A Dreadful Day For A Wedding

This Week’s Prompt: 79. Horrible secret in crypt of ancient castle—discovered by dweller.

The Resulting Story:Samson and Delilah

This week’s topic brings us to a common Gothic horror theme—the buried and forgotten secret. Especially in an ancient castle, who’s revelation undoes their very identity. Whether ghosts and bodies buried in the deep, or more recent atrocities, the dangers of things forgotten and buried is great. We discussed—in one of our most popular articles—the burial of persons beneath foundations. This sort of secret will take us to many other places. Mostly France though.

There are a few stories that relate to crypts bearing terrible secrets. One worth considering is the story of Lancelot and Dolorous Guard. Here a secret is discovered on a literal crypt—the tomb that Lancelot must be interred in after he dies. The majority of the revelation was joyous, however, as it revealed the knight’s heritage and true name. And that this castle was his. All well and good.

Lovecraft has his own story about the discovery of ancestry—the Rats in the Walls, where in our narrator learns of his heritage. His version, of course, is much more horrific. Without spoiling that story, I’ll leave a link hereThe origins of the Gothic Genre include underground churches and revelations of idenity in the Castle Ortanto—again, the revelation there is less of a horrible secret than the justification of the protagonist.

More pressing stories include those of monsters locked within castles. Here we go to France again, but later in time—the Age of Charlemagne. Here, we find Rinaldo who quests to forget his heart break over a lady love. He finds a land, where he sees a castle in a great pit. An old woman tells him a beast in the castle is kept from terrorizing the countryside, by regular sacrifices of flesh. Rinaldo agrees to venture forth and slay the beast—and attempts to do so. However, he fails at first. It is only when his love returns, and assists—over his loud protests—that the reptilian creature dies (it may be a dragon, but the description in Bulfinch does not specify. All the better I suppose.)

In Scotland, there is a similar story around Glamis Castle. There a secret chamber was used, according to tales dating back to 1840, a deformed and possibly vampiric child. Some accounts call the child a “human toad”, others as simply a strange shadow. The creature’s nature may never be known—at least one guest, the Earl of Crawford, suspected that the family invented the stories as they went along.

There is a creature that resembles this in Lovecraft as well—Byatis, a creature of Campbell’s creation that lives in the Severn Valley sealed in a stone vault beneath a great tower. The toad is a terrible creature, and knows many truths of the world that are worth keeping secret of course. The Edgar Allen Poe story, the Fall of the House of Usher, relates to a dragon as the obstacle of owning a shield and castle as well.

A more common revelation however, is not a monster locked away but a monster about. The folktales of Bluebeard in particular. The story of Bluebeard is a common one through out the world. A young woman marries a powerful and rich noble. He must leave for business shortly after their wedding, and forbids she enter one room. When she ignores him, she finds the many bodies of his prior wives. Bluebeard then either kills her, or she escapes and her family avenges herself on him.

bluebeard1

I mean he looks just lovely. Okay the eyes look maybe a bit crazy.

Variants of this story can be found the world over. In India, there is a version that features a tiger instead of a man or giant. The tiger fools the local brahmin, and marries his daughter. He abuses her at the home, threatening to reveal his true shape and devour her if she does not prepare meals based on what he hunts. And of course, being a tiger he hunts men and women in his woods. After a time, and a child is born—also a tiger—she sends a letter to her mother via crow, telling of this injustice. Her three brothers set out, and after some mishaps, rescue their sister and murder her child—and later her husband, when he tries to steal her back.

Among the people of Northern Canada, there is a similar story of a cannibal husband. Here the husband does more than demand food—he insists on feeding his wives salmon and nothing else to make them too fat to move. His latest wife, Mianna, outsmarts him however by eating ice and eventually making a dummy of ice to distract him. In time, she and her brothers kill Ímarasugssuaq, ending his rain of terror.

bluebeard2

Here old Bluebeard looks a bit creepy but less crazy.

In England, the story of Mr. Fox has a similar ogre of a man—who’s wife to be catches him kidnapping her replacement at the end and lopping off her hand! She sees this the day before their wedding breakfast, and is horrified at each step of the way. At breakfast, she reveals the grizzly reminder of the other bride, and her brothers slaughter Mr. Fox.

And there are so many forms of this story to go through! I’ve linked a collection of these folk tales here, for further investigation. The origins of the French version are debated—there is for instance, a common assumption that they relate to the serial killer Gilles de Rais. Gilles de Rais famously served with Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. Afterwards, he went a bit…strange. A rampant child murderer and accused occultist, Gilles lost much of his fortune perusing contact with a demon called Barron and alchemy. He eventually, after kidnapping a cleric, attracted the attention of the local Bishop. After his crimes came to light, he was executed.

GillesDeRais.png

Gilles De Rais needs more urban fantasy about his terrible alchemical experiments.

The other possible inspiration is Conomor the Accursed. Conomor is a Welsh or Breton king, known for his wanton cruelty. His own story begins after murdering three prior wives—and moving to his fourth, Trephine. Trephine refuses at first, due to Conomor’s reputation. However, the king threatens to invade her fathers lands and ransack them if she does not marry him. As Conomor is away on business, she uncovers the secret room containing relics of the dead wives. After praying for their souls, she learns that Conomor will kill her if he finds her pregnant—a story has warned him that his own son will kill him.

When he returns and makes the attempt, Trephine is saved by the three wives. They rescue her, and she gives birth to her child in secret—hiding him before Conomor finds and kills her.While St. Glidas does retore her to life—and her child becomes St. Tremorous—Conomor sometimes kills his son anyway. Other versions have St. Glidas and an array of thirty bishops march on the Accursed and anathemize him. Conomor then falls ill and his soul is swept up in a river of blood. In some variations he is so wicked, neither heaven nor purgatory nor hell will have him, and so he still wanders the earth.

StGildas.png

There are more stories that resemble it. The story of Three Crowns, for instance, has a forbidden room and a set of keys given to the daughter of a king by an Ogress. However, in this case, the revelation is not wicked, and in fact is what gets the daughter returned to her family. The story of Agib in Arabian Nights also features a forbidden door in his travels—this time by comely women, not an ogrish brute. The door hides something strange as well. But unlike Bluebeard, it is a wonder that punishes a lack of self control—not a pile of bodies from the owner.

The message of Bluebeard stories is often debated. The most overt is a condemnation of female curiosity, in the vein of Pandora’s Box. That woman who are asking to many question get killed. However, these stories are sometimes taken in a different light. Rather than warnings against curiosity, they are warnings of the danger of husbands. In this way, they might be similar to Beauty and the Beast stories but with a much darker ending. Certainly, the horror of the story—that a fortunate marriage, which a family is in someway dependent on, turns out to be to a monstrous—is not one that has faded with time.

And then there are the similar stories of monstrous and secretive husbands that are reversed. We can talk for instance about the woman who married a crab or a dragon or a toad or even a Dog—these stories feature a similar prohibition, usually related to seeing the host. In Greece for instance we have the story of Eros and Pysche.

Pysche and Eros.png

Pysche is told that she will marry a horrible monster if left on a certain cliff. The winds carry here to a wondrous palace, where an invisible set of servants and invisible husband await She is told never to look at him—but comes to enjoy his visits, his singing, and his presence. In time she becomes pregnant. Her sisters eventually worry about not hearing from their own, and go to meet her. Having heard from Pysche the arrangement, they persuade her to look upon her husband at night with a wax candle—however, upon finding her husband to be the beautiful god Eros, Pysche lets wax drop on his skin waking him. Eros flys off in a rage. Aphrodite, his mother, then gives Pysche a set of tasks to complete before she can regain her husband.

Another instance of this sort of story the story of the Tibetan Woman who married a dog. A single mother with three daughters receives tsampa from a dog—the dog asks they not eat it. The four of them eat it after three years, however, and the dog returns the next day. He asks for one of the daughters as a wife in compensation—which the mother relents to. The first two daughters who marry him hate him and are sent back. The third and youngest however is polite. After having two puppies by the dog, she passes a palace and wishes she lived there. The dog goes to the palace to beg and is “killed”–after his skin is stripped, he reveals himself as the king of the palace and the two puppies become children. A happy ending to the tail.

From Italy there is the story of the Dark King—which fuses Eros and Bluebeard. A young girl wanders into a cave, and finds it full of luxuries. Invisible hands serve her food, bath her, and dress her—it is so relaxing and wonderful that she forgets the entrance of the cave has vanished. After three months she meets the Moor king of the place, who gives her keys to all the rooms save one. After another three months, she has seen all the wonders of the place, and asks to go see her relations. She is allowed, on the condition that she return.

bluebeard3

Yeah, there’s a weird trend in illustrations to make Bluebeard vaguely Middle Eastern? Like that’s clearly his hair, but it’s also totally meant to be a turban right?

Appeasing her relatives and friends with gold, she enjoys herself and comes back. Three months later, she leaves again—this time, however, she boasts of the wealth in the palace. Her friends are eager to see. They suggest, when she explains that her husband won’t allow it, to kill her husband instead. They suggest sneaking in at night—and doing so, she finds him unsightly. When she goes to kill him, however, hot wax falls off her candle. He wakes and is saddened. As he dies, he offers her three hairs. When burned, he will save her from whatever danger she is in.

She, after an incident of cross dressing, mistaken identity, seduction by a queen, and imprisonment by a king, does burn the hairs. These bring about an army to save her from execution and even restore the Dark King to save her. The two are then married—and the Dark King becomes a beautiful prince, who’s kingdom was enchanted until he was wed with consent.

woodcutbluebeard

Seriously, there’s some gruesome images on the Wiki commons–I didn’t feel like sharing them here.

…I’m personally going to assume he stayed dark skinned, because that makes the ‘twist’ ending more palatable.

From Turkey, there is the story of a Padishah, who marries his daughter off to a horse—as she is the only one that the horse allows to feed her. Unlike other stories, the husband immediately reveals himself as an amazing hero—when the daughter’s sisters mock her for her lack of a husband in a tournament, he appears and triumphs. He only asks that she not reveal who he is. Like the Dark King, he gives her three wisps of hair to burn when she needs him—and on the third day, she reveals his secret.

Her husband is taken away—his hag mother plans to kill her daughter-in-law as well. The daughter finds their dwelling at the end of the earth, on a great mountain. The mother is tricked into accepting her without murder—but still tries, with impossible and confusing household tasks to kill her. With her husbands help, the daughter triumphs each time.

Eventually the two flee, and are pursued by his mother and aunt, both witches (although with her snake whip, the aunt resembles a Fury). With some guile and magic, they escape and return home to live happily ever after.

These we might consider similar—they suggest that what at first appears monstrous is not as frightening as it seems. Indeed, the difference between a Beast and Bluebeard is the presence of genuine danger—Bluebeard is here to kill you. The beast isn’t.

We also can talk of the reverse, although it is less a horror story. That of men who take immortal wives, and defy their rules. Selkies and swan maidens are chief among these, but fairy brides are almost as troublesome.

The tabletop game, Bluebeard’s Bride highlights how effecting such a story can still be. And I think in this case, the tale needs little modification—this is the rare form of horrific knowledge that is genuine in its monstrous form. A hidden child or lost ancestry is less easily disturbing. But discovering one shares a home with a serial killer? That still has power. That has visceral fear.

So, we’ve talked a lot about one of the most horrific forms of folklore—finding a monster in your old home. What will we make of it? Well, come back next week to see!

Bibliography

Buck, Rachel Harriette. Roman Legends: A Collection of Fables and Folklore of Rome. Estes and Lauriat, Boston 1877

Chopel, Norbu. Folktales of Tibet. Ltwa, 2006.

Kunos, Ignacz (Tr. Bain Nishbet). Turkish Fairy Tales and Folk Tales. A.H. Bullen, London 1901

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The Court of Miracles

This Week’s Prompt:78. Wandering thro’ labyrinth of narrow slum streets—come on distant light—unheard-of rites of swarming beggars—like Court of Miracles in Notre Dame de Paris.

The Resulting Story: The Court

Despite the evocative name, the Court of Miracles is rather mundane in origins. The Court of Miracles was perhaps the banditry of the city of Paris. Inhabited by all manner of individuals, from all faiths and creeds, the Court of Miracles is presented as a society of tricksters and scoundrels at the heart of Paris. That Mr. Lovecraft has a low opinion of such people isn’t surprising—Mr. Lovecraft’s classist tones and dislike of urban mixing means that such place is ascribed as “swarming” for a reason. We will talk of how to remedy this shortly—and one place to start I think is folklore.

The Court of Miracles is, by all accounts, a location in Paris. The Court was inhabited by beggars and immigrants—the name comes from the tendency for individuals to fake injury or illness, and suddenly at night be ‘cured’. Other origins suggest that the Court transformed beggars into bandits, rendering the segement of the city dangerous for law enforcement. Either way, the part of Paris was a dangerous region and impoverished area in local thought. Disney made it into a song:

Not the folklore surrounding such places. Distrust of impoverished immigrants can bring out the worst in folklore and persons, and xenophobia is not a trait I want to encourage. I do not wish to dwell on the particularly viscious rumors and libels that surrounded the Court of Miracles and other places—producing a story today about how the poor and downtrodden engage in conspiracy to fake their injuries would be frankly irresponsible. No, I want to examine some of the folklore of such persons. And if we are going to discuss it, particularly in relation to Notre Dame and its adaptations, we must talk about the Romany (Lindsay Ellis goes into the various adaptations of Notre Dame here).

I am not terribly qualified on the topic of the Romany—So I strongly encourage readers to do their own research as well. But I will present what I know as best I can.

The Romany, as a group, appear to have immigrated from northern India into the Middle East and Europe. Europeans initially—and for a considerable time—mistook the Romany for Egyptians, leading to the origins of the pejorative “Gypsy”. The Romany, for a variety of reasons, lived both nomadic and settled life styles. As outsiders in European communities, who practiced different customs and held to different belief systems, the Romany were viewed frequently in a negative light. Accusations of witchcraft, curses, thievery, and so forth were rampant and if one delves even a bit into folklore it isn’t hard to find such portrayals exaggerated further.

Romany Flag

Romani Flag, Wikipedia.

I will not be discussing such portrayals today.

Instead I will be discussing folktales from the Romany. Now a second disclaimer. For the vast, vast majority of my research I rely on public domains or digital resources. In this case, I’ve found a singular text on Romany folklore (linked here) which is rather woefully out of date—it dates to the 1890s. For the interested, I have also linked to Folklore Thursday’s writing on the Romany here—if you have other resources to recommend, I encourage you to leave the titles and links in the comments section below.

One of the first stories to discuss is God’s Godson. This tale recounts a heroic child who sets forth on adventure unbaptized. In the woods, as he sleeps, God and St. Peter come across him and baptize him, giving him the name Handak. God decides to arrange a marriage between Handak and his god-daughter, a heroine of equal skill. Handak receives instructions from a three hundred year old dragon on where to find the god-daughter, and after a fight the two are wed.

St. Petere Vatican.png

Another heroic lad makes his start by killing eleven dragons with saber. After his marriage to a maiden, his mother comes to live with them and finds the living dragon. Infatuated with the youngest dragon, she schemes with her new love to kill her son—sending him on impossible quests and eventually gambling with him, to bind and slay him with her husband. The lad’s miraculous maiden of a wife, who often lent him a twenty-four winged horse, restores him by stitching him back together and filling in the holes with pork meat. She then pours water on him, and he is revived.

Another humorous tale tells of two thieves who enter a brotherhood, and by their cunning trick a king out of all his funds—eventually stealing a priest from a church and becoming princes themselves! The two of course know each others trade, and the king is forced to seek out one of the thieves to catch the other (it fails, as the thieves co-operate despite their separation). Another encounter between a Romany man and a priest ends with the Romany man calling back his cattle from an extortionist priest—and in doing so, gaining the cattle the priest stole from his parishioners.

Another incident with a priest sees a poor Romany impersonate a preacher in the middle of the night—tricking the local priest into thinking he is an angel or God himself. The Romany encourages the priest to bring all his belongings for the end is at hand—and after the priest does so, he offers to carry the priest to heaven in a sack. Needless to say, the priest does arrive in the afterlife in a sack.

Another heroic Rom travels in the woods looking for heroic deeds, and finds his brother lacking kidneys—they have been stolen by a wizard, who the lad goes forth and defeats. The lost organs are restored after being found in jars. After this, the wizard is slain, and there is a brief exchange of hurling objects between the brothers and three maidens, who end up marrying them.

Canopic Jars2

These were the first things I thought of when reading about kidneys stored in jars.

One factor that becomes apparent reading these folktales—that I will not pretend is unique necessarily to the Romany—is the outsmarting of normally serious authority figures. The priest is the most obvious example of course. There is always a supposition that the church is corrupt—especially priests and monks. Later stories add dragons to the list—one is tricked in a manner that reminds me of giants, where the dull but strong dragon looses gambles to the Rom and must forswear eating sheep forever—and kings with the two thieves. A distrust for authority even runs with the story of the dragon and the mother, who are both individuals of power that scheme against the children.

The notion then, of strange rites in the heart of Paris might be one to explore. One thing I will note that Paris is famous for—and indeed, is on the news recently—is the tensions between class. Yes, class in a Marxist sense is universal, but the French Revolution and it’s guilotines have taken on a life of their own in my mind. And I think this might have been why Lovecraft situated his own class fears in Paris. What then can we do with a revolution? The horror that Howard would invoke here isn’t acceptable—we are given a subhuman vision of the poor of Paris (“Swarming” as they are), and parallels with ‘savages’ (“unheard of rites”). The comparison of the poor with the savage is not unique to Lovecraft but it is…untenable.

I think for a horror story then, we might be better to approach this as the onset of violence. The realization by our nameless narrator that, as it is said in Le Mis, “something’s going to happen now, something’s going to give”. Which…well, is still tricky. There is horror potential in upheval, unrest, and strangeness, but moving that fear away from classism can be difficult. The folklore also highlights how the cunning, if impoverished, get the better of those who seem to have authority.

Could these two be combined? Well, the notion of class conflict and the distrust of nobility don’t align perfectly well for a horror story of discovery. There are notions in a number of folktales of getting power from tricking others into giving it up—the King and the Two Thieves ends with a thief as king for instance. In this case, it might be best to move away from trickster lore—while a trickster hero is plausible, I don’t trust my writing to portray such a thing in a horror story without falling into some clear pitfalls.

I think then emphasizing the class conflict would be better. I think there is a primal fear of judgement day—of the realization that the end is upon the world, and that one is powerless to stop it. That does mean this story is a bit more atmospheric, maybe even in the form of a letter—it is really a single scene expanded and extrapolated. Which should be sufficient for our purposes.

 

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Sacred Guardians

This Weeks Prompt:76. Ancient cathedral—hideous gargoyle—man seeks to rob—found dead—gargoyle’s jaw bloody.

The Resulting Story: The Frog Church

The story of the gargoyle is an interesting one. Grotesque sculptures—specifically one spewing water, but I feel that is an unnecessary division here—gargoyles are fearsome creatures that adorn many old buildings and churches. The gargoyle is sometimes thought of as a protector of the church—a feirce creature that fends off or frightens away evil spirits. Certainly, the gargoyle in this story is playing the role of guardian. But the actual origin of the gargoyle is far stranger.

GargoyleRouen.png

 

 

It all begins with a priest and a dragon. The dragon, however, was more dreadful then your typical terrifying creature. In the tradition of medieval dragons, it was a beast with bat wings, a long neck, and breath of fire (rather standard fare for dragons, as opposed to other french creatures like the Tarrasque). St. Romanus, a chancellor to the king, went out to face the dragon. In some versions, the ones I prefer, he was added by a condemned man, and leashed the beast. Bringing it back to the city it had terrorized, the saint burned the creature. However, the head and neck would not burned—they had become fire proof with the aid of its own breath. So the head and neck were mounted in the church, to ward off wicked spirits. The head spontaneously spouted water—or blocked the rain in a way that looked like a fountain (a nice inversion of its earlier fire breath). St. Romanus also reserved the right for his church to pardon one criminal—non traitorous criminal that is—per year.

The gargoyle then is not at first a willing defender of the church, but the image is rather effective as a guardian. The gargoyle is of course not the only statue associated with the church and not the only statue that guards holy places.

We can consider, for instance, the church grim. We’ve discussed this creature before—a black dog that wards the church, sometimes buried in it’s foundations. The robbery we are dealing with seems likely to be foiled by a church grim, as the creature is much more frequently a physical protector then a mere spiritual one. Other accounts of the church grim—sometimes called the Padfoot–describe a white or white dog, the size of a donkey that stalks at night. Other times, it takes the form of a lamb in the graveyard. It is also reported that the sound or stalking by a church grim marks one for death, and when unseen the grim may make the sound of chains being dragged. Speaking to or striking the church grim gives the grim power over you—resulting in comedic instances like a man being dragged by a particularly mischievous grim all the way back to his window.

NIO Statues.png

 

 

We can also consider the Nio. Unlike gargoyles or grim, who are a type of creature or sculpture, the Nio are at least in theory the same two individuals everywhere. The Nio are fearsome defenders of the Buddha—frequently, the two wield thunderbolts and have rather frightening appearances. The exact origin of the two is unclear—some posit them as defenders of the Buddha in life who took up this role after death, some place them as Raksasa, some as thunder spirits. Almost always, one of the pair has an open mouth, the other a closed mouth. The meaning of this pattern is disputed at times—the open mouth to frighten off evil spirits, the closed to keep good spirits in; the open mouth as the first letter of the alphabet, the closed as the last; the open as in someway feminine, the closed as in someway masculine; and so forth.

Lion.png

This imagery, however, is repeated in the lion statues outside shrines in Japan. Komainu or shisa (Japan vs Okinawa) are in fact lions, not dogs, although their origins and naming are a tad convuluted. While I couldn’t find many stories on the komainu, the shisa is a popular general guardian spirit. I found the following stories on the site linked above:

A Chinese envoy brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa. Meanwhile, at Naha bay, the village of Madanbashi was being terrorized by a sea dragon that ate the villagers and destroyed their property. One day, the king was visiting the village, when suddenly the dragon attacked. All the people ran and hid. The local priestess had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent a boy to tell him. The king faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded throughout the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon’s tail. He couldn’t move, and eventually died.

At Tomimori Village in the far southern part of Okinawa, there were often many fires. The people of the area sought out a Feng Shui master, to ask him why there were so many fires. He believed they were because of the power of the nearby Mt. Yaese, and suggested that the townspeople build a stone shisa to face the mountain. They did so, and thus have protected their village from fire ever since.”

The mystic lion statue guardian exists in Tibetan tales as well. We have a classic story of wealth there—a man regularly feeds a stone lion he finds in the woods. This man, Phurba, is notably poor, but still takes the time daily to feed the statue. The lion comes to life one day, and tells Phurba to come early the next day—and to put his hand in the statues mouth. There he will find gold, until the sun rises and the lion’s mouth closes. Phurba succeeds, and his rich neighbor Tenzin goes to do the same. Unlike Phurba, Tenzin does not take his hand out—and for his greed his hand is stuck into the lion.

Tibetan guardian spirits are also a fascinating delve in myth. They in a way resemble our gargoyle most closely—the spirit is a demonic creature, converted to Buddhism and then made a defender of what it converts. There is a long article I will link here, as I’m still reading the works relating to Tibet. However, this connection with the Gargoyle I think hints at some of the horror we can work with here.

Turning to the folklore of Hungary, we have another story of a mystic and righteous statue! A holy man dwelt long in the forest of Hrisco. So righteous and wise was the hermit, he was preferred as a negotiator—the legal authorities were rarely bothered. Eventually, he was called to deal with a peculair case of royalty. The Queen was a widow, and vowed to never remarry. When she met a man she fell in love with Francis, who was also a widower, she adopted him as a son. In time, Francis grew impatient and greedy—and locked the Lady of Larbor in her own castle, telling her servants she had gone mad.

Hungarian Hermit of Hiesco

The hermit, having been called by the king’s exiled and destitute lady, berated Francis—and suffered the wrath of the crown. Francis had the hermit locked in the highest tower and left to starve. And eventually the hermit did pass away—but the torment did not cease. For the next day, a statue of the monk appeared on a high rock near the tower. The statue pointed down accusingly at Francis—and despite the efforts of nobles and servants, the statue could not be destroyed. This accusing presence drove Francis mad—he demolished the castle, but the statue and castle returned. He fled, and died miserable and sleepless, the cruel presence of the monk haunting him to the last.

Our story I think then has a few interesting elements. The most overt parts is a story of the gargoyle in question, as a fearsome creature. A terrible origin story for the apparent statue. Here we can also observe the Lovecraft story, “The Terrible Old Man”. The story details a number of thieves trying to break into an easy mark’s house…and suffering a terrible fate. A useful technique here is the giving a clues to the history of the place, in small snippets and words. I have a nasty habit of just…saying what the story of a place or creature is. Our strange grotesque could have more hints around it. What sort of supernatural, or even alien, thing it had once been. Perhaps this is not the first thief to have met a grizzly end.

Particularly interesting to me is this recurring story, in both the Nio, the Gargoyle, and the Tibetan guardian deities, that an enemy of the holy place is converted into it’s most ardent defender. The potential parallel for our unfortunate burglar might work out well—perhaps a newly carved gargoyle bears an uncanny resemblance to him.

This story is also a good time to revisit the church as a location—particularly the Gothic cathedral. The most famous use of course is Hunchback of Notre Dame which…I have not read. I did see the Disney adaptation, which makes use of the gargoyles as…elements. Comedic relief I guess. Still, a cathedral is a fascinating location to me, as almost every cathedral is adorned with images. Stories in stained glass, statues of saints, names carved into the ground to mark tombs. A cathedral to me is certainty a presence as much as a place. It is easy to feel, among so many eyes and symbols, like you are being watched and judged.

Biblography

Chopel, Norbu. Folktales of Tibet. Ltwa, 2006.

Henderson, William. Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders. Pub. for the Folk-Lore Society by W. Satchell, Peyton, 1879.

Pogány, Nándor. The Hungarian Fairy Book. [1st ed.] New York: F. A. Stokes Co., 1913.

 

 

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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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Sailing Away

This Week’s Prompt :57. Sailing or rowing on lake in moonlight—sailing into invisibility.
The Resulting Story: The Wind Blew Out From Bergen


Moonlight and invisibility are strong themes of these last few prompts. If I had the money to acquire a copy of Mr. Lovecraft’s letters, I’d wonder what possibly prompted this set of thinking or line of inquiry. As it is, we will press on. This prompt does have the benefit of being distinct from those before in at least one respect. The invisible no longer haunts us, nor is it revealed. Rather, we see the visible become invisible.

The beginning notion of sailing or rowing into invisibility, being lost to the sight of humanity, has some interesting parallels in the border space of folklore and urban legend. The basic premise is not too strange. After all, the sea is full of strange monsters, of sirens calling out to drown men, of ancient rebels against the gods, and more. But disappearances at sea? Those are old.

The most famous disappearance locale for American’s is actually far more recent then you might suspect. The Bermuda Triangle’s record only begins in the 1950s. But if there is a place more synonymous with “lost at sea” in the modern day, I’ve not heard of it. The triangle has it’s points at Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico. It’s reputation of consuming ships is famed enough that I will stop here to say that in all likelihood, the probable cause is the sheer number of ships traveling those waves.

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The related Devil’s Triangle in Japan is another recent notion of seas that enjoy sinking ships. It too has only been reported in the early 1950s, as has the notion of twelve of these paranormal vortices. While no doubt these can be sources of inspiration, their newness ought to be remembered.

Even ignoring these paranormal sightings, sailing to the land invisible is not so unusual. Odysseus did so, and found even stranger lands in the journey there. And funeral barges of Vikings and Egyptians alike were supposed to go on to the dead. King Arthur was sent out sailing to an unseen land, attended by three women. Like wise Väinämöinen built a ship of copper, with an iron bottom, to leave the land and sail to the heavens, out of the mortal(visible) world. Quetzacouatl left the realm of the living, in some versions, on a barge or boat of snakes! Such are the strange contraptions needed to reach the heavens.

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But outside the realm of myth, folktales from various places talk of the dead as invisible sailors. Near Brittany, some report the dead are gathered in great invisible boats to be taken to the Isle of the Dead. On the Breton coastline, skiffs come out manned by the invisible dead. This is typically an ill omen. A German folktale reports that these dead voyages can do what is implied by the prompt, and fly towards the moon. Rabbi Amram asked, reportedly, to be placed in a coffin and allowed to flow wherever the river took him. The coffin, much to the world’s surprise, floated up the river!

And if it is rending ships invisible by their sinking, then the Devil must have his due. Multiple demonic forces or malicious spirits are thought to sink ships when angered or displeased. The devil himself was once sighted at sea with a sword in hand. Other times, demons take the crew themselves!

The devil, according to a story from Schleswig-Holstein,still ferries people across Cuxhaven bay. He does this to liberate himself from the consequences of a certain compact.He had procured a ship for a certain captain, the latter to yield himself up with the ship, which was to be kept busy so long as there was a cargo. This Satan tried to find, so as to keep the vessel cruising until the compact expired, but the was outwitted at the end of the first cruise by the captain’s son, who crowded sail on and let the anchor go. The fiend tried to hold the anchor, but went overboard with it.” Reports Fletcher Basset, citing an older text (Schmidt-Seeman Sagen, which I did not have time to check).

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We then can consider also those ships that are now invisible, having made the journey. The Flying Dutchman, who made a deal with devil long ago and now serves as a sort of sea-bound Wild Hunt, has been mentioned before. But let us look at him at length. The Flying Dutchman is a man-of-war, a terrifyingly vast warship that emerges from the storm to assault ships as bad weather strikes. Another name for the ship is Carmilhan, with the goblin Klabotermen as it’s pilot. The ship has no crew except invisible ghosts, no sails but rags, and hounds ships to the end of the earth. Other times, the ship is a former slave-ship, which was struck by the tragedy of the plauge.

Related is Falkenberg, who sails the world and played dice for his soul with the devil. In some cases, Falkenberg is the Dutchman himself.

One amusing tale tells of a group of pirates that, in the stylings of Scooby Doo, pretend to be the Flying Dutchman, only to be assailed by the real thing. As the storm blows in, the demon ship is unflatered by it’s rival and engages in combat. The results are sadly one sided, as the demon ship lays them to waste with ease.

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But the Flying Dutchman is not the strangest of it’s kind. There is still the Bewiched Canoe. Yes, a magically canoe. From French Canada comes the story of a huntsman who so enjoyed the hunt, he made a pact with the devil to continue it forever. Not only is he in a canoe, but the canoe flies through the air.

Larger than these, is the ship Chasse Foudre, a French vessel that takes seven years to tack. It is so vast, it shifts all wild life around it. Her nails along the hull allow the moon to pivot, and climbing her masts take lifetimes. She is crewed by men so large, that their smallest pipe is the size of a frigate. A Swedish ship of similair size, the Refanu, is so big that horses are used to relay orders. Her crew is thus of a relatively normal size, as opposed to giants that lumber about other such world ships.

More strange vessels under sail include one recroded by Ibn Battuta, the Lantern Ship. Once the ship was a demon that, on occasion, demanded sacrifices. It has since lost it’s powers, and is forced back by recitations of the Quran by local visitors or a priest.

All these vessels then serve as the start for our own. But what start is that? I think the two more modern moments that this prompt calls ot mind are from Tanith Lee’s Darkness’s Master and H.P. Lovecraft’s own Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. In both, there is a celestial voyage to the heavens aboard a special craft. And I think, for both, the journey is more of an atmosphere of wonder or fear then it is a narrative. If we are to go to the moon, to the invisible world, a horror or fantasy that is mainly derived from strange monsters or explicit dooms is not the best. Better, I think, for something tinged with dread. A glimpse of the invisible, that unfolds. Something subtly moving, something just a little out of place. Of course, such writing is difficult. It’s not what I am used to, frankly, and doing something with subtly is not my strength.

Still, a story of a slowly vanishing ship under the moonlight, perhaps draped in mist, needs something more subtle then perhaps I would normally do.

Bibliography:
Basset, Fletcher S. Legends and Superstitions of the Sea Throughout History. Marston,Searle, and Rivington, 1885

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