Witches Sabbath

This Week’s Prompt: 75. Black Mass beneath an antiquated church.

The Resulting Story: The Black Mass GathersThe Fire Breaks

The Black Mass is an intriguing part of folklore. It is hear that we come again to the explict religious fears of Mr. Lovecraft perhaps—while his fiction is angostic, the Black Mass is a fear in the folklore of Europe, particularly among Catholics. The concept of a Black Mass is rather simple: The Black Mass is a pervision of the Holy Mass by the agents of the devil, an anti-thesis to right and good churchly behavior. Thus, it is at midnight, it involves sexual acts and violence—sometimes cannibalism and human sacrifice, often poison and orgies. It is a night of witchcraft and Satan himself may walk at that dread hour.

The earliest accusations of something like a Black Mass—although not using that phrase—is leveled against the Gnostic sect the Borborites. The accusation includes tropes that are common throughout later accusations—the consumption of bodily fluids, sexuality, child abuse, and cannibalism. Like later accusations, Black Mass here is equal parts folklore and political attack. The Borborite accusations resulted in 80 people being expelled from the city of Alexandria, and the suppression of Gnostic texts since then has made determining the veracity of these claims difficult to say the least.

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The most famous Black Mass is the Affair of Poisons. The incident is detailed here in a translation of several recorded interrogations. Included is the mixing of the blood of a white dove with holy water and sulfur, the brewing of love potions of a duke, the invocation of three demonic princes, an abortion and the use of the dead infants in consecrations. To continue on in more detail would be a bit more grotesque then I am willing to do for this blog.

The result of this Black Mass was the arrest and execution of over 36 people. The dead included the mistress of King Louis X, Madame de Montespan, and a number of soothsayers, diviners, and alchemists. The chief witness was interrogated while intoxicated, however, and evidence of the supposed thousands of dead children is non-existent.

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However, it was far from the only Black Mass accusation to be leveled. Earlier works gave similar debauched and carnal descriptions of Black Mass, where the devil appeared as a great talking black goat. Witch hunters, comedians, heretics all in the twelfth and thirteenth century provide texts for Black Mass.

Another famous accusation was levied against the Knights Templar. While not accused of a specific Black Mass, the Knights Templar were accused of spitting on the Cross, denying Christ, worshiping idols, and of encouraging homosexual practices. Compounding accusations of fraud, secrecy, and corruption, these accusations eventually lead to the disbanding of the Knights Templar and the seizure of their lands by other states and the Knights Hospitaller. In addition, the accusation papers are the first time the now famous demon Baphomet is described. However, the demon has not taken its form as a black goat yet. Instead, it is described as : a dead cat, a severed head (sometimes with three faces), sometimes as a piece of wood with Baphomet upon it. The nature of this accusation is…difficult to find credible—the articles on Wikipedia document the strangeness of the name, the accusations specifics, and the theories around it. The idea of Baphomet as a demon was revived later for attacks against Freemasonry, and finally Baphomet’s shape became more concrete with Eliphas Levi’s satanic temple.

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In the folklore of Germany, Walpurgisnacht takes a similar role—or more properly, Hexenacht, the Witches Night or Witches Sabbath in the Brocken mountains. Here, on a night of a saint, the witches gather by flying goats. They trample crosses, are baptized in the name of the Devil, receive gifts from him, and have grand orgies—rather banal by standards of Black Masses. Spell preparations were also made—the unguent that allowed witches to fly was brewed, great spells were cast with the aid of other witches. And of course, copious amounts of human flesh were devoured. The location varies—while the Brocken is common, the mystical island of Blockula in Sweden also plays host, as do other mountains.

A slight variation on these masses, which resemble grand inversions of the order of mass, is the Mass of Saint-Secaire. Recounted most famously in the Golden Bough, the mass is a means of assassination. A corrupt priest and his lover go to a deserted church at eleven at night. He recites mass backwards, ending at midnight. He then devours a mass of three cornered black bred and drinks a cup of water, from a well in which an unbaptized child has died. Then, making a cross with his left foot, the priest proclaims the name of the victim. The victim then simply dies, rapidly wasting away.

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More innocuous inversions of Mass include the Feast of Fools phenomenon. A celebration among the subdeacons and lower clergy, the Feast of Fools traces its roots back to similair Roman celeberations. The Subdeacons took reign as the overseers of the cathedral for the day, and partying on a grand scale commenced.

In the folklore of the Balkans there is a recurring trope of devils gathering in the woods at night. Unlike the others described, these dark gatherings are regular reports of their mischief to their superiors, and get beatings when they fail. In folktales of unfortunate or poor heroes, these meetings provide ample opportunities to eavesdrop on the problems and solutions the hero can provide for riches.

A German folktale of a conclave of corpses has an implied diabolical aspect. The doubting monk discovers them buried in a forgotten vault at night—their hearts are ringed with fire, and all of them sit at attention. When inquired to their fate, the corpses reveal that they are being punished by their victims nightly, until judgement day. The conclave warns the monk of this truth—that hell is real, and coming for him. At the end of the gathering, the monk repents and devotes himself to the church.

In Shropershire, the Stiperstones are reported as the gathering place of ghosts and witches to elect their king—and the mysterious place Hegmoor’s End is an island where witches gather. Not much regarding these gatherings is recorded, so we must presume they are sabbaths like any other.

In Rhode Island, Goose Nest-Spring is where the witches hold carnival, and have Sabbath at Hell Hollow or Kettle Hollow, depending on the teller of the tales. African American folktales in Rhode Island report that those who see witches brew—made frequently by groups of witches in graveyards—will crave nothing else, and thus starve even if they escape.

A Celetic folktale gives a more somber occasion—from the Isle of Man, one Mrs. Peacock claims that the devil occupies churches on All Hallows Eve. There, he takes the form of a somber priest and blasphemies against God for the night, while invoking the names of those who are to die and be damned in the coming year. If one listens, one can hear their fate—and perhaps even escape with their life. (Celtic 328).

With this foundation of diabolical tales, I think we can start working on the outlines of a story. I think this is a prompt that is more a scene then a full story—the climax or midpoint, rather then a whole outline as is the case elsewhere. With the idea of getting to a witches sabbath, I think we can play with the notions that this Sabbath occurs yearly, in the same place. Something like a grotesque yearly convention. And with a convention, we can imagine that a community has grown around it, in the same way that pilgrimgae sites foster the growth of communities around a trail.

Given the associations with secret knowledge and plans at play here, I think a story about discovering the Witches Sabbath that is at the heart of the economy of a small village or town either as a small child or as new arrival in town. The mystery of strange people arriving and treated as welcome guests, the sights of early fires and sacrifices in the nearby hills, and the inevitably doomed venturing into those hills one night, to see the secret ceremonies. I think that as a story might work well.

The exact character of the Sabbath is another question however. As mentioned above, Black Sabbath’s are often gruesome and needlessly dark affairs. Scores of dead children might be shocking to write about, but in the space of only fifteen hundred words—three thousand if I’m being generous—the image is more tacky then effective I feel. On the other hand, making the Black Sabbath a merely ordinary event is dull. Walking the line between serious horror and schlock—a line I willingly and eagerly cross at times—is a difficult affair.

Bibliography

Bourgaize, Eidola Jean. Supernatural Folklore of Rhode Island. University of Rhode Island, 1956.

Nicoloff, Assen. Bulgarian Folktales. Assen Nicoloff, 1990.

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

Rhys, John. Celtic Folklore. Wildwood House, 1983.

Tibbits, Charles John. Folk-Lore and Legends, Germany. J.B. Lippincott, 1892.

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Networks of the Dead

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

The Resulting Story: The Death of Mr. Donovan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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The Many Doors of the Dead

This Week’s Prompt: :59. Man in strange subterranean chamber—seeks to force door of bronze—overwhelmed by influx of waters.

The Research:Bound Beneath The Earth

Theodore was unconcious when the lowered him down the ancient pit. His mind had been adled shortly before, so that when he awoke, he would only distantly recall the actual descent. And his limbs would be limp, unable to resist his executioners. They were oddly kind for what they did, lowering him almost gently down to the dimly lit shore of that vast aquafir. After it was done, they cut the rope with a quick knife stroke, and closed the door.

Theodore came to an unknown time later, with only a dying fire and his stocks. Finding a sufficiently sharp rock, he bashed his hands free, and seized a larger piece to be a light. The rest he tossed on the fire, to shine brighter on his return. Doing so, he made his way along the shore. The water was fresh but almost algae filled. It lacked the familiar smell of salt, the motion of coming and going waves.

There were no shells, only broken stones along the shore, and the charred remains of other stockades and fires. Theodore stepped around them with some respect, wondering sometimes if something lived in the lightless pool. But no motion, not even the pull of the moon, seemed to alter it. Deciding that he would not die with only a pool of water to stare at, he turned away and walked deeper into his tomb.

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The first thing he found was a corpse, bloated and rotting from the nearby lake. It lay curled up at the bottom of an alcove, the burnt ashes of stocks having only left a vague mark on the ground. Theodore raised his torch a bit to see if any remained, revealing the man’s slack jawed face as he did so. His hair on end, Theodore turned and pressed on. The cave couldn’t go on forever.

Theodore found the quiet and emptiness made him prone to introspection. His shadows and the unmistakable presence of a hundred other condemned bodies were the only company. He wondered how long this receptacle of misery had existed. What crimes had condemned men through the ages down into the pits. Ages past they said, blasphemers, witches, sorcerers, and worse had been sent into the unknown depths of this purgatorio. Theodore felt his own crime, then, was rather small. A bit of blood on the stones was not compared to the horde of sinners that teemed around forgotten fires.

As the cave descended, the flickering light revealed crumbling walls and walkways of stone and dried mud, the outlines and echoes of a habitation. There were collapsed beams of smooth stone, having given way to long forgotten weights. There was nothing written here, no wind to stir the accumulated decay. The only marker of time was that as he went farther and farther, the buildings rose and grew sturdier and sturdier. As the fire began to fade a great gate, opened by a long forgotten traveler, came into view. It’s metal frame and wooden form were better made. Atop it was something inscribed:

The hands that raised me have perished. The hands that sought to tear me down have become naught but dust. The Sky that smiled at me is buried, and the mountains from which I was quarried are long worn down.

Inside the buildings were of stone, locked together without mortar. The cyclopean structures were preserved, with only broken shards of glass along the floor. Here, the dead had taken more corporeal forms. Corpses lay, as Theodore explored, against windows. They looked out longingly, minerals having long replaced muscle, statues frozen in rotting states. The dead idols, lifeless beyond dead, were found in the streets.

Here were some locked in embrace, heads tilted and small streams of salt marking where tears would fall. There, beneath the greened copper eagle, was a figure gripping at the base of an altar to some forgotten god. Around a dried fountain lay others, arms covering their chest. They waited in rows,eyes and tongues missing, some creature having long chewed them away before the petrified wastes could have their way. At the base of the fountain, Theodore found more scrawled writing in holy script.

Weep not for us, traveler, who has come to this most holy shrine. Far and wide is our fate known, and you must surely know it well. Your pilgrimage is welcome, to look upon our last works before the great gods recalled us to our heavenly posts.

Theodore continued on, stepping carefully around the stone bodies, moving deeper inward. The statues at the gate were crumbling horsemen, proudly facing out with rusted blades the underground lake, welcoming long passed foemen. The center statue between them had decayed such that the line between victor and defeated was hard to see. Whether the forms gripping the standing man’s limbs were carved from stone or frozen flesh, Theodore did not want to know. The limbs had fallen limp either way, outcry now fallen away, recorded only in it’s failure.

The dark had made Theodore numb. The vague outlines of finished structures, edged by shifting shadows, and the remains of the sedatives he’d been given when lowered into this pit had made put his mind into a state of dull curiosity. Still, the bodies had broken into his soul, and planted a seed of growing fear within. Deeper in, he went, until he came to an elaborate door of painted wood. When the torch touched it, it sparkled and nearly blinded him. The broken piece of stock dropped to the floor and nearly went out as he rubbed his eyes to see the bejeweled door. The engraving was as follows, in archaic tongues.

I defied the deep. I defied the Flame. But when at last my doom came, it made me hollow and hallowed my steal to gold. An exquisite corpse I leave, for lesser worlds to recall.

The buildings rose like columns beyond, broken tops of glass shimmering like stars from the torch. A shimmering and flickering of candles and the constant smell of incense and myrrh filled the air. Theodore tossed the burning remains of the torch aside, and watched in horror and awe as it caught on a puddle and ignited a larger fire from the strange mater. In the snaking light of the new inferno, he saw bodies wrapped in fine silk, with tendril funerary masks carved from green stone.

A pair of statues, carved from flesh colored stone and covered with moss, leaned forward in the hall. They were like lions, but with manes of peacocks feathers, a million colored and cracked eyes. Past them were orbs held up on hundreds of spindly legs, like spiders of glimmering glass, red sand illuminated by their circuitous path. They danced around a monolith with a whole running through and what appeared to be an entire choir of bells and drums inside it’s hollow frame. When Theodore rapped it, a wondrous tone was made.

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He could have, should have, wandered among those many delights for ages. Had Theodore done so, he would have perhaps found rare rest among illustrious if unknown people. The three eyed forms he found, their bodies thick in oil and dripping along the floor, eight feet tall and with the occasional visible claw, were at the least of more noble dress than those he left behind. There was something, however, that caught his eye. And Theodore’s eyes had betrayed him before into this down below.

There was a bronze door along the wall. It was plan, without ornament. There was an engraving, a fish and a hand. It’s meaning was lost to him, but given the dire warning that every other door had born, and the safety so far, Theodore was unafraid by now. He gripped the strange, circular hold, twisting it readily, and throwing open that antique door.

The onrush gave no moment for though. Lights were extinguished as the waves suddenly overcame him, overcame the tomb. Glass and fiber, metal and bone, silk and stone mixed in the pandemonium that fell out, that rushed down along. It swelled and surged, dragging the glorious dead to the convicted and damned, mixing the ashes of the condemned with the sacred oils of the eldest. When and how Theodore died, none can say. His fate was learned, when the waters bubbled up, out of that old forgotten hole.

I didn’t have time to edit this one as much as I wanted, and obviously the details of Theodore’s crime are left to the reader’s imagination more than I might have preferred. Aw well, that is the nature of these sorts of things. Next week, we pull strange and ominous things out of the sea!

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Dead Man’s Hand

This Week’s Prompt:53. Hand of dead man writes.

The Story: The Dead Man’s Rites

This will be the second week of the dead speaking! But this is a bit more strange form. The form of a dead hand has a particular piece of imagery associated with it, the Hand of Glory.

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Hand of Glory at the Whitby Museum

The hand of glory is an infamous bit of black magic, made for thieves and burglars. It, unfortunately, requires the failure and hanging of another man. The hand is removed from the hanged man, and enough fat is removed to construct a candle. The candle, while lit and occasionally after a spell is spoken, will paralyze all who are in the house, or alternatively put them to sleep.

The hand of a dead man, that of a not necessary criminal, is cited here as a source of healing among the Americas. Notably, rubbing the hand of a dead man on the thyroid. Similar cures are suggested for blackheads and moles.

In Lincolnshire, there is a report of another dead hand, more sinister in nature. As related by Daniel Codd, the Dead Hand is a hand without a body that searches out individuals and drags them deeper into the marsh. In this way, it is sort of a flesh and more proactive will-o-wisp. The origin of this mysterious monstrous hand are not reported.

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Other free hands are more noble caliber, especially regarding writing. The most famous precedent is from the Bible, specifically the book of Daniel. Here the hand is not dead, but is a supernatural agent anyway. It communicates a divine message, as the dead often do. The message is ignored, and then what happens when you ignore the messages of the gods happens.

The power of a hanged man’s hand to heal is a novel to me. The role of the dead as a sort of healing means is not terrible new, if only as ancestors possessing mastery of the dead by association. In popular culture, the dead are more malicious nowadays it seems.

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The context, however, is less jarring when compared to the notion of saint’s relics. Saint relics frequently have healing capacity, being empowered by the holiness they bore in life. Often, though not always, portions of the body are considered relics of the saint. These relics are, of course, not the regarded as the same sort of person as a criminal is. However, many saints are martyr’d or sacrificed by the state. This might be a point of connection between the two, but little else. I have yet to find a saint who’s hand wrote beyond the grave anyway.

The idea that portions of the body contain portions of the soul or vital parts of the mind is rather old as well. The humor theory of medicine attributes emotions to various fluids. While the soul itself is not a physical component, it’s possible to alter thoughts in that way. The Egyptian theory of the soul traced the various portions of it—in Egyptian theory, there are five portions of the soul—to specific organs that were preserved in canopic jars.

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The discovery of a dead writing hand is probably a good portion of this story. A novelist dies, but then suddenly his hand is heard scratching at the coffin. There is a record of many forms safety coffins, that warn people if they have buried their loved ones alive. The scratching of a hand or the ringing of a funeral bell therefore serve as a good start. Imagine the horror of only the hand, the instrument of art, being alive and crawling spider like out of the crave after it was dug up. Then, such a thing produces art…but art of what sort? What writing does it bring froth from beyond the world? What poetry does something that is only a hand produce? Which has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no mouth to speak, that operates only on a detached sense of touch?

The role of inhuman or altered art in Lovecraft is something we explored before, although there it was more in the form of inspiration. Here I think we have the chance to return, from the perspective not of an artist but of an audience for the audience.

We would be remiss not to note the notion of quite literal posthumous publishing seriously. After all, it is what we claim to do here.

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River of Fire

This Week’s Prompt:50. Phleg′-e-thon: a river of liquid fire in Hades.

The Resulting Story:Ill Fated Boat Ride
This week’s prompt appropriately enough brings us back to one of the richest goldmines that Mr. Lovecraft employs: Classical imagery and mythology. In this case, the Phlegethon, one of the rivers that runs along Hades, providing a boundary marker. The river itself is often described as alit with fire, flowing ( or “coiling”) into the depths of Tarturus, the closest thing to an infernal domain the Greeks had.

Phlegethon

Fittingly, then, Phlegethon has been maintained past the Classics into the imagery of Hell provided by Christian authors. Dante describes it as a river of blood and violence, boiling over as murderers and war criminals were forced to stay in it by patrolling centaurs. Milton places it and the other four rivers as parts of hell explored by the fallen angels, before the idea of tempting mortals is introduced. The Faeire Queene by Spencer has it scorch sinners, and even Mr. Lovecraft included it in the work “the Other Gods”.

However, as strange as a river of fire might sound, it is not alone in peculiar underworld rivers. Rivers, being natural dividers and boundary markers, often arise around the land of the dead, many with strange contents. Hubur, the Sumerian river of the dead, held dead souls in it’s depths against their will. Sillias, a river reported by a Greek traveler in India, allows nothing to float, but rather drags everything into it’s depths. The Vaitarna River is, to the sinless, a river of nectar. To the sinner, it appears filled with blood, bones, and pus. When the sinner approaches, flames appear everywhere. Those who try and cross, and are in fact sinners, will burn forever in the whirlpools in it’s depths.

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And of course there is Xibalba. Xibalba has a number of rivers. A river of blood, yes, but also a river of pus and a river of scorpions. These rivers mark the roads and borders of the Maya realm of the dead, to keep the living out and the dead within. The rivers must be crossed successfully,

These rivers often have fearsome guardians. Hubur has monsters with many arms demonic birds, the Phelegthon has it’s centaurs in Dante, and Vaitarna has hundreds of crocodiles and birds to devour the flesh of sinners before the cross.

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Of course, rivers of fire are not merely fantastical. There are multiple records of polluted rivers bursting into flames or exploding, sometimes for shockingly long periods at a time. The resonance of damned souls burning and industrial waste igniting is perhaps not an accident. It is a potent image, fire snaking it’s way down what ought to be it’s relief, a boiling mass of suffering from what is normally life giving.

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Rivers role with the dead we’ve discussed here, when talking of suicides at bridges, and here with Davey Jones. The river’s leading inexorably down to a place of punishment is not one we’ve directly addressed. However, as an image and mode for a story, flowing down a river unwittingly to doom seems as good a premise as any to describe the arc of a story. The realm of the dead is near the edge of the river, the damned are just below it’s surface struggling to be free.

I would focus on the rivers, then, and the journey down them rather than the dead itself. It can keep the story somewhat more grounded then we’ve been lately, more in the realm of the mortal than the completely supernatural. I’d suggest a borderline between the surreal but natural occurrence of flaming rivers and the wholly supernatural rivers of fire and hell would be a good place to work. A place of uncertainty, where the danger is real, but the extent is not completely clear. And the river is a good place to set such a story. Rivers are border places, where parties of either side might meet. It is a perpetual threshold between two places, endowed with motion onward.

The other recurring image is the attempt (and failure) to cross the river by sinful souls or inquisitive dead. Xibalba is the exception, of course, having been crossed and overthrown by the Maya Hero Twins, and even then it had more confounding traps past the river. Vaitarna allows people to cross with proper preparations, offerings, or after a lengthy time of suffering. Other rivers are generally safe to the sinless, a sort of natural filter.

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And of course, with many of these, the role of supernatural ferryman is a strong image. A ferryman who is more aware of the nature of the river and what’s around it. Charon serves this roll for the Styx, Guru’s for the Vaitarna, Virgil for Dante. These more than human guides might have a place in our story as well.

Come next week to see what corpse we pull from the boiling blood, and what it’s appearance resembles!

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