Marble Heads and Marblehead

This Week’s Prompt: 81. Marblehead—dream—burying hill—evening—unreality.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

Here we begin another study of contrasts—the art of statuary, stable and enduring, mixed with the emergence of dreams, malleable and fleeting. The two have come together more than once—when we discuss the folklore of statues, and my own thoughts on their horror potential, we’ll find that the muse of mountains loves coming in dreams. Before delving too far into that, however, we should at least mention that there is a Lovecraft story dealing with similar notions: Polaris, Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath, and Beyond the Wall of Sleep all deal with dreams, and didn’t quite work naturally into the rest of our discussion.

That said, the art of capturing human likeness in stone is as old as—well, as possible. The specification of marble for the statue does call to mind classical works. Ancient Greek and Roman statues which in Lovecraft’s day were believed to be pure and milky marble. We of course now know better—it is highly likely that the statues were painted, often in bright colors. But those ancient cultures do give us a few starting points before moving onward.

First is Galatea. Galatea was a statue carved by the sculptor king Pygmalion. Pygmalion had no interest with mortal women—and in fact thus opts to stay single and focus his talents on sculpture. However, his sculpted woman arouses in Pygmalion desire and adoration. Such is his lust that he embraces the inert statue, kissing and caressing it. He even dresses her, and lays her on a pillow to rest.

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When Aphrodite’s festival comes around, Pygmalion prays that the his wife be made flesh and blood—that she in her beauty can return his affections. Aphrodite grants the prayer, and that night their embrace results in the child Paphos—who in time founds a city that is named the same.

Then there are the Statues of Daedalus. Daedalus rendered some statutes capable of moving if not tied down. These statues are only obliquely referenced—Socrates’s discussion with Meno on knowledge introduces them.

And lastly a story calling upon Greek images, if not Greek itself: the Disinterment of Venus. This story tells of some hapless monks who unearth…a statue of Venus from nearby. The statue seems to move when not viewed and ‘magically’ fills the nearby monks with impure thoughts. The result of this story is rather grisly, and I’ll allow you to discover it on your own.

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Of course, the ancient Greeks are far from the only ones to suggest worked materials can channel higher powers. Moving a bit farther down the timeline of Europe, we find the Catholic and Orthodox icons. These images and icons often have fantastic properties—reports of the icon moving, bleeding, or giving breast milk are common. In at least one case, beholding the icon without permit resulted in a man’s death, and the mere presence of an icon could exorcise demons from those who came into the church.

Better still, these icons often were connected to dream messages and inspirations—sometimes in dreams the location of icons would be revealed, while in others instructions on their construction would be given. The icons dreams could also give visions and prompt, in many stories, conversions from these encounters.

Icons

On the left, Luke painting the image of the Theotokos. On the Right, the Theotokos of Vladimir.

An icon is in many ways the embodied form of the saint—it allows the saint’s grace to be refracted and reflected out onto the world. The creation of duplicates of a miraculous icon—either by print or photography—often carried with it the power of the icon as well. And these icons often played rather significant roles outside politics—reports suggest had that the Czar brought icons of known potency to the front in the first world war, it would have gone differently.

The icons were not without rivals, however—we can consider the work of theurgy, where in magicians claimed to bind demons and spirits into statues in order to compel them to move and speak. This practice sometimes included ghosts as well, who were thus imprisoned with iron chains and prevented from harassing the community. Both practices were, of course, condemned by the Church.

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We can also come back to Greece and even to

The idea of binding the supernatural with a statue may seem strange, but it’s practice is documented by the Maya in the Yucatan peninsula after the arrival of Catholicism. Here saints are, like in Europe, sometimes found in the wilderness. However, unlike in Spain where said icons are left alone, the statues in the Yucatan are forcefully returned and restrained to their new homes. For instance, there is a story of when the first Chimaltecos found Santiago in the mountains, in a place where even today no one lives because it has no water. After building the church that still stands at the center of town, these ancestral Chimaltecos fetched Santiago to his new home. The next morn- ing he was gone. Searchers eventually found him back where they had first encountered him and once more returned him to the church. Again he fled to his old place but this time, when they tried to carry him back to town, Santiago made himself so heavy that no one could lift him. Exasperated, the ancestors beat him with whips to get him into the church, leaving gouges on his back that can still be seen today. Beyond that accounts often end with villagers punishing the saint to make it “behave” properly. In Zinacantan, town elders pour hot water over San Lorenzo to silence him because they dislike “talking saints” in Amatenango, they throw their evil image of San Pedro out of the church and then behead him for his witchcraft.

Caanite Teraphim

These teraphim are Canaanite, not Jewish, but give a good impression.

Pre-Christian references to statues as divinities are not limited of course to Greece. We have the teraphim of the Old Testament. These statues are small, and often translated as household gods. They appear to contain some power and blessing. They might be comparable to the Lares of the Trojans in the Aenied or to the brazen head constructs of later occultists (which we discuss in our Patreon research here). These served as protectors of household power, and continuations of a house—for there to be a new Troy (as Aeneas founds), they must have the Trojan gods. They further speak in Aeneas’s dreams, in Book 3 of the Aenied, telling Aeneas to seek out the lands that have been prepared for him and not to dally in the Greek shores much longer.

All this talk of saints, and I nearly forgot to mention a peculiar story I found while doing research for this topic: the Porcelain god. The story resembles Galatea in some ways—it is about a superb artist striving to make a living thing out of inert material. However, unlike Galatea—who is granted life by the act of a goddess—the porcelain here is given life by mortal hands. Specifically, after years laboring away at making the life like porcelain, the poor man asks the god of the forge how he might succeed. The forge chastises him for thinking that with mere bellows he might make a soul, and the man realizes he can impart life to his creation—by sacrificing himself. Leaping into the fires, he infuses the porcelain with the potency of life, and is enshrined by the Emperor as a god of porcelain.

The danger of statues is also well recorded. The instance of the Disinterment of Venus is but one example. A tale from India tells us of a Brahmin and his elaborate collection of idols—and his disgruntlement with determining the best of the idols. He asks a local smith for advice, and the smith suggests seeing which idol with stands the blows of a club best. After testing the idols this way, the Brahmin finds only one idol able to stand the blow. He worships the idol faithful, doing nothing else but meditating on the idol, offering it food, and tending to it. That the idol appears to eat—the food left in front of it vanishes, after all—is seen by the Brahmin as proof of his divinity.

One day, the Brahmin opens his eyes however—and sees that in fact a rat had been stealing the food. This causes him to despair and perhaps go a bit mad, as he concludes that the rat is the true master of the universe for being able to trick him. His reverence for the Rat continues, until a cat eats the rat. He then reveres the cat, until his wife grows worried about their livelihood and—in spite of her fear of her husband—removes the cat. The Brahmin concludes from this his wife to be the most powerful force in the world, and seats her as his object of worship. Being an object of worship, however, is not compatible with being a living person. His wifes adjustments infuriate the focusing Brahmin, who strikes her and renders her unconscious. As before, he concludes him self to be the thing worth revering and achieves release.

I find that particular story…strange. But these dangers of images aren’t uncommon. Fear that images would achieve worship instead of true divinity is a regular fear in Europe, where iconclastic waves often destroy images and statuary in a fervor. We can consider a comparable story of Abraham, who as a youth in folklore lived with his father an idol maker. One day, Abraham smashed all the idols, and placed the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned home, he escaped blame by pointing to the largest statue.

To tie more directly to dreams, we can consider the writings of Pausanias who claims to have seen a pair of statues—one to Hypnos one to Oenieros—luring a lion to sleep:

From here is a way to a sanctuary of Asclepius. On passing into the enclosure you see on the left a building with two rooms. In the outer room lies a figure of Sleep, of which nothing remains now except the head. The inner room is given over to the Carnean Apollo; into it none may enter except the priests. In the portico lies a huge bone of a sea-monster, and after it an image of the Dream-god and Sleep, surnamed Epidotes Bountiful, lulling to sleep a lion. Within the sanctuary on either side of the entrance is an image, on the one hand Pan seated, on the other Artemis standing.”

Dream interpretation is a common trait among holy men as well. We can consider the obvious dream interpreter, Daniel of the Old Testament. His interpretations served as excellent prophecy for those who spoke with him. We can also remember Joseph, who understood dreams as holding the future and thus advised the Pharoah for a time. In Heferodshire, there is a story of St. Dubricius, who settled his monastery after an angel of the Lord instructed him to do so—with a herd of swine taken as well. The place was hence known as Hogplace or Mochros.

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These two are the old Greek gods of slumber, and in some cases survive later as saints. Hypnos further endures in Lovecrafts work—in particular, one of the stories I believe came from this prompt. The story bares Hypnos’s own name. The story also follows a marble sculptor, who with his lone friend, begin to explore places beyond human conception and experience. They go further and further, until the narrator reaches a barrier that he cannot cross. But his friend can and…well, what happens next is best read on your own.

Lovecraft’s notion of sculpture and dreams are of course common. We can consider also, in the vein of marble, the Tree. This story follows two sculptors making an image of fate in competition. The result of this competition for the prize of a Syracuse tyrant is eventually a marble crypt and great tree that is extremely human like in appearance. I’ll allow you to enjoy that particular tale. And we cannot forget that a statue and a dream are at the center of the Call of Cthulhu—the statue of Cthulhu being the center of his cult. The power of images is to in a way be life like, and inspiring. It gives a being prescence in the world, spatial reality that a mere painting might not.

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So the above article is still important for my writing—it is where I went with research and I stand by it. However, as I was editing, I learned that Marblehead is actually a town in Massachusetts—not as I thougt, a head of marble. The coastal town served, as many New England towns have over the years, as inspiration for Mr. Lovecrafts own writing. In particular, the town of Kingsport was retroactively based on Marblehead in years past. Kingsport is of course the site of many dream stories for Lovecraft. Randolph Carter has encounters there, as does the terrible old man, and in the Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath, Nyrlanhotep himself expresses admiration for the town. So what tales from Marblehead?

Among the most famous you will find is that of the Screeching Woman. A heavy Spanish galleon was overtaken by pirates. Each member of the crew was butchered—except an English noblewoman, who was brutally murdered on the coast. The fishermen being away, and the women and children of the town being terrified, no one answered her screams for help. Her body was buried on the spot, and on the anniversary of her death, her screams still come out of the spot.

The prompt more directly seems to refer to a man named Old Dimond. Old Dimond was a man of prestigious power in the black arts. These included divination and power over fortune—he was known to go to the burying hill and beat about the graves, making demands for the fates of his own vessels. He was also known as a good friend to have—a widow asked for the location of a lost bit of wood, and he charmed the thief into returning it. In another instance, he was able to locate stolen treasure for an elderly couple. Old Dimond it seems was not only a wizard but a defender of the ill fated.

Old Dimond I think gives a direct line to the story. We are dealing with manipulations of dreams, and of fates there for. The reference to a burying hill point to that sort of necromancy connection. We then have the story of a wizard, of dreams, and of a certain unreality or magical uncertainty. From Old Dimond’s tales, it might be fitting to do a thief story—akin to the Terrible Old Man. Alternatively, we could present a somewhat more nefarious dream of a statue still—as I discuss in the patreon research, the ability to gain insight into the future and the cosmos is often connected with mystical statues and machines. Certainly, necromancers have had uses for strange and enchanting statues before. And I do confess, I would like to employ my earlier work into this even as they…misaligned with Lovecraft’s intent.

What stories will you weave about the coastal town of Marblehead? What statues inspire you in the real world? What strange dreams have you had?

Bibliography

Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Some Chinese Ghosts. Project Gutenberg, 2015.

Leather, Ella Mary, et al. The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire: Collected from Oral and Printed Sources. Logaston Press, 1912.

Mukharij, Ram Sayta. Indian Folklore. Sanyal and Company, 1904.

Roads, Samuel. History and Traditions of Marblehead. Osgood and Company, 1880.

Watanabe, John M. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist, vol. 17, no. 1, 1990, pp. 131–150. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/645256.

“JewishEncyclopedia.com.” JewishEncyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14331-teraphim.


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There Is Nought But Chaos

This Week’s Prompt: 80. Shapeless living thing forming nucleus of ancient building.

The Resulting Story: The Shifting Temple

This week we are given a topic that we have, in the past, covered with some detail. The notion of a living core of an ancient structure bares a resemblance to notions of shapeless forces we discussed regarding Azathoth—we will be re-discussing some of those here, with greater detail and focus, as well as some other forms of living structures.

There are two parts to this prompt, each worth review in equal part—the shapeless and the center. That is, there are creatures and stories of things who’s shape cannot be known, and of things that support buildings and worlds. Both will be discussed—particularly when they overlap at the end.

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First we will discuss the most fantastic—the shapes at sea that support entire camps, and resemble islands from afar. This is actually the origin of the Kraken, a creature recorded in biology texts from the eighteenth century. There is another such creature in Norse tales, the hafgufa. Recorded as a giant whale, the hafgufa resembles an island from afar—in some tales, its nose is so massive that it suffices for an island!–and it is noted both for its taste in ships and men, and its peculiar means of attracting prey. The hafgufa is a species of two in some texts—and both are infertile, otherwise the ocean would be over run by false islands. In some texts, the hafgufa is also called the Kraken—albeit a whale not a squid. You can find more of it here.

Medieval Bestiaries produce another whale like creature—or sometimes turtle—who is so big, it’s back ridge has trees growing on it and valleys form around it. The aspidochelone is sometimes more sinister however—its appearance of false life and safety are an allegory in one text for the Devil and demons, who seduce the desperate.

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In Ireland, the stories of Saint Brendan the Navigator tell of a strange beast that appeared as an island and breached his boat. The Saint here is safe—the whale sinks after a fire is lit on it’s skin, much to the shock of the crew but little harm.

In Chile, there are stories of a similar creature—although it is more commonly in lakes, the Cuero is a danger to sailors who draw near it’s lure. Sometimes the shape is like a cow hide, sometimes an octopus, sometimes a stingray. Here is a more in depth article on not only the legend, but histories of it’s recordings

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Then there are those supports that are much wider and vaster then a mere ship. The World Turtle, for instance, carries…well, the world on its back. Sometimes this is a literal and direct holding. Kurma, for instance, supports the world directly in Hindu stories. Other stories, such as when Nuwa repaired the sky, have the turtle shell as a form of architecture somewhat removed. Turtle Island refers to this imagery as well—the notion that the Americas are on the back of a great mythological turtle. Other stories—the most obvious being Discworld—suggest the world is on the back of four great elephants, and then on the back of a turtle.

Bahamut is another supporter of the world, albeit a fish with a great bull on its back. Found in Arabic sources, Bahamut is more terrifying then others. The bull on its back has a hundred legs and horns, and Bahamut itself is so vast all the worlds oceans would fit into its nostrils like a mustard seed. It is also the farthest removed of all the great beasts—on its back, the bull; on the bulls back, a ruby; on the rubys back, an angel; on the angel’s shoulder, the world.

arabic world map

The map of the world here is rotated on it’s side–Bahamut is the fish

Of course, there are also non-sentient living supports. The World Tree can be found in cultures around the world. The famous Norse Tree Yggdrasil holds the nine worlds in it’s branches—and is echoed in the Volsung saga, were the house of the Volsung’s has a great tree holding up its roof–the tree is called Barnstokkr. There Odin—well, a stranger who resembles him greatly—places a legendary sword, that begins their undoing. Further south, we can find the world tree in Zorastrian stories. The Gaokerna is one of many great trees—its fruit is immortality, and will be key to the recreation of the universe. Beside it grows the Tree of Many Seeds, where all plants have their origin.

Not far away from the Zorastrian myth, we have the world tree of Kabbalah—a tree that, I have heard at least, is often depicted upside down. The Tree of Life here holds many worlds, as the light of divinity is refined downward from the undivided Ein Soif into this world. Kabbalah as a tradition is rich in symbolism and complexity, and should have more of an article at some point. The interesting point to me, however, is the suggestion of a reverse tree–a Tree of Death, that runs counter to the virtues of the Tree of Life and is made of the shattered remains of an earlier world. 

pakal tomb

The top portion of the World Tree found on Pakal the Great’s tomb.

Maya world trees are commonly depicted in artwork—the tree runs from the underworld into the heavens. Like the tortoise shell of Nuwa, the tree was constructed after a flood—the destruction of Seven Macaw and the end of the wood people—and like stories of Ymir and others, it is fed by the blood of gods. Some link it’s form to the visible Milky Way in the sky

All of this brings us slowly round to the most literal form of the shapeless center—Chaos, Khaos. Beginning with the most literal, the Greek conception of Chaos is the source eventually of all things. The form or force that precedes all the rest of existence, Chaos is gloomy and far away—and not terribly relevant to most stories. Chaos is the origin directly of Night and Darkness, and sometimes the foundation of reality itself.

Chaos is not the only strange and shapeless originator in Greece are concerned. There was the strange shape in Demophon’s casket, which was the first topic we discussed discussed (and which was rewritten on our Patreon here). Chaos in other cases contains all elements. When Milton depicted King Chaos in Paradise Lost, he maintained this for the realm of Limbo, where elements fly about.

Biblical starts of Genesis refer to an abyss of water from which the world was made—using the terminology that neighbors used for Tiamat, a vast sea monster that was also eventually the root of all things and truly varied in shape. What this abyss was is a topic of much debate, especially in esoteric circles.

Chaos can be joined by Hundun. Hundun is a Chinese character, a faceless wanderer that is the originating chaos of the world. I recall best a story of Hundun from the Taoist, Chuang Tzu: The Emperor of the North Sea and the Emperor of the South Sea once met with Hundun. Grateful for his generosity as a host, they offered to repay him by giving him the seven holes all men have (eyes, nose, ears, mouth). Each day the bore another hole in Hundun’s face.

On the last day Hundun died.

Hundun has other comparable descriptions, often like a lump of clay and making a sound like thunder. It is malleable, sudden, and terrible perhaps. Or just hard to see, touch, or discern except by its overwhelming presence.

Taoist notions of a shapeless root of the world are common in Chuang Tzu’s writing. We can consider the story of the Shaman and Hu Tzu. Hu Tzu, a sage, changes his complexion and diagnosis at every meeting, culminating in this one:

The next day the two came to see Hu Tzu again, but before the shaman had even come to a halt before Hu Tzu, his wits left him and he fled.

“Run after him!” said Hu Tzu, but though Lieh Tzu ran after him, he could not catch up. Returning, he reported to Hu Tzu, “He’s vanished! He’s disappeared! I couldn’t catch up with him.”

Hu Tzu said, “Just now I appeared to him as Not Yet Emerged from My Source. I came at him empty, wriggling and turning, not knowing anything about `who’ or `what,’ now dipping and bending, now flowing in waves – that’s why he ran away.”

That the ultimate origin of reality is shapeless and indeed perhaps unable to be shaped is not unique to these presentations: Ein Sof, the infinite roots of the Tree of Life, is beyond definition as a being. The Prima Materia is less sentient, but the raw potential of creation that can—in theory—be shaped into just about anything that’s desired. These forces of chaos are also vitality—they are shapeless and thus support all shaped things. They are the raw stuff at the very core of life in the world.

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I couldn’t figure out how to cut this properly, so enjoy the image of the Prima Materia or alchemical mercury–the cubes are the mercury.

This I think could be the source of our horror story—instead of merely discovering a shapeless core at the center of the world, we could present a story where that shapelessness is vital to the world and its movements. And if that shapelessness collapses—if like Hundun, it dies on contact with the five senses—then there is a tragedy at play too. By discovering the truth of the world, something about the world’s vitality is lost. I could go on about how defining something restrains it, and so on and so on, but I’ll leave that for the musings of the story.

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The Rats Are Closing In

This Week’s Prompt:73. Rats multiply and exterminate first a single city and then all mankind. Increased size and intelligence.

The Resulting Story: Squeaks in the Night

Rats. Famine and plague, gnawing away at the world. Rats. Rats are such terrible, and perhaps awful creatures—they appear in horror and folklore in many places and many ways, gruesome and terrible. And still in fantasy and modern writing—we’ll get to those in a moment, but rats are rather vicious creatures frequently. And this trait of rats is not new.

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One of the most gruesome forms of rats in folklore is the rat king. No, not a fantasy creature. Rather, the rat king is a terrible phenomenon. A number of rat corpses, with tails knotted together. The result is a strange selection of bodies, tied into a ring and sometimes difficult to distinguish. Such discoveries are ill omens, markers of plagues, particularly common in Germany.

Germany has two other rat stories of note, regarding wide spread destruction and social unrest. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the more famous of the two. The story says that the town of Hamelin had a problem with rats—so great that it was willing to offer the gold to have them removed. A piper, in many colors (pied), offered to do the feat. The song brought the rats after him, and all but one drowned in the river.

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The piper returned to receive his pay. But the mayor refused to pay him the agreed upon amount—either refused to pay at all or refused to pay the full fee. Enraged, the piper promised his revenge. And soon got it—he played his song again. This time, he lured the children away. The entire towns children walked away—except sometimes for three: a blind one, a deaf one, and a lame one. Sometimes, the piper leads them to a happy kingdom. Sometimes to Transylvania. Sometimes he returns them for ransom. Sometimes they are drowned.

The other, grim story with rats is the Mouse Tower. Hatto the Second, cruel archbishop of Maiz built a tower on an island. He demanded tribute from passing ships, having archers destroy those who would not comply. In 974, a famine struck and the wicked archbishop sold his stock of granaries at exorbitant prices to the peasants. As they grew irritably, and almost came to revolt, the bishop hatched a new plan. A terrible plan.

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The archbishop announced that for one day, he would throw the granary doors open. The peasants were delighted, and on the day, the rushed into the barn. The archbishop closed the door behind them, barring it with wood and posting guards around. And then he burnt it down, declaring “listen to the mice squeal!”

Returning home, the Archbishop did hear them squeak. For an army of mice besieged him and his, threatening to overwhelm his castle. In fear, the Archbishop fled to his island tower, assuming the mice could not swim. And he was right—the mice died in droves chasing him. However, some reached the island. Enough arrived to eat down the door, and reach the top floor. There, they devoured Hatto the Second alive. A near identical story is told in Poland.

Rats are also known for predicting disasters: Pliny, for instance, ascribes them the ability to detect and predict coming wars and disasters. The mice and rats reveal this by eating various items of clothing and army equipment. A similar incident resulted in the founding of Hamaxitus—a wandering band of warriors were told to settle wherever the ‘earth born’ attacked them. Reaching a field, the band was attacked at night by an army of mice who chewed their leather straps away. As home to the plague and predictor god Apollo—his sun element came later—the city fused the two into a worship of Apollo of Mice.

Compare as well to the mice of Karni Mata Temple, who are believed to be the re-incarnation of Karni Mata and all her male children. In particular, the white rats are believed to be these incarnations, and eating the food they’ve nibbled is considered one of the highest honors.

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In Japan, Daikokuten the god of wealth and abundance is associated with rats. In fact, rats often come around his rice bowl as a sign of abundance. The god of the kitchen, known for his great grin, is an amazing god of the household.

The Ainu, who are natives to those islands, have a more interesting and mixed story of the origins of rats that, in fact, resembles our prompt in the broad strokes. The creator deity—my Ainu folklore documents are from a missionary, and thus have a rather distinct Christian edge—was fond of all he created. The evil one, the devil, came and mocked the creator still. In response, the Creator made a rat on the evil one’s back and set it to bite off his tongue. The evil one in turn retaliated by compelling rats to multiply until they became a nuisance and threatened all humanity. The Ainu gathered and prayed for relief from the rats—and this resulted in the creation of cats by the Creator to aid them.

Another Ainu tale tells of how mice or rats were created at the village Erum kotan. Folklore says the people of Erum kotan, or ‘rat place’ worship rats and make offerings to the family of rats—and the chief of rats is the mouse. If the tribe of rats is not appeased, they destroy gardens and inflict famine, and it is in honor of these rats that no cat is allowed to be carried by the shore, let alone let onto the island.

More monstrous rats come from Chile and the Mapuche—the Colo Colo. A rat like creature that lurks in rafters, the Colo Colo hatches from a snake egg that has been nurtured by a rooster. It feeds on the saliva of the houses inhabitants. Like a vampire, this draining of liquid leaves the victim exhausted or even kills them. Removing the monster requires a shaman.

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These stories of rats are more mixed then I expected, although that might be popular cultures influence. Rats associations with plague have been played up more recently as of late. And by late, I mean perhaps as far as the turn of the century. Count Orlok, the second most famous vampire in the world, is modeled on a rat in order to distinguish him from the more seductive and charismatic Dracula. Star Vs The Forces of Evil highlights rats as a group of corn devouring forces of evil. Large rats lurk in the fire swamps of Princess Bride. Redwall apparently features a number of rats—I admit, I never read the series.

Our story is something more akin to myth then most of these. The rats grow in size and number and intellect after ravaging a city—in a way, they resemble a comic by Zach Wienersmith (yes, that’s his name):

Our story is an apocalyptic even, where by humanity’s epoch ends and a new age begins under a different creatures rule. Comparable stories have been told on this premise, typically with apes more than rats but still present. And that..brings me to one more note before discussing our story. The choice of animal here may be coincidence, but I feel like the choice by Howard of ‘rats’ indicates a rather specific anxiety. Mr. Lovecraft’s antisemitism and racism are a matter of the public record, and the associations of the Jewish people with rats is equally a matter of public record—particularly in the 1930s and 40s, under the Nazi regime in Germany. The undercurrent, then, of humanity being replaced by rats from a city is…troubling. I don’t mean to say that such a story will have such undercurrents, but to avoid them they must be addressed. It might do well in our story to examine the fullness of the rats mythical and folkloric nature—as an arbiter often of divine will and justice it seems—then to go with mere plague and famine.

Mr. Lovecraft himself featured rats in a story about degeneracy—titled “The Rats in the Walls”, the story has come up before, and deals with cannibalism, cruelty, and the decay of aristocratic bloodlines. I am…not planning on such a story being the center piece of our own work.

The trick then is determining the narrative for this story as an apocalypse. We have to cover a large amount of time—the annihilation of one city, the collapse of civilization as a whole, and the increasingly intelligent rats. One way around this, to keep a single character running through the story as a whole, is to make the story post-rat. This would make the world something what we did with Gil’s Gone—a human characters or character who survived the initial rise of rodents, now in alien warrens and cities. The last gasp of humanity, before being devoured. The story would need more than “last man standing” as a plot, however. And we would need more than one character. There’s some work still needed for this concept. A friend of mine, who is rather fond of rats—she keeps a few as pets—has discussed rat social structures with me. According to here, and a brief examination of Wikipedia, rat social structures do exist and often contain power struggles by means of play fighting and what she termed ‘power grooming’. In cramped spaces, they become aggressive and fight differently than when they play. Their behaviors can be expanded to some social behaviors, seen from the outside.

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Polished Silver Distorts The Eye

This Weeks Prompt: 72. Hallowe’en incident—mirror in cellar—face seen therein—death (claw-mark?).

The Resulting Story: All Hallows Night

This prompt brings a few easily linked pieces of lore and understanding—mirrors, faces, and Halloween. We’ve discussed some of these before, mirrors notably here, but there is more to discuss then one post could entirely cover.

The role of the mirror in folklore is often one of truth revealing or deception. A mirror provides a clear reflection, or the clearest we can have, of the world around it. In times of antiquity, these mirrors were rare as well—and often made of silver, making them signs of wealth and the supernatural. It isn’t surprising then that many mirrors were in fact used in scrying and other magic for knowledge.

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The Yata No Kagami

One of the most famous instances in particular of a mirror for truth is the Yata no Kagami, part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. The mirror, dating back to to before 690 A.D. was used to lure Amaterasu back from her retreat into a cave. Like the other elements of the Regalia, the mirror was gifted to Amaterasu’s grandson when he set about unifying Japan and becoming emperor.

Not far from Japan, the mirror has a special role in Buryat and Mongolian shamanism. The Toli is a specially prepared ritual mirror that is capable of interacting with the supernatural. The mirror is circular, and among the Daur people has notable qualities of purifying water, contacting spirits, and healing wounds. In some cases they even contained the horses of the shaman, and might be layered as symbols of power—the more mirrors accumulated, the stronger the shaman was.

In more mundane uses, mirrors have been used as ways of contacting the beyond. One mirror was carefully made for the purpose as a part of the spiritualist movement—a movement we’ve discussed a number of times—that involves allowing the mirror to face nothing but a black ceiling so the dead may enter. By holding a candle close, users may see their dead loved ones.

Another folklore blog has noted a New England tradition by which one would discover their true love by walking down the stairs and looking into a mirror. Reciting words over the mirror while doing so reveals in it the image of one’s true love—or a coffin, which means they will die soon and alone! Of course, given falling down the stares because your focused and chanting over a mirror…well,I imagine it’d be dangerous for spell casters. 

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An Aztec Illustration Of A Mirror

In more ornate cases of mirror divination, various Mesoamerican cultures made use of obsidian mirrors to contact the world of the dead. The Maya depict their mirrors as tools of kings, and often hand held (although some larger illustrations show mirrors held by dwarfs and servants). The Aztecs believed the god Smoking Mirror observed all the world through his mirror of gold (his idol was made of obsidian, implying perhaps that all mirrors were his eyes into the world—a horror concept if I have heard of one). Spanish forces and authors attributed more to the fear and superstition of mirrors. Bernardino de Sahagun described the following occurrence:

The seventh sign or omen is that waterbird hunters caught a brown bird the size of acrane, and they brought it to Moctezuma to show him, he was in the room they call Tlillancalmecac. It was after midday. This bird had on its forehead a round mirror in which could be seen the sky and stars, especially the Mastelejos near the Pleiades. Moctezuma was afraid when he saw this, and the second time he looked into the mirror that the bird had, there he saw nearby a crowd of people gathered who came mounted on horses. And Moctezuma than called his augurs and diviners and he asked them “Don’t you know what this means? That many people are coming.” And before the diviners could reply, the bird disappeared, and they said nothing.”

One of these obsidian mirrors made it into the possession of famed occultist and astrologer John Dee—and is still in the British Muesum to this day.

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John Dee’s Mirror

Another famed folklore mirror is in the one on the wall in Snow White. Here again the mirror serves as a vehicle of truth and vanity—it does not give the answer desired, but the honest one. The other major mirror I recall from folklore—and more accurately, from an original fairy tale—is the one crafted in the opening of the Snow Queen. This mirror is again related to sight, but this time is related to the distortion of sight. The mirror, upon shattering, splinters the Devil’s work across the world. The mirror causes cynicism and despair in those who’s souls it penetrates.

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Another story from Granada deals with revealing of the truth by a mirror—the mirror is held by the barber, to find a potential wife for the king. The mirror will reveal blemishes of the soul on the silver of the mirror, helping the barber find a proper wife no matter rank or birth. This of course has the intended effect, and a proper but lowly wife is found. You can find the story here.

Delving a bit backwards for a moment, and dealing with a mirror that effects apperances and horror, we can consider Perseus. Danae, Perseus’s mother, was cast to sea after giving birth to him—long story, involves Zeus and a prophecy about Perseus murdering his grandfather—and upon washing ashore in Serifos, they were taken in by a fishermen and brother of the King. The King of Serifos desired Danae, but Perseus was a danger to his advances. At a party, Perseus rashly promised the king anything he desired—and the King asked for the head of the Gorgon Medusa, who’s form was so frightening that she turned men to stone with fright. To abbreviate the story, Perseus slays the monster with a mirror shield, avoiding directly gazing on the gorgon. Placing her head in a satchel, and ignoring the two creatures that spring from her neck (Pegasus and Chyrsoar), Perseus heads home to complete his story—which bears little relevance to our prompt.

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The prompt does remind me of a particular Lovecraft story—The Outsider, a Gothic horror story of a man who has spent all his life in a castle. The story follows his escape from isolation and entrance into a world that was naught but stories to him. The story’s conclusion and final twist I’ll not spoil (you can find the story in full here). Other instruments of viewing—such as glass of Leng—stick to the theme of revelation and truth.

The story here more reminds me of the child hood activity of dares—daring someone into the cellar on Halloween night, to gaze upon a mirror in darkness. It’s comparable to the idea of Bloody Mary, who appears by gazing into a mirror in the dark by candle light. Or the Blue Baby story, which poses another legend of a haunted mirror. I think that some combination of the two–the revelation of identity in the mirror and the dare of children–could make for a compelling case.  

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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