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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Calling Up the Dead

This Week’s Prompt:52. Calling on the dead—voice or familiar sound in adjacent room.

The Resulting Story:A Dreadful Tapping

Necromancy is upon us, fellows! Dark sorcerer at last revels itself! But perhaps you are confused…this is about only sights and sounds. How does this relate to Necromancy, which much of popular culture conflates with zombies, skeletons, liches, and the summoning of undead war engines or hordes?
Necromancy, at it’s base, is much simpler then all these things. A necromancer attains knowledge by communicating or contact the dead. The modern word has it’s roots in just that meaning (Necro meaning dead, mantiea means divination). This has a number of cultural ties to be discussed at length here, as it might give insight into the unsettled spirits above. And of course, we are necromancers here aren’t we?

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The first place to start, although not the oldest, would be the Greek conception. Necromancy here is most apparent in the works of Homer, specifically Odysseus’s voyage to the Underworld, where by blood offering he acquires the aid of a long dead sage. These could be elaborate rituals in later times, and often relied on the conjuring of specific shades for their precise knowledge.
Related to the Greek school of thought is the Jewish and Old Testament relations of necromancy. Necromancy, for a variety of reasons, is forbidden under the Law. It was a Canaanite practice, and further, it disturbed those God had claimed. The existence of shades to conjure was also severely questioned by later Christian critics. However, there is a noteworthy account of necromancy here as well. The Witch of Endor.

Ewoks

Wrong Endor, ya dolts.

The Witch of Endor episode occurs during the book of Samuel, where a Canaanite woman is asked by King Saul to conjure up a dead prophet and judge in order to learn his fate. This resulted in the King being roundly condemned for daring to disturb the dead in his quest for certainty.
Moving farther abroad, the means of contacting the dead are known in China as well as the Mediterranean. More often, mediums are used there to contact the dead then conjuring as we know it. However, the Chinese authorities have perhaps a more elaborate arrangement of the dead, divided into forms based on death (In the way that other faiths might assign punishments). The hungry dead, those derived of ritual, are the primary ones to be kept at bay, while other deceased relatives might provide comfort or aid to their descendants.

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Note the bowl of scrolls, which would have been stained with her own blood.

The Maya priests also engaged in a sort of necromancy, consulting the spirits of Xibalba by shamanistic or hallucinogenic rituals and blood letting. They contacted otherworldly spirits this way, in a manner that might seem familiar. Ancestors again were a protective force at times, and knowledgeable about many things.
In the Northern European climes, there are records from a seventeenth century poem of a mother being called forth by her son after death, in order to defend him and free him from his stepmother. The mother adds her son by casting a series of spells to defend him.

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Among the Buryat people today, ancestors are the primary group to be consulted by shamans. After almost a century of Soviet oppression, however, many of the names of these ancestors have been lost. And worse still, several have found the places they inhabited to become nightmarish, with ancestors killed in Soviet prison camps manifesting as tortured and angry spirits barely intelligent to the mortal sense. These ghosts all need appeasements, as the various ills that befall a Buryat household are often ascribed to angered ghosts and displeased ancestors. These rites might involve sacrificial sheep or promises made with a shaman as an intermediary.

I could go on, my fellow society members, but the number of ghosts in the world is vast indeed. The dead are often restless, sometimes manifesting in human forms, sometimes in frightening ones. But to close this portion of research, I might bring attention to the phenomena that Mr. Lovecraft was particularly thinking of : Spirtualism.

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Spirtualism was a movement in the late 18th century, brought on by speculated causes, of conjurers and contractors of the dead. Mediums and seances spread through Europe, claiming to speak with the long dead through various devices they had. Now, whether the craze was built upon the notion of invisible forces as revealed recently by sciences, or the sudden access Europe had to Egyptian, Buddhists, and Hindu manuscripts through it’s vast colonial empire can’t be said. What can be said is that the séance was a common occurrence.
And the remains of these séances are wide spread. The Winchester house might be the most famous. Built by the wife of the inventor of the Winchester rifle, the house was always being built. Why? At a séance, the builder Sarah Winchester was told that she would be haunted by all those who were killed with the Winchester rifle. The house was thus a never ending labyrinth to confuse spirits that sought to harm Sarah, so elaborate that even within the last year new rooms were discovered.

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The Winchester House

Another séance inspired the religion of Spiritism in a young Frenchman, who believed he had come in contact with the souls of ancient druids. While Spiritism proper might balk at being termed necromancy, Allan Kardac’s discovery was of the secret knowledge held by spirits that had past on. The religion spread across the Atlantic and took roots in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, as well as to the French colony of Vietnam. Recently, I read an article detailing how the French movement influenced moral teachings in Iran as well. The faith maintains a following to this day, with thirty five countries on an international council.
This is all to bring context to the scene we have hear. A séance, a contacting of the dead is by it’s nature a strange and uncanny event. But here, we have a contact that was actually achieved. A voice is heard or a familiar sound (in proper tradition, probably some musical notes). So, what is the horror and dread here?
This won’t be a story, I feel, of a great overt horror. No one is going to be dismembered in gory ways. No one is going to go mad in the overt, grand, Gothic sense. A séance may be dripping with Gothic forms, a Victorian melodrama that disturbs the barrier between the living and the dead. But the horror is going to be…different.
Atmosphere seems key to all horror, but I think with something as small as a séance, where the shift is merely a sound, it will be primary. The horror here will rely on who is attending the séance, and who is conjured. And maybe what they say. After all, the voice of the dead might be one full of knowledge. But in a Lovecraftian world….well. Who’s says knowledge is a good thing? Ignorance is bliss.

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In The Garden I Saw A Shade

This Week’s Prompt:51. Enchanted garden where moon casts shadow of object or ghost invisible to the human eye.

The Resulting Story: There is a Garden atop a Mountain

Now we begin a venture into two separate realms, both of shadow and of gardens, and what is in between. The central place in this story is something of an uncanny places, where the unseen is temporarily perceptible under the moon (who’s various shapes we recorded here). A moonlit walk in a garden is an almost romantic view of something unseen.

CarlLineaus

Look at this dork. Hey Carl.

The role of a garden is important however. Garden’s have long had a place in Western thought, as places of cultivated nature that appear wild. Carl Linnaeus, an advocate for the idea of a fixity of species, viewed the world as a well cultivated garden, with the Lord as it’s gardener. This connects to the presentation in Western mythos of the Garden of Eden, where the lord tends to all things. It is a symbol of cultivation, growth, and to a degree riches. YHVH is not the only god with gardens however. The Greeks had the Hesperedies and some sources point to Indra possessing a celestial garden. Peach trees were cultivated by the celestial bureaucracy of China, and fruits of immortality were also grown by the Norse gods.

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This is cropped from the Garden of Earthly Delights. It gets weirder. See the cover pic? Yeah…

The connection with gods and gardens is more than something exclusive. Temples and monasteries often maintained gardens, either for contemplation or meditative purposes. These are separate from the wild places of the world, sacred groves and mountains that are maintained as wild as opposed to cultivated, and separate from those agricultural lands devoted to a temple that would often be redistributed among the public.

The most famous of these gardens are the Zen gardens of Zen Buddhism and Mary gardens of christian practice. I would point, briefly, to a wonderful story concerning monastic grounds and the discovery of a statue there in. It’s either a horror or humor story,depending on your own take. For me it was both.

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The connection between gods and gardens is more than just a potential connection of cultivation of the earth and tameness. It is also one of riches and authority. Gardens in ancient Egypt were known for providing nobility shade. Assyrian gardens were vaster complexes, given over to hunting areas of leisure. Gardens often in later times provided vegetables for manor houses. The garden was, in many ways, a symbol of riches and cultivation.

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The most famous of this category, without a doubt, is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon…which there is no archaeological evidence for in Babylon, although Nineveh may be their true home. All the better, if we are to work in mythology then. The gardens, one of the Seven Ancient wonders of the World, were built according to multiple informants to replicate the green hills of a queen’s homeland that she dearly missed. They are often raised or tiered, hence “hanging”, and have marvelous aqueduct systems to supply water to the trees.

Gradens thus already have something of the uncanny in them. They are close to gods, and by extension kings, and could be arranged as something liminal between the wilderness and the civilized lands. Particularly in periods where a garden served as much as a hunting reserve as it is a place for the gathering of fruits. The shadow is just as much, if not more, of a liminal thing.

Shadows have been tied to the realm of the dead for a considerable amount of time. The word “shade” shares an origin with shadow, obviously, and many descriptions of the afterlife in the near east place it in shadow. The shadow or shade is where the dark and light intermingle in a way. There are also reports, in the last few decades, of mysterious shadow people who may be reiterations of this older mythology.

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The loss of a shadow is bemoaned in many stories, although I cannot find any particularly old folklore. We have works by Dunsany that involve selling one’s shadow, a darker tale by Hans Christen Anderson where one’s shadow leaves and becomes a rather wicked man, a story of being shunned by society for lack of a shadow. In older mythology, the shadow sometimes reveals a creatures true intentions, as a reflection might. For instance, the Kitsune’s shadow is that of a fox demon regardless of her form. The devil has some associations with the shadows as his role of prince of darkness, helped by the Jungian concept of the shadow (We will get to that shortly).

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I feel like linking to “She’s a Maneater” here would be tasteless

Not all creatures of shadow are wicked, however, as the Sun god Surya in Hindu myth has married the goddess of shadow, and biblical passages often refer to the Lord as providing shade from the harshness of the sun. Dark isn’t evil I suppose.

Which brings us to the psychological shadow. The shadow, as conceived by the pyschoanalysist Carl Gustav Jung, is the result of repressed emotions and thoughts from the self. It has something in common with the Id of Freudian analysis, but is less inherently antagonistic and sexual. The shadow is better thought of as the opposite in the mind, rather than the barely contained chaotic.

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Ha. Look at this other dork. Also named Carl. Hi Carl.

The shadow as the source of a true self, as hidden hold of the soul, actually works fairly well with the notion of the Garden to a point. The graden is a place of divinity and sacredness, and while the shadow may be something profane, it is also a signifer of something human and sacred.  The shadow, like the garden, is something of revelation of character. It is the place where perhaps truth about the self comes out.

Alternatively, it might be better to have the garden by a place of confrontation with some spiritual force. This could call on a Lovecraft theme of seeking forbidden knowledge (And oh, wouldn’t that have a western parralel in Christianity!), and the shadow is often an uncomfortable thing to confront.

Said gardens, especially those that have been trespassed before, have guardians. The Hesperedies have the great dragon, and the Garden of Eden has the four headed cherubim, an angel of truly terrible appearance and power with a flaming sword that strikes in every direction. The Lovecraftian equivalent is an embodiment of time, of Yog-Sothoth, who guards the sleeping ancient ones. In the story of Death’s Master, Tales of a Flat Earth points to another sacred garden guarded by many fierce beasts.  So too will our garden be guarded by dreadful things.

Ezekiel

Pop Quiz: Are these four-headed winged warriors from Lovecraft or Ezekiel?

But then we have a new problem. What is in the garden that is so valuable. We could do well with fruits, I think. Fruits of immortality are common, but something interesting might come of using the apples of an odder sort: the golden apples of Perun. These are not tools of eternal life but items of ultimate destruction. Of course, perhaps there is a connection between the two concepts. Lighting and diamonds are often connected as symbols of enlightenment, power and durability. But that is secondary to the goal.

So our story will be of an expedition. I think at least two maybe three individuals, climbing the mountains in some far off land, to find the garden. The second portion will be the confrontation with the guardian, perhaps at the cost of life for one or two members. And then in the garden, they will find the shadows of those unseen. Perhaps hidden masters who have already partaken of the fruit, perhaps new guardians and gods enraged at being disturbed by mortal hands.

Or, perhaps, hunters in their garden surprised at new prey. We shall see.

 
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Mirror Mirror On The Wall

This Week’s Prompt:42. Fear of mirrors—memory of dream in which scene is altered and climax is hideous surprise at seeing oneself in the water or a mirror. (Identity?)

The Resulting Story: Catoptrophobia

Mirrors roll in identiy and illusions is one with a long traditon, as many tropes are. There is the understanding that a mirror, fundamentally, provides an accurate but false image. It reflects, but because it is imperfect it distorts. Thus we have the term smoke and mirrors, and the quotation from the bible on troubled perception:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13. 12, NIV)

The Mirror’s reflection is not the thing itself, any more than the moon is the sun. But, as this prompt also points to, a mirror can be revelatory. You cannot see yourself but in a mirror. And so, self reflection requires this mild obsfucation. Shaksepeare’s…oddly topical play Julius Caesear provides an excellent view of this:

“Therefore, good Brutus, be prepared to hear.

And since you know you cannot see yourself

So well as by reflection, I, your glass,

Will modestly discover to yourself

That of yourself which you yet know not of.”

(Cassius, Act 1, Scene 2, 68-72)

Mirrors roll in idenity and illusion are alluded to in folkloric sources. The Romans attribution of life renewing every seven years is where the destruction of mirrors leading to seven years bad luck originates. Mirrors are often attributed as means of detection among the living from vampiric predators, as vampires leave no reflection. This, like the Roman tradtion, stems from a notion of identity. Vampires, being souless, have nothing to reflect. In a strange way, vampires have no ‘self’ as commonly understood.

Mirrors, because of their connection to the soul and self, were feared as possible traps for ghosts or means of contacting the world of the dead. After all, if the soul was there once, perhaps it is there still. Some Jewish traditions prescribe covering a mirror on the death of a relation, in case the dead was trapped there.

Mirrors self-knowing, however, was sometimes dangerous to the living. Mirrors are often a symbol of vanity, as they only show one themselves, rather than the world around them. It is easy to critize someone who is constantly looking in the mirror, after all. The ancient Greek tale of Narcissius, Narcissism’s root, tells of a man who was so pleased with his reflection he wasted away staring at it, lost in love. Or he drowned, trying to embrace his beloved image. Neither is a pleasant end.

Sometimes, however, the emphasis is on knowledge more than self. Obsidian mirrors were common tools for Mesoamerican shamans, and the Smoking Mirror was a powerful royal god to the Aztecs. Mirrors role as oracluarly devices in this case was linked to the dead of Xibalba, who were believed to possess knowledge of the future and past that was beyond the sight of mortal kin.

So with this all in mind, what are we to do with this story? Mr. Lovecraft has a fondness for bloodlines and lost histories that we’ve noted before. But more pressing here is the transformation of humans into something…else. Shadow Over Innsmouth and Pickman’s Model both do such transformation quite well, and emphasis perhaps the horror at play here.

For, to indulge in pyschoanalysis for a time, few people actually know themselves. And I sometimes wonder how much of our internal thoughts and forces are what we would socially call human. How many monsters do we make from our own vast inner landscapes? But I digress slightly.

A dream revelation of self is certainly fitting, and there is an uncomfortable horror in changing without intending it. There are the normal anxieties in that process that occur through out life. There is puberty, there’s growing old, there’s death. These are all things that change us, that we cannot control.

The Metamorphisis by Franz Kafka touches on some of this horror fairly well. I won’t spoil the classic of horror, but merely link it here.

Working this into a story is still difficult, however. We have a climax, a tomato in the mirror moment that will define the rest of the story. A mystery then seems in order, but the resolution is…well, it’s kinda given away by the prompt isn’t it? If we do a mystery, it is absolutely imperative therefore that the murderer not be the dreamer. I say murderer, because murder is the most common crime in mystery novels.

So if we are telling a mystery story, I think Shadow Over Innsmouth’s mystery was better. The climax there is very similair (though not enough for me to call it entirely from this prompt), and points towards a resolution that is horrifying but not…spoilerific? I won’t divulge the entire plot, but the ending is more adjacent to the more common form of horror in the story.

A possible break from Lovecraft is to remove the normally familial or hereditary component of the transfromation. Rather, make it seomthing like the origin of many demons of the Journey to the West. In Journey to the West, most demons come about from normal creatures overhearing the reading of holy (and thus powerful) scripture, growing powerful in their own right. Our monster-revel might be something similair. Something has imbued the main character and at least on other, maybe dozens, with massive amounts of power/awareness. We’ve seen what Lovecraft thinks of those things, and that horror might feel more original. It’s not in your blood, it in your experience.

I can’t say exactly what form said transformation will take. Nor how it will begin. But seeing something over take everyone you know and love or cherish, and then looking in the mirror to see it changing you certainly is the beating black heart of what we are looking for.

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The Gate to Nothing

This Week’s Prompt:36. Disintegration of all matter to electrons and finally empty space assured, just as devolution of energy to radiant heat is known. Case of acceleration—man passes into space.

The Resulting Story:It Fades,It All Fades

The prompt this week is one of a cataclysm made by human kind’s ascension to an unacceptable height, specifically beyond the bounds of the earth into the stars. There are echoes of similar stories in both Classical and Biblical stories of hubris that we will discuss before examining the possible story routes this might take, from stories of survival to stories of despair. And perhaps how each could take the form of horror.

Hubris is a tradition among the Greeks for years. It is perhaps best and most famously expressed in the story of Icarus, where in Daedulus is imprisoned by King Minos in a labyrinth of his own construction. Daedalus constructs two sets of wings using wax and feathers in order that he and his son might fly across the sea and escape. He warns Icarus not to draw too close to the sea, or the waves will engulf him, or too close to the sun, where the wax will melt. Filled with joy at his wings, however, Icarus flys toward the sun and then plummets to his death as his wings melt away.

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Bellérophon, one of the first heroes of Greek Myth, likewise meets his death in ascending. With the horse Pegasus, he attempted to ascend Olympus after slaying the Chimera. He attempts this twice over Pegasus’s protests. The third time, Pegasus bucks him per Zeus’s instructions, and Bellérophon…well, plummets to his death.

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These two stories of hubris, however, are personal tales. The prompt is regarding one of more cosmic significance. And for that, there is the time honored tradition of the deluge story. The deluge is a tradition across the world, and often has something to do with humanities…problems. Among the Greeks, the Deluge was over the decline of Bronze Age man. Among those of the Near East it was due to the noise caused by humans, disturbing the sleep of the gods. The Bible implies, by placement, that the flood was caused by perhaps the Nephilim or the raising of the Tower of Babel. The Maya story varies, but reasons include transgression or neglect of proper duties.

I could not locate the cause of the Hindu flood, which was also survived by a man with a boat. This begins the second theme of these myths: after the deluge, the survivors (if there are any. The Maya story has every member of that race of mankind destroyed) repopulate the earth and often play some role in defining the laws that are to come. This next race of human kind is almost always shorter lived and less grand then their ancestors as well. But they are more pious or perhaps more strongly instructed to avoid offending gods in that way.

The flood then is the means by which the divine punishes mankind for stepping past his bonds. But…well, the heat death of existence is a good deal more permanent then that. Heat death is the reduction of all movement, all existence to nothing. The prompts to something more like the end of Ragnarok or the floods of fire in Revelation, which have a sense of total annihilation. These though are eventually followed by rebirth. The death of the Sun in Egyptian and Aztec myth is more akin perhaps, but still not quite imminent enough.

No we must abandon folklore here, I fear. It is too cheerful and lacks the sort of dread and doom that this story seems to imply. The fear being invoked here is one of emptiness, of annihilation in every capacity. It’s an almost tragic doom decreed by fate. And for that, inspiration might come from the realm of Poetry.

Particularly, the poems around the end of World War 1 come to mine. T.S. Elliot’s Hollow Men at the end becomes that disturbed and doomed atmosphere. The Second Coming by Yeats is much similar, although one filled with dread of a coming future more than a wasteland. There is in both, however, a sense of collapse of the world and everything around it. From these we might create an account of the final days of the universe.

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The horror of annihilation must be balanced against the implicate tragedy. After all, while a slow death of existence is somewhat horrifying in the existential way, it is …well, rather dull. By definition, little happens as the universe winds down. It is a whimpering slow death, not the grand death of dramas. How to make that engaging then?

Well, partially this can be achieved by drawing an omniscient description of decay, but a purely descriptive story is rather boring as well. No, it occurs rather more interesting to describe how the last man becomes the last. The wandering of two souls, one on the verge of death, the other weighing whether to follow him into the void that expands forever outward and inward. Or perhaps the person struggles in vain to reverse the collapse? That might be the best yet.

Yes, an island floating in the void, as the ground around it breaks apart, as the plants begin to wither provides an excellent marker of time as things end. Who these people are is another matter entirely. I am not sure myself. I would be in favor of scholars and scientists, stereo typically those most capable of such feats as to hold back the flood gates of oblivion.

That is all I have for this prompt this time. But maybe, in this broken jaw bone of lost kingdoms, you have seen etched something grander. Something more beautiful. Or more dreadful. Similar topics have been discussed here and here.

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