touch it. The names themselves are inciting and powerful implements, if mostly passive agents in the world. What effects they cause, what curses they bear are matters to be worked out.

I think I will take a different route. Instead of dealing with the horror at first and straight ahead, it would be better to come at the invocation and evocation of these dread names as things of the past. The utterances or history of these names, written and embodied in the world.

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The Bride and The Bridge

This Weeks Prompt: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.

The Research:All Walled Up

I remember that fateful day, down by the bubbling stream. We left the crumbling remains of stone all the more bitter than before, as bits of men and mortar were washed away again. The command had come down, from the voice of the river herself. The bridge would not rise, until someone had died.

First she asked for a pair of twins, named Strong and Sturdy. I went out, with the King’s ring and funerary pay. I searched in the valleys and fields, in the woods and riverbeds. I went between hill and vale, through moors and mountains, but not a sign of them. The children were gone. Maybe they already lay as corner stones to some other bridge. Or maybe the river was cruel, and delighted in struggle.

We despaired, until we found a stranger on our roads. Then we delighted, and slipped some belladonna in his drink. So we set about building again, tossing the traveler we found on the road into the hole. He was unawares as the soil filled up around him, and the stones were laid above him, a tomb of strong masonry if nameless. The good Lord would recognize him on judgment day anyway.

The stone bent, the wood snapped as the river roared to life. We saw her then, the ala rising from the waves like a storm swirling out of the clouds. She towered over the three of us, myself the chief mason, the King and the Duke. She made her demands more clear this time.

The Bridge1.png

“You give us not twins, but one, not a friend, but a stranger, buried in his sleep, that none my know? And you thought by this we would be sated?” She boomed on the winds and spray. “A hundred bones will grid my stones, unless a new offering is brought. Bring us not an old man, not an orphan, not a stranger, not a widow, not an ill man, or grandmother. Bring us a mother, a wife still young that we will hold them close, in the stones of your bridge.”

With that, she crashed as a wave onto the rubble, and washed away men and mortar.And so we three, wind biting at our cloaks, made our way to the hills, clouds hanging round our thoughts. Between us, we each had a young boy, and a wife. I knew in my heart, as the wind as chilled as my blood, that there would be much mourning soon.

“How should we decide,” The Duke asked, examining his nails with his thumb, “who will suffer this terrible fate?”

“If all is to be fair, we should cast lots.” I mused, unable to meet their eyes. My sweet summer flower, buried beneath the stones, weighed heavily on me. It seemed that giving fate the knife and telling her to cut the line would at least make it bearable.

“That is too vulgar for something like this…” The king said, staring back at the river. “Let us give it all unto God, and the masons, so we cannot cheat the river. I will go among them. Whosoever’s wife brings their meal tomorrow morn, they will wall up below.”

We each shook on the arrangements, and made our way, thoughts of doom lingering long over our heads. The fog rolled up the hills, as we all took our beds, for what might be the last time. I smiled at dinner with my Dmitri and Katrina. They had condolences over the failure of the bridge, although by then…well, it was hardly surprising. The stew and bread were warm, and hearty, and dread wore me down to sleep swiftly.

Ah, that dreadful day, when the sun came over head. My flower sweet Katrina woke, and went with the others to fetch water. We came quietly to the masons camp and waited, looking on the horizon. The fog was still there, the dew still wet when we saw her, my lovely wife in white, her head scarf held tight with a basket of bread and a pail of water.

“Sweet Katrina, why do you come alone?” I asked, my heart heavy. She smiled with rosy cheeks as she came down the hill. The masons took their bread, as did the king and the duke. With their iron shovels, they began to dig.

“Ah, her Majesty fell ill. And the Lady Duchess took to bed with a fainting spell.” my sweet Katrina said. “So the work was left only to me. The load was heavy, but I knew the hunger would be heavier for my husband.”

I smiled as best I could. Oh, a fool I was to trust other men with promises of fair play, when their loves and lives were on the line. One of the workman put his hand on my shoulder, a wieght holding my ghost from escaping. In the years since, I’ve not forgotten his words.

“The bridge is ready for the lady.” He said grimly. My smile fell, my face felt hot.

“What’s this? You prepared the bridge again for me?” My sweet Katrina said with a laugh.

“Yes…The river wants a burial.” The workman said. I couldn’t even speak, I just hung my head.

Coward I was, to not set upon them then and there, and fight the call of the tide. I saw the Ala in the winds watching then, waiting. The bridge was still a fragile thing. It would bend and break.

“Oh, and it’s to be me?” My Katrina said with another laugh. The workman nodded, and the two of us lead her to the opening in the foundation. We wrapped around her eyes a blindfold of white, and a red cloth for the angel of death around her neck.

We lowered her gently down to the stone floor. It was a deep, slanted hole in the earth, smoothed walls on every side. As deep as a grave, as wide as three men side to side.

“Well, its not the most comfortable, but the stones have been harder.” My Katrina jested. She smiled up at us for moment…until the workmen shoveled in dirt. She shouted and cursed at the bruises.

“That’s enough of that! What kind of game is it to throw dirt at a wife?” She said, as the dirt began to cover her feet. She ran her heads on the pit’s walls, but they were smooth. I looked away.

“What civilized wit you have, to make a show of a woman like this. But please, I’m sure the point is past, you can stop now. I’m going to need some help getting out of this.” My Katrina said, the dirt up to her waist, as she pushed up despite the flowing dirt.

“What have I done for this? Please, what have I done?” She cried out, as her struggling arms were covered to the elbow. “What have I done to die like this?”

The dirt rose to her neck, the workman silent as they set stones around her.

“God take you! Should your brothers trod on my bridge, you cowards and monsters, I hope they are smashed into the river rocks and drown! The plague take you by the throat, you and all your kin!” She shouted, full of venom.

TheFoundation.png

“Even if it is your own brother?” The mason asked, the last dirt in his shovel.

“Where is he now?” She hissed back. And then was silent ever more.

The bridge still spans the river, unbroken yet. The ala stays silent beneath, shaking occasionally but no more than from wind and rain. The clouds seem to linger over head, longer than before, obscuring the eye of God from what we have done.

I come to visit her often. I lay flowers by my Katrina’s stone, with my son beside me. I wonder too, where her brother roams. It does not matter. He is too late, and my gifts are too little. She is restless in the earth now. In my dreams and waking hours, I hear her cry out. But as then, I do nothing.


 

This story was fun to right, and figuring the perspective was the most difficult part. It could be expanded–originally the tale ended on a note of vengeance on the deceptive Duke and King, but that was taking too long. At this brief, I think it works well.

Next week, we go to a new prompt! Names of Power and Praise!

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All Walled Up

This Weeks Research: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.
The Resulting Story: The Bride and The Bridge

There are few fates more terrible then being buried alive. The paranoia about being buried alive has gripped entire cultures. Victorians laid bells and viewing glasses, so that the living might distinguish themselves from the dead. Modern day variants include being buried with a cellphone, in case that dreadful fate occur to them. But this prompt is about a far older practice: Immurement .

Burying a live victim into the foundations of a building is an old and common practice. Bridges in particular often have some buried in the stone in order to appease those spirits into whose domain they cross. River gods, you see, frequently asked for brides or attendants. An immurement was a more permanent payment, that the strength of the spirit maintain the bridge and appease the spirit.

The Balkans have stories of a morbid, Gothic character of a spirit demanding first two twins (who’s names are Strong and Sturdy). When this fails, the spirit demands a wife of the community: Not a stranger, not a widow, not an orphan. No, it must be the wife of the chief mason or the nobility. The wife is taken, often laughing until she is placed in the hole. Then, realizing her fate, she begins begging for freedom, then turns to cursing her kin, until at last she asks that her right side (Her arms, hand, and face) be left free, that she may gaze upon her newborn child. And this is done, and she nurses her child for another week (or longer, as sometimes the bridge still produces breast milk to this day).

The variations in this story sometimes make it more tragic. In the first place, sometimes the woman is decided by a promise among the three lords: whoever brings the workman their food first will be sacrificed. However, the first and second nobles break their code of silence and warn their wives. The youngest and noblest stays to his word. Come morning, the older women avoid bringing the food down. And the youngest, realizing what has happened, tries delaying the younger woman’s descent. She curses them all as she is walled up by the masons.

iphigenia.png

This deception is similar to the Greek story of Iphigenia. Here, Agamemnon is told that for the winds to rise and the thousand ships Helen launched to sail, his daughter must be sacrificed. Unlike our other stories, this sacrifice is commanded because Artemis has been offended by the king—he killed a deer in her sacred grove, and thus must compensate blood for blood. He conspires with his brother to tell his wife to send his daughter—Iphigenia—to the camp, where she will wed Achilles, supposedly. When she arrives, she is brought to be sacrificed—sometimes she is saved by Artemis.

This older myth is still, however, about crossing a body of water by sacrificing a young woman. While Iphegenia is not yet a mother—a requirement of the other stories for the sacrifice—she is generally the same form as prior sacrifices to raise a bridge. Later on, we will examine the broader sacrifices of maidens to monsters of rivers and seas—Andromeda comes to mind—but for now Iphegenia’s particular tragedy is enough. There is no monsterous serpent that will kill her. She is slain by her own family.

The practice is also reminiscent of those done in Japan during bridge building, termed hitobashira. These pillars, marked by human sacrifices below, serve as a prayer that the building never suffer do to natural causes, such as floods or storms. The examples I have also include incidents where such deaths were averted by clever sacrifices, who outsmarted or gambled their lives back. Again, they are marked as an appeasement to river deities, a class of entity we’ve touched on before. The rivers power of devastation might be lost sometimes, but the flood waters can devastate populations.,

Other methods of immurement include burying a man or woman or dog in the corner stone. A passerby might be interned by accident if their shadow passes over the spot for the stone, and many of those buried haunt the place after. A church grim is a specific canine breed of this ghost. In Yorkshire lore, it is not the person buried beneath the church that becomes the grim, but rather the first buried in a graveyard that guards it against the devil and defilers.

According to a prominent if false urban legend, the Great Wall of China had men buried in it. This would have been foolish, as the decomposing corpses would have defeated the purpose of a wall. A more accurate burial of human sacrifices would be those in the tomb of the first Emperor, who were buried that their knowledge not escape the Emperor’s life. Such procedures to avoid tomb robbers have been practiced in many regions, with mixed success.

A case of near immurement occurred in a recorded story from Morocco. The worker fell ill, and the sultan decreed he would be buried in the wall as punishment for slowing the construction. When a passing saint, al-Yusi, is asked to intervene he opposes the sultan, until he is banishd. Al-Yusi settled in a nearby graveyard. The sultan rode out to drive him out, only for his horse to begin to sink into the graves until he repented, nearly buried alive himself.

Immurement beneath houses is equally common, for similar reasons. By placing the ancestors beneath the floorboards, you could ensure their help to the family for years later. An intentional, benevolent haunting of the house if you will. This practice is well observed as a secondary burial, found in various regions as well. Prehistoric burials have been found with the body placed in a pot beneath the floor boards, just in case.

CaskOfMonteEgro.png

Leaving folklore behind for a moment, there is also the horror tradition at work here. We must consider a pair of Edgar Allen Poe stories for burial while alive: The Black Cat—which provides the strange second clause of this prompt, of course—and the Cask of Amontillado, where a man is buried alive in a wine cellar. In fact, the latter story seems oddly similar to the stories from the Balkans, with the laughter before a silent end. Arguably, his classic, the Tell Tale Heart, is a similar end, with a burial under the floor boards—albeit a dead one that pretends to be alive.

The story we stitch together then has some strong thematic routes and pathos. It will evoke betrayal, desperation, and of course fear. Not only is being buried alive claustrophobic, it is quite literally confronting the ultimate fate of things early. I think keeping the divine call for a sacrifice. I’m torn between the point of view of the sacrifice or the sacrificer. The sacrifice has the most sympathetic view, but shrinks our horror to a few hours walk, and is ambushed by the burial. The sacrificer, meanwhile, is well aware of the deception. The happiness, the innocence of the lamb lead to slaughter is all the more poignant when you are the butcher.

The other end of planning is doing knife twisting properly. A constant melody of ironic statements, of poignant phrases that mount misery on misery would get as boring as a never ending description of how truly horrifying this or that monster is. The writing here needs balance and relief from the pain, in order to function properly. If the hand is over played, then the horror and tragedy will become schlocky and overwrought. A thing I do try and avoid at times.

 

Biblography

Amster, Ellen. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Butler, Thomas. Monumenta Serbocroatica: a Bilingual Anthology of Serbian and Croatian Texts from the 12th to the 19th Century. Michigan Slavic Publ., 1996.
Holton, Milne, and Vasa D. Mihailovich. Songs of the Serbian People From the Collections of Vuk Karadzic. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

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