The Beast Must Feed

This Week’s Prompt:117. A secret living thing kept and fed in an old house.

The Resulting Story: The Family Business

This prompt resembles another prompt we covered some time ago, about secret rooms in castles and homes. There might be some overlap in what we discuss here and what was touched upon there. There is the creature of Glamis Castle we discussed then—a monstrous, vampiric or amphibian offspring that was kept in a secret chamber apart from humanity. There was the strange beast that guarded the castle Orlando fought. Both of these strange monsters lurk in secret around the castle, but they are not so often described as being “fed”.

For that, the first creature or entity that came to mind was  a spirit from Chinese folklore—a gu . This is a creature, often a centipede, that is created by trapping a number of poisonous insects and animals in a jar, and waiting to see which one emerged victorious. This creature is the most venomous, having absorbed the venom of all the dead creatures it has killed. These creatures could appear, disappear, cause lights to appear, infect food and drink, and in some cases control the souls of dead victims. They resemble all sorts of insects and toads and serpents. More pressingly for us, they were able to shift a victims wealth to the sorcerer who created them. In many stories, this monstrous spirit had an appetite that had to be maintained, so that the family’s prosperity could continue.

Symbols for the Gu poison and Jincan (Golden Silkworm, a related creature)

A comparable sort of spirit was documented in Wales. Some of them are more akin to ghosts, but one knight by the name of Sir David Llwyd had a familiar spirit bound in a great book. He once left home without taking the book with him, and realizing his mistake, sent a servant home to fetch the book. The child, curious as young boys are, opened the book after which the spirit appeared and demanded orders. The boy, in shock, told the spirit to go and toss stones into the river—and the spirit obeyed, filling the air with stones the boy had to dodge, until the river was full. Then, it came back demanding more orders—and so the boy in desperation asked the stones be thrown back where they came from. Luckily, this delay in the books delivery has caught Sir David’s attention and he arrives on the scene, commanding the devil back into the book, ending the chaos as he closes it.  While this demon required no feeding, it is in need of constant  supervision.

Sometimes, these hideous beings do not wait to be bound, but instead bind another.  A lady in the woods was apparently infamous for this behavior, bewitching a man named Einion with illusions such that his wife, Angharad, seemed a decayed old hag, and the spirit the most beautiful of women. He split their wedding ring in two when he departed with the spirit, taking half the golden ring with him. As he wondered under her spell, he by chance looked under his ring, and saw on the horizon that which he desired most. He decided then to put the half the ring under his eyelid to see that spot forever—and while he was trying to do so, a man in white with a staff rode up to him. Hearing his plight, the man offered to take him back to his wife. When Einion got on and looked behind him, he did not see the Lady of the Woods, but only vast hoof prints in the ground. The man in white asked if he wished to see the Lady of the Woods, handing him his staff with which to see the goblin. And the Lady of the Woods was a horrifying repulsive witch of great size. As he screamed, the man cast his robe over him, and took them both to the hill near Trevelir.

The Lady in the Woods, meanwhile, had taken on the shape of a young knight and made love to Angharad—having told her that Einion was dead. And they prepared to marry, as the Lady of the Woods promised to make her the most noble woman in Wales. At the wedding, where everyone had gathered, there was a contest to play  a harp that Einion had left behind, the best harp in Wales. None could play the harp, but at last Einion arrived—appearing to his wife as a decrepit old man—and offered to play. And this won Angharad’s heart, although she could not break the illusion—even with the ring restored. So Einion granted her the staff and she saw the goblin’s true shape. After she was revived from fainting, the illusion ended, the banquet and pageantry vanished, and they returned to happy lives.

A more classical beast in the castle story comes to us from Italy. Here, we have a lady with only one son. Oh how she loved her son. Once, while her son and his companions were out hunting, she was visited by a strange lady. The lady asked to put her horses up with the ladies—who refused, as her horses would mix with no others. As she turned to leave, however, her son and his companions returned. The mysterious woman was in fact a fairy—and she bewitched the entire company to become satyrs. Satyrs, brutish and monstrous until the lady could find one who would marry him as he was.  In the meantime, he and his companions had to stay in the stables away from home.

As  his mother failed to find marriage in the land, the prince waited in the stables for rescue. And espied one day, in the gardens near the stables, the daughter of a duke. With a hand he beckoned her over, because like most satyrs he had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat. She drew near, but seeing his form, was disgusted and ran off.

The next day the same pattern repeated, as he asked if she wished him well and she protested she did not despite her approaches. The narrator informs us that she cannot yet say she loves him, and in fact goes to her mother about the affair. The mother warns her daughter to stay away from the monsters, and she does so for a month—before at last returning. The prince entreats her so sweetly that she is moved—or perhaps it is his promise of suicide if she rejects him. At last, she say she wishes him well—and at last the fairy comes forth and breaks the spell.

Which I admit confuses me, as the fairy swore only when he was wed would the curse be lifted. I suppose the prince was especially fortunate his fairy was fickle.

King Zahak is a more royal example of a hidden hunger. A man of spectacular charisma, but little self control and wisidom, the devil Ahriman advised him to murder his own father and become king of Arabia. Then, the same devil became his cook—and an excellent one at that! For his service, Zahak asked the cook what gift he would want. And the cook asked only to kiss Zahak twice—on each shoulder. Zahak allowed it, and from the kisses sprang two black serpents who attacked and bit at Zahak. The cook took his leave, not seen again as Zahak struggled with this curse. The snakes could not be cut free—they simply regrew whenever they were cut off. Eventually, a doctor came—again Ahirman in disguise—and revealed to Zahak that the only cure for his affliction was to eat a dish prepared with the brains of two men. And so, Zahak turned to grotesque cannibalism.

Zahak, consulting about those snakes

In time, the Emperor of Iran fell out of favor with the people. Zahak arrived to them as a savior, and with a great army drove out the emperor, chasing him down and eventually executing him by sawing him in half. However, his hunger did not abate. His agents find two men each day to give him. Two heroic men, Armayel and Garmayel, seek to rescue these victims by becoming royal cooks and replacing one of the human brains with brains of a sheep. The saved man was sent away to the mountains to live.  In time, after centuries of tyranny, Zahak was overthrown—but that is a story for another time.

Comparable in some ways to Zahak, but also to Bluebeard, is the story of Prince White Pig. Here a boy traveling on a road insults an old fairy while traveling. For this, he is cursed to be a pig by day (although the most handsome prince by night, which…I’m unsure such curses work as intended). His father builds a stone enclosure for him to live in. The prince decides to marry, and a bride is found. Of course, when the pig-groom who has spent all day wallowing goes to kiss her, she slaps him back. The prince than devours her. And a second bride, who undergoes the same ‘trial’. The third bride is kind to him, and thus lives long enough to see his handsome princely nature by night. She must not reveal this fact about her husband, however, or she will need a steel dress and steel shoes to find him again.

Of course, to the surprise of none, the taunting of her mother becomes too much and she reveals at last the real nature of her husband.  Eventually, with the aid of fairies, she finds that her husband is back to being a prince and about to marry a princess.  With the help of a servant, she saves her husband from the princess who was drugging him every night. After they speak, they go to the king, who lets them leave as husband and wife.

Which, I mean, he did eat two other human beings for slapping him, I’m not sure he’s exactly husband material.

There is also of course the  ancient Minotaur. For those unfamiliar with the story, Poseidon once sent King Minos a snow white bull as confirmation of his king ship—on the condition that it be sacrificed to the Earthshaker. King Minos, however, found the bull to beautiful to sacrifice and kept it. In revenge, the god of the sea made the queen Pasiphae fall in love with the bull—and the queen had the inventor Daedalus devise a way for her to make love to the bull. The result of this was the Minotaur, half man and half bull.

The minotaur was a fierce being and, being neither man nor beast, had no natural source of nourishment. So he fed upon human flesh, and thus had to be contained. Daedalus was again employed to create a labyrinth to contain the monster, and every seven years offerings, Athenian youths were offered to the beast. 

There seems to be a common line with these monsters however. These creatures that demand blood and must be imprisoned give or are correlated to an ascent to power. Zahak receives power from Ahriman—and receives his hunger from Ahriman. The bull secures Minos’s kingship…and brings the Minotaur. The gu demon brings wealth but also threatens the family and is used to feed on the populace. Even the pig and satyr princes derive from uses of power and rudeness—and in the case of the pig, turn literally from man-eating monster into heroic prince like night and day. Sir David’s familiar granted him extreme power and knowledge—even if it cost him his curacy—and the lady of the woods took the shape of noble ladies and knights in her travels.

To keep the old power alive, the old monster must be fed sounds like the basis for a gothic horror story indeed. We will see what sort of monster dwells in the old house next time…but until then. What stories of beasts in the basement have you heard?

Bibliography

Busk, Rachel Harriette, 1831-1907. Roman Legends: a Collection of the Fables And Folk-lore of Rome. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1877.

Carrière, Joseph Médard. Tales From the French Folk-lore of Missouri. Evanston: Northwestern university, 1937.

Pang, Carolyn. “Uncovering ‘Shikigami’: The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 99–129. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41955532. Accessed 25 Aug. 2020.

Sikes, Wirt, 1836-1883. British Goblins: Welsh Folk Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends And Traditions. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1880.

It’s a Masquerade!

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

The Resulting Story: And Off Fell His Mask

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

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

Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight after his game.

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

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

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

HeroTwins Preforming Thier Act.png

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

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

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

Bals De Ardents.png

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

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

Masque of the Red Death

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

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

King In Yellow Book Cover.png

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

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

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

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

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

Bacchae.png

The Climax of the Bacchae

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

Bermuda.png

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.

Avalon.png

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).

Flying Dutchman.png

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.

BewitchedCano.png

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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