And Off Fell His Mask

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

The Prior Research:It’s a Masquerade!

The King Hyperion sat on his golden throne, a glimmering pyramid of radiance. His fingers drummed on the heads of carved lions of marble. The crowd was silent, the air a nice cold breeze wafting on the summer day. His nose twitched at the thick smell of wine in the air, as he settled his gaze upon the man with the strange eyes.

“Your royal majesty, I present the apprehended felon.” The captain of the guard said, yanking the chain of the hunched over fool. “Loratian, disturber of the peace and decency.”

King Hyperion2

Loratian was hunched over, the many chains that hung from his back and limbs. He had a vulture neck and a mane of white hair. His brow had growths, small hills of flesh poking between his hair. Between two of these bulges, was the most striking feature of the prisoner. A crimson eye, with a blue pupil and purple iris, gazed out unwavering onto the king.

“Do you know what cause has brought you into our royal presence?”

“You have men with spears and chains, and they made a compelling case that my attendance was required.” Loratian said, grinning with broken and yellowed teeth.

“Yes, we suppose that is one reason. Our men were sent to bring you to our presence, for crimes against our person that you commit incessantly and daily.” Hyperion said, his fingers no longer drumming.

“Good king, had I committed crimes against your person, I do not believe it would be necessary for you to bring me here.” Loratian said, straining at his bonds.

“Do you deny your crimes then? We hear no end of your proclamations against our crown, and against our house, and calls for all manner of ignoble behavior.” King Hyperion said, his voice rising slighty. “You gathered riotous masses to assault our winery, our granary, and our stores of food. You struck down a man of the temple and spat in the face of a holy oracle.”

“To much applause, if I recall.” Loratian said, nodding.

“So you confess then, to these actions and worse—the murder of bulls on our streets, the declarations of kingship against our person, and the demands for royal revenues and tithes?” King Hyperion said, leaning forward.

“I cannot confess them.”

“And why is that?”

“For they are not crimes. And to confess them would be to confess to breathe, or to confess that I too am under the sun’s rays. A god among men, I have done no wrong.”

“…We take that as confession then. Your crimes cannot be passed without judgment—without punishment. As you show no interest in appeal or supplication, then you will be rendered unto God for judgment.” Hyperion said, waving his hand. “And cast into the wilds to suffer as beasts do in the wastelands without our grace.”

Grinning Loratian was taken back in bonds, to be held for the night. The crowd called out and clamored, some cheering, some begging for mercy and appeals to the heavens for mercy and forgiveness. Hyperion continued his business for the day, the face of the madman haunting him as lions fought for his amusement, gifts from distant provinces were offered, and entreaties to judgment maid.

At last, he retired to his counsel, seeking his trusted wife and adviser. The two had guided his hand faithfully for years before, through war and plague and famine. Surely they would know the source of this trouble in his vision.

“It it some enchantment he has.” The Queen Hellia said. “He is, no doubt, some sorcerer or occultist, who has dealt with spirits of the hills. Throw him when he came, and he will regroup there and plauge us anew.”

“Enchantment mayhaps, but there are arts to memory that are less harrowing then these.” The Vizier Corinth said, after a pause of thought. “Still, he has grown to mighty to merely be tossed aside. No, if he is sent to the wastes, he may stir bandits and treasonous farmers to heights of violence. We ought do more then put him to the wrath of God. We should instead escort him directly, with as much circumstance as he warrants.”

“Hm…Yes, there is a festival coming. If he is brought to the sword then, there will be no doubt of his fate. And we shall have not to fear of rallies—a martyr he may become, but martyrs can fade, and the mob is less organized without its head.”

*************************************************************************************

The execution was announced, by crier. In a weeks time, Loratian would be beheaded—the King Hyperion intended first to let him hang, but the thought of more words escaping Loratian’s lips removed that idea. No, the royal mind was set to see first his face sliced off, the wretched eye removed, and then the head cut from its stalk. With such thoughts in mind, he opened his court again to grievances the day after the announcement. What came in first did not surprise him.

They were a ragged crowd, murmuring as they approached his throne. From their midst came a woman, in dregs died purple and red with wine and sacrificial offerings, her hair wild and matted. In one of her hands was a staff tipped with brass pomegranate. As she took another step forward, a snake uncurled from her hair and around her neck.

“Lord Hyperion, I’ve heard that you plan to execute our leader for his deeds.” The woman said, standing tall.

“We have.” Lord Hyperion. “He has shown no wish to repent his deeds, and confessed to us all his actions.”

“Then we, his flock, ask he be released to us. We will take him far from a land that does not want his words and deeds, and will trouble you no more.” The woman said, gesturing with her spear.

“Our judgment is passed, and his fate we have ordained.” Hyperion said, waving his hand aside. “We send him as his sovereign on earth to the sovereign hereafter, our brother beyond the mists. That is our mercy—for our wrath, we may do worse while he still lives.”

“We insist, as his flock, he be returned to us—as it is, you delay his judgment for no purpose greater than your own sadism and fear. Release him, and we and him shall take our delights elsewhere.”

“His judgment is passed, his doom we will see carried out. If he wished to live, he would not have behaved in such an outrageous way.” The King Hyperion replied. “His blasphemy alone condemns him.”

“You are right on one account.” The woman said, frowning. “His judgment is passed—and now it is sealed. Doom comes for you soon, king of men, who has chained a god.”

“We have made our judgment. Leave, and thank the Lord that we have mercy in not speaking it against you.” Lord Hyperion said, rising in his throne, the lions at his side taking on a more fearsome aspect.

The guards saw the crowd driven from his throne room, and a new messenger brought in. An old man in the red of the country squires, he bowed lowly to the King. Hyperion sighed with relief at some decorum returning to his court after so many interruptions of squalid and unkempt agitators.

“Lord Hyperion, Sun upon your brow,gracious in victory, your squire comes with news from the hills and dales of your hold.” The Squire said.

“Let us here then, our good squire, what has become of our more distant lands. Are they prosperous and obedient yet?” The King said.

“Prosperous perhaps, but obedient I cannot say. A frenzy of signs emerged not long past—a great black goat was seen, with seven limbs and three eyes; purple and red lights were seen in the woods and in fog between the hills; and laughter took hold of half the people for seven days.” the Squire said, rising to a knee.

“Such oddities are not unknown in nature—strange beasts and lights are the work of many things. What of these?” The King said slowly.

“ Wise in your many ways, King Hyperion, you see that these are not but coincidences of the seasons and tides.” The squire said, bowing again. “However, the people, in their superstitious ignorance, have taken these as omens and now proclaim that a new god comes—they roam the country in costumes of straw and fur, and many have taken to celebration and debauchery. One of your wise and well appointed governors tried to approach the crowd—and among them, he saw his own wife and daughter, their silk in tatters and their crowns abandoned. He tried to lay hands on them, but the crowd assaulted and screamed at him, leaving him sickly and frail.”

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“This is not…pleasent news.” the King said slowly, his knuckles white in rage. “Send forth for my general Balivar, and let him lead a host against these rebels. The gods have assembled long ago, and their hersey has become riotous.”

“Are you certain, my lord? Might not letting the loose–”

“Has our crown slipped from our brow? Are the lions no longer beneath my hands? I have given the command—Call Balivar to our side, and send him with sword and spear and shield to crush those who stay yet in defiance.” The King said, standing slowly. “Do so at once, or our wrath will turn upon you next.”

The Squire made haste to leave, scampering bent over and shamed. The King breathed deep and sat upon his throne, imprints of his grip visible on the gold lions mane. Breathing deep, he calmed himself. He considered breifly the calm that would follow this storm—the end of these chaotic rumblings and sorcery in one strong stroke of the blade. Resuming his poise, he awaited a final guest.

She stood tall as she entered, dressed in finery of white and silver and gold, her headdress of scarlet feathers sweeping just beneath the top of the entrance. A masked servant held her dress as she stepped before the throne, bending her head ever so slightly. The Lady Nodens did not yeild easily, and even in royal presence, deference was hard won.

“Hail His Majesty, Thrice Blessed by the Morning Sun.” The good Lady said as she bowed. “Have we heard true that you will be bringing novel entertainment to our festival?”

“Novel? There is nothing new to it, save the victim.” Hyperion said, breathing calmly. “Nothing novel at all to the death of a man at my hands. This one may ramble and agitate more, but to cleave his head from it’s trunk is as old as the throne on which I sit.”

“Might it not be? For he has the novel face—that loathsome eye we hear of often. Bright red like a ruby against his twisted forehead.” Lady Nodens said, raising her finger to her own brow. “We covet it—a memento of your good will perhaps.”

“My good will? Tis a strange wart and nothing more. Still, in these trying times, it is a request I grant, that it shall be done.” The King Hyperion said, nodding. The Lady bowed and curtsied, taking her leave with her message done.
The King was restless the day on, even into night. When he lay beside his wife, he murmured in slumber. At last, his loving wife woke him.

“What troubles you now? Is some nightmare haunting you, riding you as a steed in battle?”

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“Perhaps.” The King murmured, sitting in his bed. “When I sleep, I see him. That foul sorcerer in the dungeon. I see his toothy grin and wretched eye. I fear he has some hold on my mind now, by some enchantment—as he does on my distant provinces and the poorest of my citizens.”
“Do you think you have judged wrong?” His wife asked, resting on his arm.
“What if I have? Nothing can be done of it now. Thrice I have condemned him. Should I free his chains, what then will be my strength? No, no the crown does not err, even in mistep. To release him now would be as to bow before his power—and that I will not do.”

*********************************************************************************

The palace courtyard was alight with music, on the day the sorcerer saw light again. He was dragged between crowds of masked faces, grinning cloth and feathers and furs. Hyperion, his adversary, sat on a wooden throne—the pauper king, overseeing the execution of his rival for the throne. Hyperion watched as the four men in furs, with wooden wildmen faces, dragged Loratian in chains to the chopping block.
As they made their way closer, there was a rumbling in the earth. The King paid it little head. The decadence and depravity of those rebel provinces—many now depopulated and extinguished in their time—had caused the gods to cry out. The shaking was not uncommon, when the earth sighed at her feast.
They took to the stone steps, to the platform that had been prepared. The King Hyperion rose, with his crown of oak. Loratian was laid next to his disciple—a woman who’s face the King had chosen to forget, her hands and teeth bloody with her kin. Loratian took the steps himself, his old sword at his side.
“In the name of the Heavens and Earth, speak now before condemnation.” the King said from his black hood and well cut rags. “Let the gods here your pleas, that they might part the heavens for your soul.”
“Strike me first, fellow. I must lead the way and unlock the gates of my house.” Loratian said, turning and smiling at the King with that forever frozen grin.
The King strode forward to grant the wish, over the cries of Loratian’s disciple. The crowd stared, as the earth shook again. There was a shout from the courtyard gates—glancing, the King saw a great light shining into the sky, a ray of red and purple glowing smoke. More tricks, he murmured. More false signs and omens. There could be no doubt for the crown.
The King raised his blade, and brought it down on the head of Loratian. As it swung, the air screeching around it, the king felt a tug in his chest. None the less, the blade struck. None the less, it did not strike true.
“Come fellow.” Loratian said, his head bleeding and dripping where it had been broken by the sword. “You must have conviction. Where is the iron will of the crown now, in your time of need?”
The King stared, transfixed. The blood grew as roots down Loratian’s face, his hair now like leaves, his face like stained wood. There were murmurs from the crowd at the sorcerer’s bravado. Sounds, not far off, of some great hunting horn. So the King, now in fury pulled the sword up again. And brought it’s flat against the usurper’s neck.
There was a crack like thunder as the blade struck the neck—and was broken.
“Ah, no use no use. That was long anon hardened in the forges of the sun. Your doubt knew better. To slay me, remove my mask, fellow. And then you shall be rid of my gifts and boons.”
Hyperion drew back his blade again, and this time he brought it clattering down on the face of gibbering prophet, slashing down to carve his brow to his chin clean off. And hear, his blade went with ease—it slid as if through water, the face falling off onto the platform cleanly.
The King did not see what lay behind that mask, only heard the outcry of the crowd. Turning he saw Lady Nodens faint in terror, and the guards scatter. The gates of iron bent as the strange smoke drew close—within Hyperion saw a horde of beggars bedecked with claws and spears and roars. Looking down, he saw the blade splattered with blood. He tried to lift it, but the blood had rooted in the ground and to his hand, growing beneath his skin.

The Beheading Of Loratian.png

The Prophet stood, holding his broken face. From the hole where his mask once was, now grew branches and vines of a great tree, reaching anon unto heaven.


 

I wish I had more time with this story. As it stands, I think it is acceptable. It follows the Bacchae, but not to the letter–and is in fact missing the central climax, although the character beat of ‘woman of noble birth joins the madness’ is still present.  I didn’t get enough or as much editing time as I hoped for, and the result is in my opinion less than it could have been. I think a first draft would have been twice as long before first edits and so on.  I do like the ending, and the middle section is my favorite structurally, with three different portions.

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The Dread Horsemen

This Week’s Prompt: 67. An impression—city in peril—dead city—equestrian statue—men in closed room—clattering of hooves heard from outside—marvel disclosed on looking out—doubtful ending. [“DISSIPATION?” by Dan McCoy]
The Resulting Story: The Ruins of Dimov

Ah, a good long prompt with something like an arc already backed in. It feels like it’s been a while. We start with a brief scene of the city in peril, and then return after it’s destruction to a number of squabbling men in a small room near an equestrian statue. The statue it seems comes to life, and upon seeing this the story ends. Nice and simple.

Now, I think there are things to be expanded upon. I think the choice of a horse at the center of destroyed city is interesting. Horsemen in mythology and folklore, especially in non-chivalry contexts, have associations with destruction. There is the Wild Hunt, a host of fae or the dead, lead by one of power—the devil, Odin, Eric of Wales, or any other storm power—which pursues its quarry from the sky. The viewer often dies, and war and terror reign for some time after wards.

Horseman of the Apoclypse.png

Beyond this band, there are the horsemen of the end of time—four horses with five riders: Conquest(Not plague, don’t listen to modern authors!), War, Famine, Death, and Hades. These riders, atop multicolored steeds are the heralds of a quarter of the world dying by various means. Found in art and popular culture, these are ruiners of cities and men alike. The Book of Revelation also includes the host of destructive angels who ride out to cause misery on the world again. This locust horde of the abyss that resemble armed horses are terrors onto the world for the suffering.

And then there are the centaurs, Greek creatures that resemble horses but with the upper bodies of men, and who are known for their uproarious and provocative behavior with the sole exception of Chiron. Their most famed conflict was the abduction of the women of the Lapiths in a raid at a wedding—an incident that reminds me in passing of the Satyr’s tendency to cause terror at weddings. Variations include the centaurs of Dionysus, sent by Zeus to protect the wine god, and the centaurs of Cyprus who are horned.

Of course, the Greeks do not have a monopoly on dreadful horsemen. Akin to the centaur are the people of the Kinara Kingdom in India, who’s exact form varies from “horse necked” to hybrids like the centaurs. In the Philippines there’s the Tikbalang, a horse headed humanoid that can be found in the mountains that some reports suggest can be tamed with a piece of it’s own hair. While the Aswang project reports it as generally harmless and a trickster, others indicate that the Tikbalang is more malicious or even cannibalistic, at times resembling the Wild Men type we’ve discussed earlier.

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And then there is the Nuckelavee—a creature that resembles a man on a horse, with no skin. It’s head is three feet wide, or sometimes it has two, with a horses head that exudes toxic vapors. It is plague and famine, with it’s breath wilting crops and poisoning wells. It’s eyes are fiery. In some cases, the Nuckelavee is even blamed for the withholding of rain and water, causing massive droughts in addition to it’s personal harassing of those it meets.

Folklore about horses can have more various forms—to ride a horse backwards, for instance, causes illness. A trio of horses of the same color are signs of death, and a dead horse hoof buried beneath the stable secures them against enchantment. Horses that are startled have seen dead men, or the soon to be dead.

The Chinese Classic of Mountains and Seas includes a number of creatures that take the form of the horses. There is the creature called which-lake on Mountain Hiddenabyss, which has a horses body, bird wings, a serpent’s tail, and a human face that enjoys giving humans a lift. On Mount Belt there is the ugly-coars, a creature which resembles a unicorn with a ‘hard grinding shell’, and that appears immune to fire. Twenty of the forty-three of the deities of the Western Mountains are horses with a human face. And on Mount Dam, there is an animal that resembles a horse with four horns, ram eyes, and an ox tails—the appearance of this creature, the far-far, causes a rapid increase in fraud. And so on.

The horse sacrifice is a kingship practice in Hinduism—a horse is sent around the kingdom, and if none dispute it, the horse is returned and sacrificed to secure the king’s undisputed rule. Needless to say many epics include sections of conflict disputing this—the Mahabhrata and the Ramayana both feature these sections for instance, before their climatic battles or wars.

Horses and kings are associated elsewhere. Mythical, many king gods have wondrous mounts—the seven headed horse of Indra, the eight legged horse of Odin, the taltos steed, the mythical horses born of the golden fishes. Poseidon, a god of the Greeks who was supreme for that lost Mycenean age, was lord of horses and earthquakes and islands. The epic hero King Gesar was a horse lord of great prominence, the most important throughout northern Asia. Horse numbers were also prestige markers among the various tribes of the Plains Indians of the American west.

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A more modern equestrian statue, that perhaps was once possessed, is Blucifier. The large Blue Mustang statue outside the Denver airport has brilliant red eyes that give it a diabolic appearance was commissioned in 1993. Meant as a symbol of the wild old American West by it’s artist, Luis Jimenez, the horse’s eyes glow and During construction, the massive statue fell on the man who designed it, killing Jimenez. With it’s appearance and the legacy of a frankly disturbing death by its hand, outcry has grown around the statue. A demon horse indeed.

Within the stories of pulp, this reminds me most of one other story in particular: the Story of the Sword of Welleran by Dunsany, which features a number of equestrian statues saving a city in peril from devastation. You can read the full story here.

Now, as I said at the end of the last story, I feel I’ve drifted more into shock and …well, missed the power of horror in character focused dramas. And here, I think, we have an opportunity to work with character drama. We have a group in a small place, in a tense situation—the clattering of hooves outside could indicate rescuers, or it could indicate surviving looters. We have danger, a small place, and a group of survivors huddled together. We just need a cause of conflict and paranoia for the ball to get rolling.

And for that, I think the associations of ruin and desperation of war could work in our favor. We could infuse the story with some paranoia about survival, as the sounds of war are still heard not far off. I think some sort of set up might be needed: why are people suspicous in the wake of the calamity? Are our characters safe from the horde outside? From each other? Is one a looter, a spy, a traitor? Genuine paranoia is a hard thing for me to write, so this will be good practice. I think the most difficult part is forcing a reason for our characters to come together. If they are distrustful of each other, why not split apart? An outside danger might solve that particular problem, but I think some greater pressure is needed to compel a group of strangers inside then the lingering threat of raiders and pillagers in a dead city.

How about yourself. Do you know any devil horses, steeds of Diomedes, or terrors that lurk in desolate cities? What would you write?

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All Walled Up

This Weeks Research: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.
The Resulting Story: 
The Bride and The Bridge

There are few fates more terrible then being buried alive. The paranoia about being buried alive has gripped entire cultures. Victorians laid bells and viewing glasses, so that the living might distinguish themselves from the dead. Modern day variants include being buried with a cellphone, in case that dreadful fate occur to them. But this prompt is about a far older practice: Immurement .

Burying a live victim into the foundations of a building is an old and common practice. Bridges in particular often have some buried in the stone in order to appease those spirits into whose domain they cross. River gods, you see, frequently asked for brides or attendants. An immurement was a more permanent payment, that the strength of the spirit maintain the bridge and appease the spirit.

The Balkans have stories of a morbid, Gothic character of a spirit demanding first two twins (who’s names are Strong and Sturdy). When this fails, the spirit demands a wife of the community: Not a stranger, not a widow, not an orphan. No, it must be the wife of the chief mason or the nobility. The wife is taken, often laughing until she is placed in the hole. Then, realizing her fate, she begins begging for freedom, then turns to cursing her kin, until at last she asks that her right side (Her arms, hand, and face) be left free, that she may gaze upon her newborn child. And this is done, and she nurses her child for another week (or longer, as sometimes the bridge still produces breast milk to this day).

The variations in this story sometimes make it more tragic. In the first place, sometimes the woman is decided by a promise among the three lords: whoever brings the workman their food first will be sacrificed. However, the first and second nobles break their code of silence and warn their wives. The youngest and noblest stays to his word. Come morning, the older women avoid bringing the food down. And the youngest, realizing what has happened, tries delaying the younger woman’s descent. She curses them all as she is walled up by the masons.

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This deception is similar to the Greek story of Iphigenia. Here, Agamemnon is told that for the winds to rise and the thousand ships Helen launched to sail, his daughter must be sacrificed. Unlike our other stories, this sacrifice is commanded because Artemis has been offended by the king—he killed a deer in her sacred grove, and thus must compensate blood for blood. He conspires with his brother to tell his wife to send his daughter—Iphigenia—to the camp, where she will wed Achilles, supposedly. When she arrives, she is brought to be sacrificed—sometimes she is saved by Artemis.

This older myth is still, however, about crossing a body of water by sacrificing a young woman. While Iphegenia is not yet a mother—a requirement of the other stories for the sacrifice—she is generally the same form as prior sacrifices to raise a bridge. Later on, we will examine the broader sacrifices of maidens to monsters of rivers and seas—Andromeda comes to mind—but for now Iphegenia’s particular tragedy is enough. There is no monsterous serpent that will kill her. She is slain by her own family.

The practice is also reminiscent of those done in Japan during bridge building, termed hitobashira. These pillars, marked by human sacrifices below, serve as a prayer that the building never suffer do to natural causes, such as floods or storms. The examples I have also include incidents where such deaths were averted by clever sacrifices, who outsmarted or gambled their lives back. Again, they are marked as an appeasement to river deities, a class of entity we’ve touched on before. The rivers power of devastation might be lost sometimes, but the flood waters can devastate populations.,

Other methods of immurement include burying a man or woman or dog in the corner stone. A passerby might be interned by accident if their shadow passes over the spot for the stone, and many of those buried haunt the place after. A church grim is a specific canine breed of this ghost. In Yorkshire lore, it is not the person buried beneath the church that becomes the grim, but rather the first buried in a graveyard that guards it against the devil and defilers.

According to a prominent if false urban legend, the Great Wall of China had men buried in it. This would have been foolish, as the decomposing corpses would have defeated the purpose of a wall. A more accurate burial of human sacrifices would be those in the tomb of the first Emperor, who were buried that their knowledge not escape the Emperor’s life. Such procedures to avoid tomb robbers have been practiced in many regions, with mixed success.

A case of near immurement occurred in a recorded story from Morocco. The worker fell ill, and the sultan decreed he would be buried in the wall as punishment for slowing the construction. When a passing saint, al-Yusi, is asked to intervene he opposes the sultan, until he is banishd. Al-Yusi settled in a nearby graveyard. The sultan rode out to drive him out, only for his horse to begin to sink into the graves until he repented, nearly buried alive himself.

Immurement beneath houses is equally common, for similar reasons. By placing the ancestors beneath the floorboards, you could ensure their help to the family for years later. An intentional, benevolent haunting of the house if you will. This practice is well observed as a secondary burial, found in various regions as well. Prehistoric burials have been found with the body placed in a pot beneath the floor boards, just in case.

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Leaving folklore behind for a moment, there is also the horror tradition at work here. We must consider a pair of Edgar Allen Poe stories for burial while alive: The Black Cat—which provides the strange second clause of this prompt, of course—and the Cask of Amontillado, where a man is buried alive in a wine cellar. In fact, the latter story seems oddly similar to the stories from the Balkans, with the laughter before a silent end. Arguably, his classic, the Tell Tale Heart, is a similar end, with a burial under the floor boards—albeit a dead one that pretends to be alive.

The story we stitch together then has some strong thematic routes and pathos. It will evoke betrayal, desperation, and of course fear. Not only is being buried alive claustrophobic, it is quite literally confronting the ultimate fate of things early. I think keeping the divine call for a sacrifice. I’m torn between the point of view of the sacrifice or the sacrificer. The sacrifice has the most sympathetic view, but shrinks our horror to a few hours walk, and is ambushed by the burial. The sacrificer, meanwhile, is well aware of the deception. The happiness, the innocence of the lamb lead to slaughter is all the more poignant when you are the butcher.

The other end of planning is doing knife twisting properly. A constant melody of ironic statements, of poignant phrases that mount misery on misery would get as boring as a never ending description of how truly horrifying this or that monster is. The writing here needs balance and relief from the pain, in order to function properly. If the hand is over played, then the horror and tragedy will become schlocky and overwrought. A thing I do try and avoid at times.

Biblography

Amster, Ellen. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Butler, Thomas. Monumenta Serbocroatica: a Bilingual Anthology of Serbian and Croatian Texts from the 12th to the 19th Century. Michigan Slavic Publ., 1996.
Holton, Milne, and Vasa D. Mihailovich. Songs of the Serbian People From the Collections of Vuk Karadzic. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

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Calling Up the Dead

This Week’s Prompt:52. Calling on the dead—voice or familiar sound in adjacent room.

The Resulting Story:A Dreadful Tapping

Necromancy is upon us, fellows! Dark sorcerer at last revels itself! But perhaps you are confused…this is about only sights and sounds. How does this relate to Necromancy, which much of popular culture conflates with zombies, skeletons, liches, and the summoning of undead war engines or hordes?
Necromancy, at it’s base, is much simpler then all these things. A necromancer attains knowledge by communicating or contact the dead. The modern word has it’s roots in just that meaning (Necro meaning dead, mantiea means divination). This has a number of cultural ties to be discussed at length here, as it might give insight into the unsettled spirits above. And of course, we are necromancers here aren’t we?

Odysseus Necromancy.png
The first place to start, although not the oldest, would be the Greek conception. Necromancy here is most apparent in the works of Homer, specifically Odysseus’s voyage to the Underworld, where by blood offering he acquires the aid of a long dead sage. These could be elaborate rituals in later times, and often relied on the conjuring of specific shades for their precise knowledge.
Related to the Greek school of thought is the Jewish and Old Testament relations of necromancy. Necromancy, for a variety of reasons, is forbidden under the Law. It was a Canaanite practice, and further, it disturbed those God had claimed. The existence of shades to conjure was also severely questioned by later Christian critics. However, there is a noteworthy account of necromancy here as well. The Witch of Endor.

Ewoks

Wrong Endor, ya dolts.

The Witch of Endor episode occurs during the book of Samuel, where a Canaanite woman is asked by King Saul to conjure up a dead prophet and judge in order to learn his fate. This resulted in the King being roundly condemned for daring to disturb the dead in his quest for certainty.
Moving farther abroad, the means of contacting the dead are known in China as well as the Mediterranean. More often, mediums are used there to contact the dead then conjuring as we know it. However, the Chinese authorities have perhaps a more elaborate arrangement of the dead, divided into forms based on death (In the way that other faiths might assign punishments). The hungry dead, those derived of ritual, are the primary ones to be kept at bay, while other deceased relatives might provide comfort or aid to their descendants.

MayaBloodLetting.png

Note the bowl of scrolls, which would have been stained with her own blood.

The Maya priests also engaged in a sort of necromancy, consulting the spirits of Xibalba by shamanistic or hallucinogenic rituals and blood letting. They contacted otherworldly spirits this way, in a manner that might seem familiar. Ancestors again were a protective force at times, and knowledgeable about many things.
In the Northern European climes, there are records from a seventeenth century poem of a mother being called forth by her son after death, in order to defend him and free him from his stepmother. The mother adds her son by casting a series of spells to defend him.

BuryatShaman.png

Among the Buryat people today, ancestors are the primary group to be consulted by shamans. After almost a century of Soviet oppression, however, many of the names of these ancestors have been lost. And worse still, several have found the places they inhabited to become nightmarish, with ancestors killed in Soviet prison camps manifesting as tortured and angry spirits barely intelligent to the mortal sense. These ghosts all need appeasements, as the various ills that befall a Buryat household are often ascribed to angered ghosts and displeased ancestors. These rites might involve sacrificial sheep or promises made with a shaman as an intermediary.

I could go on, my fellow society members, but the number of ghosts in the world is vast indeed. The dead are often restless, sometimes manifesting in human forms, sometimes in frightening ones. But to close this portion of research, I might bring attention to the phenomena that Mr. Lovecraft was particularly thinking of : Spirtualism.

Spiritualism2.png
Spirtualism was a movement in the late 18th century, brought on by speculated causes, of conjurers and contractors of the dead. Mediums and seances spread through Europe, claiming to speak with the long dead through various devices they had. Now, whether the craze was built upon the notion of invisible forces as revealed recently by sciences, or the sudden access Europe had to Egyptian, Buddhists, and Hindu manuscripts through it’s vast colonial empire can’t be said. What can be said is that the séance was a common occurrence.
And the remains of these séances are wide spread. The Winchester house might be the most famous. Built by the wife of the inventor of the Winchester rifle, the house was always being built. Why? At a séance, the builder Sarah Winchester was told that she would be haunted by all those who were killed with the Winchester rifle. The house was thus a never ending labyrinth to confuse spirits that sought to harm Sarah, so elaborate that even within the last year new rooms were discovered.

TheWinchesterHouse.png

The Winchester House

Another séance inspired the religion of Spiritism in a young Frenchman, who believed he had come in contact with the souls of ancient druids. While Spiritism proper might balk at being termed necromancy, Allan Kardac’s discovery was of the secret knowledge held by spirits that had past on. The religion spread across the Atlantic and took roots in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, as well as to the French colony of Vietnam. Recently, I read an article detailing how the French movement influenced moral teachings in Iran as well. The faith maintains a following to this day, with thirty five countries on an international council.
This is all to bring context to the scene we have hear. A séance, a contacting of the dead is by it’s nature a strange and uncanny event. But here, we have a contact that was actually achieved. A voice is heard or a familiar sound (in proper tradition, probably some musical notes). So, what is the horror and dread here?
This won’t be a story, I feel, of a great overt horror. No one is going to be dismembered in gory ways. No one is going to go mad in the overt, grand, Gothic sense. A séance may be dripping with Gothic forms, a Victorian melodrama that disturbs the barrier between the living and the dead. But the horror is going to be…different.
Atmosphere seems key to all horror, but I think with something as small as a séance, where the shift is merely a sound, it will be primary. The horror here will rely on who is attending the séance, and who is conjured. And maybe what they say. After all, the voice of the dead might be one full of knowledge. But in a Lovecraftian world….well. Who’s says knowledge is a good thing? Ignorance is bliss.

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River of Fire

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

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

Phlegethon

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

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

Vaitarna.png

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

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

Phlegethon2.png

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

River On Fire.png

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

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

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

Charon.png

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

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

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Serpents and Sickeness

This Week’s Prompt: 27. Life and Death. Death—its desolation and horror—bleak spaces—sea-bottom—dead cities. But Life—the greater horror! Vast unheard-of reptiles and leviathans—hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle—rank slimy vegetation—evil instincts of primal man—Life is more horrible than death.

The Resulting Story: The Snake and The Shade
There is a lot to cover in this prompt, my fellows in mortuary of writing. Mr. Lovecraft’s prompt is neatly divided and thus we can cover the extensive ground quickly, but you’ll forgive me if it takes some time to get to the plotting of it all. That must wait until the end.

Death, given that it is the lesser of our two topics, will get perhaps the least coverage. Desolation as a notion, and the concept of the wasteland and horror of emptiness, is a fairly familiar one to modern audiences. I would point to a number of examples, but the Nothing of the Never Ending Story does exceptionally well as desolation made manifest. The sea bottom dead city and the ruin call to mind, personally, a poem by the great Poe. The City In The Sea, which certainly inspired a certain piece of Mr. Lovecraft’s own writing, is certainly what is alluded to here. I recommend the poem highly, it is one of my personal favorites. It’s motifs, however, have little bearing on the second phase of conversation however. Life.

Life as a horror is…less common. First a brief review of the creatures presented to us: we have described here a number of familiar features. First there are the vast unheard of reptiles and leviathans. As we have already covered dragons (here) and leviathans (here), I will leave this be. Next, of course, is the ‘hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle’. I presume Mr. Lovecraft means dinosaurs, but you might have heard these creatures more resembled poultry than nightmares.

Still, the conjuring of the jungle is important. Jungles are nasty areas, impenetrable regions to most (as Mr. Lovecraft might say) civilized peoples. They do not abide well with agriculture, having fairly poor soils that require slash and burn, and worse still have all sorts of diseases and infections through out them. And of course people live there, and often are believed by their neighbors to have terrible powers.

Life’s danger, mostly then, is of unlimited growth. Growth unconstrained and uncontrolled. This as concept has a number of echoes, in science and science fiction. To begin with the more grim, such a terrible notion might be summarized as cancerous. Cancer is the out of control growth that Lovecraft fears, a never ending mutation and spread the consumes an otherwise healthy host. The parody of proper life (if we use such a phrase) unrestrained by death is a fatal one.

DeathlessOne.png

He Looks So Suave For An Eldritch Horror

Moving to the nearest fictional relatives, the idea of life without death as being terrifying is fairly old. The trapping of Death by Sisyphus results in that very sort of chaos. Further cases of immortality as a curse, such as the Sibyl, abound in classic literature. Certainly, this fear of boundary violation is deeply rooted in a fear of the dead themselves, but we covered that (here). In more modern fair, Marvel comics has the (in)famous Many Angled Ones, who descend from a universe without death. They are terrible creatures, unstoppable and mighty. To be without Death is to be truly terrible.

Gaia.png

Not Pictured: The HUNDREDS of Monsters

Life giving entities are also fearsome. We have discussed Tiamat, but perhaps now ought to mention Gaia. Gaia, while now thought of as the kinder being, did sire many races of monsters to usurp gods. She sent forth giants to topple Zeus, and from her come the Cyclopes and the Hundred Handed Ones. Before Gaia, there is the primeval Khaos who spews forth new wonders constantly. Never ending creation is chaos and anarchy, and thus terrible indeed.

The connection runs even in Lovecraft’s own works. Abhoth and Azathoth are life giving entities who create almost mindlessly. Life without purpose almost defines the shoggoths, creatures of absolute horror and dread. These entities are terrible, ancient, and eternally giving birth to horrors against man and culture.

And, as with Jungles, there are sometimes things living among them.

Naga.png

Naga Shrine

When we discuss ancient reptilian creatures in weird fiction, however, we set upon a second set of serpentine stories: the intelligent serpent. The Naga, for example, of India are a set of dieties that are powerful and deadly. They have their own cities beneath our own, conflict regularly with the Garuda bird, and offer there service to Shiva. They were, like many serpents, river creatures and new secrets of poison.

Kaa.png

Trust Me, Trust Me

A stranger American breed persists, of a hypnotic snake in Hoosier territory. There, it is said, snakes manipulate children and cows into giving them human food and drink in order to grow large and terrible. This mental manipulation is a common trait in media with snakes, of course. The serpent Kaa has hypnotic eyes, the Dragons of Middle Earth have alluring speech, and Jafar (another Disney character, unrelated to the noble vizier) uses a serpents staff to bend the sultan to his will.

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Because You Overthrow the Gods With Rocks. Of Course.

There are also the Gigantes, the giants born of Gaia we mentioned earlier. Sadly, little is known, except they had serpent legs. Even more obscure are those three primeval serpents (Ananke, Chronos, Zas) of Olympus, who built the world. But we must pass them by.

The Serpent People.png

They’ve Got Spirit, I’ll Give Them That

For the last batch of weird serpent creatures are the most modern: The serpent men. Found in Mr. Lovecraft’s works and Mr. Howard’s, the serpent men are a recurring force in pulp literature. Common traits include advanced technology, cultish organization, ancient civilization (at least prehuman), and a penchant for disguising themselves. Conspiratorial minds add (in their paranoia) other abilities to this already strong list: mind control, blood rights, and interbreeding. I will not grant the strange madmen more than the strange powers madness gives their delusions, but what writer can’t exploit such stuff. Serpent men(or lizard men, in some cases) have since spread to other works: tabletop games, the works of Doctor Who, the movie V, Star Trek, and others.

For the story, then, and the horror of Life over Death, the best means is perhaps contrast. Death may be given the beginning. Perhaps our protagonist wanders out of a desolate wasteland or a wretched heath. He sees, in the distance, the signs of life. This in turn gives him hope. But as he approaches and enters, he finds the hope false. The life dreadful and hostile. And what fate in such a place awaits him, who can say? After all, from life come man’s wicked instincts, my fellows.

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The Shedu

Prompt This Week: 21. A very ancient colossus in a very ancient desert. Face gone—no man hath seen it.

Research: Look Upon My Wonders, And Despair!

Dear His Imperial Majesty and Protector of the Faith,

As you requested, I have continued to take a record of the disturbances that plague your kingdom. I have ridden far, from the jewel of Istanbul to the southern lands where Arab tribesmen dwell. And it was there I encountered my unfortunate delay.

I was investigating reports of a lost manuscript, one from Bablyon that had been smuggled south and lost in a sand storm, when I heard from a travelling merchant of another oddity: a statue in a mountain, near the Basket of Gold.  Raiders from the early days of the Caliphate had settled around it, and was haunted by djinn of ill repute and fickle nature.  The merchant, who introduced himself as Rostam Al-Dahak, offered to guide me to those who inhabited the area now, who he assured me where more civilized folk.

Thus, with steel by my side, I made my way out into the Azir Mountains, south of the City of the Prophet a good ways before we arrived at the strange tribes men. The merchant made good on his introductions, speaking some unfamiliar tongue. He explained that besides the Holy Koran, the people here knew not a wit of Arabic. They spoke some language of their own, precious to them since Babel. Despite that, he spoke some as well.

The tribesmen, simple folk with iron weapons bought with wool and sheep, where a bit alarmed at my presence. Rostam explained that they were very wary of outsiders, particular men from Medina. They thought the secrets of iron and textiles the work of ghuls and desert spirits that conspired against the Prophet. The belief seemed strange at the time, but we shall get to that shortly.

For the time being, Rostam brought me to the headman, a man that the Lord of Creation granted a long life and a healthy mind. His beard was short and white, a cloud puffing out of his chin. He wore a woolen robe and hood even indoors, and spoke with Rostam briefly in their own language.  The elder meddled with some beads before nodding along a bit. What follows is the best transcription I can manage, translated by my dear Rostam, and summarized for purposes of time.

There is, according to the esteemed elder of the tribe, a mountain that was hollowed out by an ancient sorcerer, who tamed the winds and forced them to raise metals and jewels, that he might have a paradise hidden form the eyes of the Lord. Vain in his deeds and hopes, he made metal halls and shining stars, binding strange servants of brass and light. Fiery ifrits were forced to serve him, and in the dark halls he prayed wastefully to idols carved in stone and offered sacrifices atop fiery altars made by the giants of Ad and Gog.

The foul sorcerer could not, of course, avoid the gaze of God. Even in that time before the Prophet, peace be upon him, walked the earth, holy men abound. A number of them gathered around the entrance to the sorcerous chamber.  They pounded their staves on the ground, and uttered many prayers to end the abominable practices that occurred there.  And there faith was that of the esteemed desert hermits, such that the Ineffable One moved the mountains.

The earth shook and scarred as the, as Rostam put it, wind of death descended into the hold from its resting place in the peak. Howling like raging wolf, it descended upon the halls, many armed in its terror and strangled all it found with a hundred limbs of smoke. And it tore and rent all of its contents, its singing swords, its women of metal, and its dark writings.  But the power born in Ad’s statue frightened the wind, and it cowed about it, before being recalled unto heaven. So the place still stood, surrounded by the work of the Carrion Wind.

The elder started then speaking in hushed and more rapid tones, and Rostam did his best to convey the knowledge.  They said that the mountain had laid abandoned thus since, but raiders and nightly demons still made offerings to the strange statue, that its foul powers aid them.  They walk atop desert storms and storms with drums of thunder when it is pleased. When it is not sated, the shepherds see hosts of locusts and worse growing on the distance.

The elder admitted to Rostam that he could show us the way to the strange fortress. It was not a hidden place, he said, to those who knew the mountains. He sent with us a shepherd who had slipped into sleep that day. He laid us faithfully, if reluctantly, to the mountain. A pillar of stone that was stained black in places. Wounds seemed to have been struck along it sides, such that a number of springs bubbled strange rivers out. A great cavern stood along the side, between the four rivers of bile. Surely, great shadow of the Lord, it was something forsaken by Nature and Man if not by the Lord of the World.

Rostam and I proceeded alone. Not even the stern shame of sloth would motivate our guide to enter that dimly lit cavern. Lanterns in hand we entered the belly of the beast.  Its sides shone as if wrought from iron and steel, and were cool to the touch. The ground was a single piece of metal, a passage way more completely crafted than any other. The reflection of the fire danced upon the sides. The air was thick as we descended deeper and deeper. At last we lighted upon the room of the Carrion Wind.

There was in fact a statue there, a colossus unlike anything these tribesmen had ever seen. I, however, and no doubt yourself, Commander of the Faithful, recognized it swiftly. A tall and might form, that resembled a lions, with something like a man’s head, and a pair of thrown back wings. Two bull horns poked from its top. Certainly, it was nothing more than a mere pagan idol. It was well made, certainly, with the only flaw being the cracked and smashed face.

There was blood splattered, of course, along the bottom of it. And a number of shimmering swords were cast about it, shimmering like the walls in the lantern light. Rostam shivered as a chilly breeze came up from the depths of the mountain. No doubt greater secrets or oddities lay there, a treasure trove lost to time.

I was examining the statue when the light first flickered strangely across it. The smooth skin grew small dusty hairs.  As I raised the lantern closer to examine the workmanship, I saw it move more certainly. With a low moan it breathed in. The cavern shook as it breathed out. I started back as the lumbering thing stirred, its shoulders stretching. Its beard unfolded, slowly, into a multitude of limbs. Its wings rose and fell, the entire cavern swept by its movement.

It had no face still though. Its head was jagged and broken, it’s face and skull apparently smashed in.  It slouched forward and lumbered off its platform with cool assurance, swords breaking under its paws. The tendrils flickered out, stroking the air absent mindedly. I sat silent and still as it paced about. Rostam…Rostam did not. He cannot be blamed. The beast’s visage was the fear work of nightmares, its face bleeding sap and its body bestial. I must commend Rostam, for only shouting in panic and attempting to run.

The creature, if it had any sense, surely had excellent hearing, and immediately pounced upon, a boulder of muscle crushing him. The beast made a noise, a gurgling noise, and raised its head a triumphant lion over a lamb.  Its tendrils gripped Rostam’s clothing, and tore flesh and cotton apart with ease. I rose slowly, considering what could be done against such a creature, faster than the wind and stronger than steel.  I decided swiftly that if this was to be driven from your Imperial Majesties lands, a division of men twenty strong, armed with rifles, might suffice. If the Most Generous be willing.

It shouldn’t then be noted among my sins that I fled. I did as quietly as I could, careful not to step upon a single blade or piece of rubble. I moved as slowly as I could, the steel floor catching only the slightest of my movement. The beast was pre occupied with tearing into Rostam’s flesh, though as I began to pass it, I noticed it was not actually devouring him.

The creature was instead jabbing the pounds of meat onto itself, probing its own face for a mouth. It turned about sluggishly, making a strange moaning. After several ponderous steps, it lowered its head and pushed about several of the swords, its  root like limbs struggling to grip them.  Gradually it pulled its head up, stuttering as it did. A beard of blades surrounded it as it turned toward the exit, it long breath growing strained.

I have, I admit, put little effort in placing the location of that fortress. Nor can I explain what occurred to the beast, although I speculate that perhaps the elder misunderstood the story. I suspect, possibly, that the great creature has –unfortunate for itself – a great intolerance to blood. Whence it came I cannot say, nor whether those blades were its or others. The mountain is a strange one, but it is a danger that can be avoided, should we simply wall it up with stones and boulders. A simple solution, I think.

 

Your beloved Servant.

 

I believe this story may have been a misstep. I could not quite get a grip on a deeper horror, or rather, found it much harder to express than an initial draft focusing on a British empire. I was a bit too eager to return to a good corpse I think. Something I will keep in mind as I go on.

What about you, my brothers and sisters? Was it frightening?

If you enjoyed it, consider looking at the previous visit to the Ottoman empire.

Also, a note: This story did draw some inspiration from our good friends at horror prompts. Check them out for some good off-kilter poetry.

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Into The Woods

BeastDance

This Weeks Prompt:11. Odd nocturnal ritual. Beasts dance and march to musick.

The Resulting Story: The Parade

This is a bit more of a corpse than the last few, and thus requires a little less explanation and a little more stitching. The first is what such displays resemble, in folklore. The role of odd nightly rituals has in the tradition of the West at least, belong to witches. Walpugisnacht, or the Witch night, is the most famous of the strange music and bestial rites at night. It is featured prominently in Faust, where it prevents the titular character from achieving his redemption. And then there is the Call of Cthulhu, by our good Mr. Lovecraft, who’s second act discusses a nightly ritual of witches. And lastly, in that Lovecraft vein, there is Shub-Niggurath, who has many beast associations as the Goat with a Thousand Young. Her followers engage in nightly and bestial ritual often, occasionally giving rise to terrible beasts of earth and sky.

ShubNiggurath.png

The beasts here, however, preform uniquely human behaviors. The dance and march to music, in a way reminisce to a parade. A surreal scene to say the least, one that blurs the line between man and best. And there’s an animal for that. The ape.
In medieval times, and since, the ape has been recognized as something between man and animal. It looks, and acts, like both at times and earns an unsettling place in our hearts that way. There is a dichotomy embodied in the ape, of animal passion and human rationality. Which way it falls depends greatly on the story. Certainly, such a parade would be an interesting scene.

ApeMedieval.png
But would it make a story? The ritual it seems, assuming it has human participants, is either invited to or stumbled upon. If invited, we must ask by who and for what purpose? To be in some way a victim? No, this to me seems cliche. To be invited as a sort of initiation, into some strange mystery cult? That is more plausible.
If stumbling upon, it becomes a bizarre story. The protagonist finds the scene, is perhaps drawn in, and is left confused at its end (Assuming the participants don’t descend on him). Perhaps afterwords he sees the people again, or the animals, and recalls the night. Perhaps when beasts and men dance, the two become hard to tell apart, and he fears the wolf and the man with the wolfish mask as well.
Who is another manner entirely. We could return to an old corpse, the servant of the Caliphate. He has already shown an interest in strange customs and practices. An anthropological mind would probably examine such a rite, especially in newly earned lands.
Or, we could go the route of a new protagonist. We could go far into Britain, where witches might lurk with faery creates. The region has several Lovecraftian locales, with Berkely castle holding a terrible toad, and the Severn Valley having its strange nature. There is an entrenched legacy of Mr. Lovecraft here, and this could be mind.
Which do you think would be better? A return to a older protagonist, another round for the bureaucrat, or a new face from the far off isle?

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A Letter to His Most Sacred and Imperial Majesty

Crete Cliffs

This Week’s Prompt: The shores of Attica respond in song to the waves of the Aegean.

The Resulting Story:Greece, But Not As You Know It!

To His Sacred and Imperial Majesty, Commander of the Faithful,

I have returned from your sacred majesty’s mission, and wish to make account of what I have seen in those lands that are farthest west in your domain. The Attic peasentry remain resentful of your righteous rule, but your loyal servants keep the peace. The taxes are collected in a timely manner, the people are protected, and the grain is bountiful. There is, however, a peculiarity to this goodly report. I write this to inform your imperial majesty, and for no other purpose.

The mothers ina village along the Attic coast, some distance from Athens, have had only young girls. Not a single healthy male for your service has been born. When I inquired to the your local servants about this oddity, they insisted that it was a strange miracle or simply misfortune that the village had borne only women, and that men have been found outside the village. Not one boy for the Janissary, they said, but not one for the fields either. Unsatisfied, I made to survey the village myself.

The village priest was welcoming, speaking well of your reign and of your just laws. When I inquired to the strange pattern of births, he showed me a detailed account of the baptisms, from the time of Caesar Justinian. Several boys were listed, but disaster had struck, funerals occurring when the boys were just at the cusp of manhood. Broken legs, ribs, and illness were time and time again listed as the cause. I asked where this plague of miseries came from and the priest was at a loss. Simply misfortune he said.

I stayed the night in this quiet town, boarding with a woman who was alone at the time. Her husband, she explained, was in town showing his itqa records to your loyal servants, to ensure that they both did their proper duty. While serving dinner, she inquired at my reason for coming so far from my homeland. I explained that the peculiarities of this village had attracted the attention of your majesty’s loyal servants and ministers. In passing, I asked if she had any knowledge as to why not one son native to this village yet lived. At this she was silent.

I asked her if there was something she could say, but she held her hand aloft and told me to be silent for a moment. There was a song in the distance, its pitch sinking slowly, a choir invisible. She said that her mother told her it was the song of their souls, going onward to heaven. Perhaps, he said, I could find them there. I asked for a lantern and a coat, and the woman warned that the stones are slippery near the shore. I thanked her and left for the caves.

The sea wind was cold, but the brilliance of the moon made the night into day. As I made my way along the grass, a good distance from the shore, the distant tone continued to sink. The once wavering and high pitch settled deeper and deeper. As I at last arrived at the cliffs, the noise was like a man striving to hold a great weight over head, as it slowly pushed him to his knees.

The caves were low set, domes carved by the Creator’s own hand, and now half full with water. Bits of wood and mangled rope floated on the surface. How many ships had been smashed into these great cliffs? How many since the time of the Prophet, peace upon him?

As the din grew deeper, a roaring as strong as the sea, I saw something else floating in the caves. A pair of long fingers gripped the stone, floating in the water. And lowering my lantern to see what poor soul was victim of the waves, I saw arms with veins barely held in their skin. A great bloated form pulled itself out of the water, slowly. Its limbs shook as its long claw like fingers gripped the stone. I was transfixed, as the creature rolled to face me, its eyes catching the moon light. Its maw opened and revealed that, despite it’s human form, its teeth were like a great dogs. And bones, such small bones floated out of its jaw. I felt great hands upon my very mind. I am unashamed to say I fled, hearing the moaning of the caverns.

I send this story simply to inform and advise. Whatever the creature is, it must be destroyed. It is anathema to your just rule and a danger to your subjects. As for what is to be done, about this village that tolerated such a beast, and what horrid rites they may have practiced, I leave that to the wisdom of the Commander of the Faithful.

Your Humble Servant.

Well, that scrap of flesh had a lot to say. What did you find in the waves?

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Greece, But Not As You Know It!

This Weeks Prompt: 3. The shores of Attica respond in song to the waves of the Aegean.

The Resulting Story: A Letter to His Most Sacred and Imperial Majesty
Alright, so proper nouns: Attica is part of Greece, namely the region around Athens. The Aegean is the sea next to Greece, separating it from Anatolia. So, we’re back in the same region as we were for Demophon.
map-of-attica-1
Except, this time, we’ll examine another portion of Greek history: The Ottoman Era. Specifically, the time between the Ottoman conquest of 1500 to the Greek War of Independence of 1821. This is a rather long era, but some broad commonalities existed through out.

Firstly, the Ottoman empire’s most infamous policy, child taxation. The Ottoman Empire was partly run by a group of bureaucrats called the Janissary, Christian children raised by the state and forbidden to have families. The Janissary were acquired using the Child Tax, which require 1 in every 5 children that were male and able-bodied to serve.

The tax collectors, who often collected said children along with normal taxation, were often in the upper strata of society (This isn’t as weird as you might suspect. If your not a land owner, tax collector is usually a decent job. The government often doesn’t notice if you’ve swiped some.). Greek’s, as most people, did not like the tax man. Or the Ottomans, for that matter. Greek monasteries played a key role here as well, as Orthodox Christendom was key to Medieval Greek identity. And while the Ottomans never forced conversion, they did demand the typical additional tax from non-Muslims.
In this climate, came one of the most fascinating creatures I’ve ever read about. Greek folklore at the time conjured forth the vrykolaka, a fascinating variant on the Slavic vampire. The vrykolaka has numerous attributes in common (powered by Satanic and nefarious forces, hungry, infectious, from a dead body), but some truly interesting original twists (body like a drum, limited vocabulary at times, crushing victims in their sleep). I would speculate that the origin of such a creature has a common cause in both Slavic and Greek fears: Conversion.

In modern times, the vampire is a frightful specter, but we seem to have forgotten that originally, the vampire was a lieutenant of hell. The bite did more than force you to walk the earth post-mortem. It was damnation and hell-fire. It was a forced violation of the soul by an embodiment of sacrilege. Now, the Ottoman Empire had many benefits, but it is hard not to imagine such a fear growing in Christians that were occupied at the time.

But back to the story. How to make Attica sing? Well, a rather peculair trick occurs to me: Caves. Caves, if of the right composition, can produce sound with enough air. There’s an interesting set in Iceland that produce rather strange noises in this manner.

And as for the waves of the Aegean…well, what would happen to the tone as the water rose? Deeper and deeper it would go. And things from the depths of the cave would rise to the surface.

I wonder, what corpse I can make inquiry of next week.

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