Through the Looking Glass

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

The Resulting Story:The Empty Windows, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Masquerade!

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

The Resulting Story: And Off Fell His Mask

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

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

Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight after his game.

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

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

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

HeroTwins Preforming Thier Act.png

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

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

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

Bals De Ardents.png

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

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

Masque of the Red Death

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

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

King In Yellow Book Cover.png

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

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

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

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

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

Bacchae.png

The Climax of the Bacchae

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

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

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

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

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

 

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