Bound Beneath The Earth

This Week’s Prompt:59. Man in strange subterranean chamber—seeks to force door of bronze—overwhelmed by influx of waters.
The Resulting Story: The Many Doors of the Dead

We find a man in a room, underground, with only one exit. He may stay in this room. Or he may try and force his way out. When he goes and tries to escape his isolation, the onrush of the outside world, a miasma of chaotic waters, kill him. We do not know if he was pulverized or drowned. But had he not forced open that door of antiquity, he would be alive.

I say antiquity, because that is what the metal bronze conjures. It is a metal deployed in phalanxes or on chariots, not in the knightly arms of medieval warlords or the rifling of a modern man. It is a material of a bygone age. And as such, we might discuss some of the metaphor that seems at play in this story. For, pushing the bounds of the world and meeting catastrophe is a common theme in Mr. Lovecraft’s work.

Plato's Cave.png

We can consider the lightless room or cave to be a maker of the cosmos. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who put Socrates’s words to writing, used a similar metaphor. In the Americas, a number of South Western people’s describe the emergence of humanity into the world as coming from a series of caves. Both the Navajo and the Hopi include stories of humanity emerging into this world from one’s deep below. In the myths of Maya and Aztec people’s, cave play the special role as connections to the underworld and ancestors. In more modern times, there are of course notions that we are within a hollow shell,the inside of an egg waiting to be born.

So we are within the world. And there is a door, made in ages past of bronze. It is the only way out, it seems, from our comfortable room of known existence. This door of bronze perhaps could be taken as the understanding of the world our ancestors had. It is a limiter, beyond which we cannot see anything—the chamber is after all subeterranean, and who would force open a door that they knew had a vast expanse of water on the other side. By pushing past these ancient limits, we encounter something new, or at least vast. The waters, who’s symbology we have discussed before, are a vast life giving force that overcomes the fool that releases them, creating a minature deluge. The man dies for his curiosity.

The metaphor points generally to a sort of terrified conservatism that defines Lovecraft to a point. We can recall his famous opening of the Call of Cthulhu:


“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. “

That being the case, we must consider how to wring more out of this then mere dread. Watching a man slowly go insensate before making a fatal mistake, unknown and unmourned by the world at large in his tomb is…dull. I am sure there is some way to make such a story intreasting. But on it’s own, existential dread is an easily dismissed horror. No. A better trick, I think, is that of memory. To recollect, as one stumbles through the strange cave, life before this darkness. What it is that lures the fatal, doomed choice of opening that ancient door.

King in the Mountain.png

Places literally underground are not uncommonly full of dangers. We have talked about the threats of some of these creatures before, such as kobolods and grootslangs and Typhon who was buried under a mountain in Sicily. Other stories that are more than relevant here include those things of the deep that hold ancient knowledge. The dead are the most common, but not only example. In Russian Folklore, we have a giant of a man named Svyatogor who is trapped beneath a mountain and yet lends advice where he can to the knights of the Rus. In Arthurian myth and Charlemagne romances, Merlin often ends up beneath a tree or within a tree despite all his wisdom. And of course, there is the King In The Mountain, Barbossa being the most famous literal version. Some of these imprisonments, however, are only that. While a traveler might find such strange nobillity here and there, they aren’t dwelling so much as sleeping.

We can also consider creatures that are more serpentine in nature, as was touched on here. The great naga princes of tibetan folklore often dwelled in dreamworlds of the deep, resembling the fae we’ve come to know in many ways, including their power of many forms and their multiplicity of gifts, and a bit of their penchant for trickery.

In Maori folklore, Maui’s blessings come from his mother and father who live in the depths of the earth. Maui further presents an intreasting example of the sort of hubris Lovecraft would give to the man of science. Maui heads out to earn man’s immortality, by defeating his ancestor. The result is rather predictable, if bizarre. He heads within his ancestress while she sleeps, warning the nearby birds not to laugh. One very young bird does, and his stirring ancestress kills Maui.

The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh likewise ventures underground, following the flames of the sun in order to reach the place where immortality might be found. He also fails, although he survives the encounter. His test is rather wakefulness, and in another time we will discuss the motif of death and slumber. 

To return to how this might shape our narrative, the cavern is as much a character as our prisoner. It is a character in shapes and form, eliciting memories and moods. I think a landscape like those the dragons once dwelt in will work well. An abandoned faerie castle, the ruins of a great dragon’s kingdom, a landscape that is more than darkness and shadows wandered through forever and ever. It also might give the bronze door some more menace, if it is the only worked metal in the cavern of wonders. The only plain, unadorned thing, in a forgotten land.

City of Brass.png

A good reference for this material would be the story “City of Brass” from the 1001 Arabian Nights. The story follows travelers through a series of barren wastelands and tombs, full of strange sights, desiccated corpses, imprisoned demons, and odd devices. It has a rather clear moral to it about attachment to material goods, but at the same time there are undercurrents of cosmic horror as the will of God so portrayed is not always knowable. The story also features several instances of characters dooming themselves by ignoring clear warnings, which falls neatly into what might be waiting for our prisoner. The city itself is slightly off from the prompt, sadly, being of brass instead of bronze. But the visual cue is close enough I believe.

Bibliography:

Grey, George. Polynesian Mythology, and Ancient Traditional History of the Maori. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1974.

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

Djinn and Beyond The Grave

This Week’s Prompt: 35. Special beings with special senses from remote universes. Advent of an external universe to view.

This Week’s Story: The Tears Begin To Show

When dealing with prompts so simple as this, I find it best to turn to potential sources within the human mind as we have it recorded. Folklore records such thoughts well, and in this case, extra sensory perception is a common concept to mine and discuss. The supernatural, particular in folklore, is the unseen and unperceptible. This is the nature of spirits, and those who see them. The more urban legend sorts of creatures, such as alien sightings or the like, follow similar veins. Perhaps we’ll take them on last.

The first sort of spirit, past the faries we’ve discussed extensively, that occurs to me are the djinn. Part of this is because the djinn are from that heartland of Lovecraft’s horror, the Middle East where ancient ruins and large urban centers have sat side by side for thousands of years. But part is also because of the nature of the djinn, as creatures more different to us in substance than necessarily in psychology.

djinn2

Conquest of the Djinn

The djinn are arranged as we are, with kings and princes. The live as we do, with animals and shepherds. And in someways they operate like we do, albeit in reverse. We feed on the living, they find flesh on the bones, for example. And the djinn, like us, have trouble perceiving our world. Unlike the fae, who find us with ease and then retreat or run away, the average djinn is as aware of mortal existence as he is of the bottom of the sea.

ghoul

A Ghul, Sometimes A Djinn

Djinn do have some distinction from our perceptions, however. They are often conflated with demons, and by such an association gain a number of miraculous strengths or powers. The dread lord of Darkness is, in Islam, among their ranks rather than an exile of the Angelic Host. Ghuls are sometimes brought in as djinn as well. Their extreme supernatural might is credited in popular stories of granting wishes (although whether such wishes are real or simply through vast connections depends on the telling), and certainly a certain blue figures ability to reference things beyond his era implies some knowledge we are unaware of.

Genie.png

Then There’s This Guy

The djinn also have two animal associations that they often take, two that are wary to any folklorist. The serpent and the dog. Creatures of perception and wildness, seekers and keepers of secrets. The djinn can be seen as a sort of intermediary sort of being. Not knowing everything, not entirely knowable, but not entirely alien either.

Ifrit.png

Such strange middle grounds are the dwelling place of the parapyschological. Second sight and mediumship, perceiving past the normal are all in this haze. Djinn and others are often accused of being behind these events by critics in the Middle Ages. It’s not, therefore, to unusual to suppose that if there are contacts from some other realm, they are related to these folkloric figures.

And contact with such things is often…dangerous.

The Exorcist, classic of horror writing and cinema that it is, provides the often cited story for why one should avoid piercing holes in the veil. Often it is credited with the literal demonization of the Ouija board, previously more a children’s toy or a serious divination tool in China. The spiritualist moment and connections with death are thus fairly self evidently. The Lovecraft mythos are built on this sort of Icarus like straining.

ouija

Ancient Chinese Ouija

But this prompt goes a step forward. Rather than mere contact with these alien entities, our own perception broadens to an extra universal view. An out-of-universe experience, if you will. This may be a new sort of horror. This is the horror or perhaps fantasy of ascension. It is similar, perhaps, to the notions we discussed when examining the creation of the universe, albeit almost in reverse.

What such a perception is, is again mostly irrelevant. What matters is how we get to this point view. It seems that the story relies on two elements of horror. One is the introduction of extra-universal entities viewing the world. These entities, to keep our story short, will likely contact an individual. There horror/distress of hearing or being contacted by entities alien to you is a good enough start. Being gradually drawn into the entities own sense of perception allows for more sorts of horror.

The horror of going insane blends well with that horror of loss of self. Of being absorbed into a larger, more dreadful mass. This horror is the sort that has been explored in science fiction before. It is full of possible additions, the metaphor of dying, of growing up, of political or religious movements or revelations. But given the limit our writings have, I will restrict it to only the concrete fears of paranoia and loss of self. The others might emerge as I write, but there is no guarantee.

When this strange perception happens seems key. I’ve grown a bit tired of the modern age. Perhaps now we can examine a tale akin to that of Abdul Alhazred, and return to the Ottoman empire, its connections between Greece and India. A Golden Age of exchange and trade. Alternatively, another empire that perhaps has reached that similar level of spiritualism that afflicts all empires.

It is, after all, an inversion of the hope spiritualism promises. The wonder of pyschics is that there is something unseens, something that enhances the world. That the afterlife or something like it exists and will bring a sense of certainty to the world. If we make it horrific, it is that this hopefully place is a lie. That this dream is, secretly, a nightmare.

Spiritualism.png

Mother Russia might, political problems of recent days aside, be a great fit then. Spiritualism took hold at the turn of the last century, and the strangest of occultists have developed from this period. A Russian man or woman, as political revolutions move in the air, being lifted into yet another terrible horror. Perhaps during the brutal civil wars, whisked away after a fashion? We’ll have to see what such a place was like.

I might do some more exploration on this. If I have time, I will look into works on that period, a strange place and time not touched by American Horror writers often. But that’s me. What did you find?

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.