A Dreadful Day For A Wedding

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

The Resulting Story:Samson and Delilah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bluebeard1

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

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

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

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Here old Bluebeard looks a bit creepy but less crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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The 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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Fates and Fancy

This Week’s Prompt:33. Determinism and prophecy.

The Resulting Story:My Brother

There is a lot that can be talked about prompts and notes so brief. And there aren’t many subjects as full of potential discussion and possible exploration in stories as the nature of time and fate. Which, make no mistake, is what determinism and prophecy refer too. But given how short of a prompt this is, we will also be extending some of our discussion of story crafting at the end. In other words, this one will be a doozy.

Prophecy is probably the first one we should start with. There are a number of concepts behind prophets and prophecy, and a few of them need some parsing. First there is the sort of divination by divine inspiration that most readers are familiar with. Apollo is the Greek God of such visions, Mimir has a similar role in the north, out of the East Fuxi among the Chinese, Smoking Mirror among the Aztecs. . Across even more cultures, unnamed divinities provide visions of what is to come or what is occurring to mortal voices.

fuxi

Fuxi

The second aspect of prophecy is bound up with the first, and is most commonly at home in the Near East. These are prophets, yes, but they are not viewers on some great cosmic scheme. Rather, they see the transgressions of society and seek to reform them, often by special gift to mankind. Zoroaster, Elijah, and Mohamed, peace be upon him, are of this sort of prophecy. The future forecasts here are not quite divination as much as impulse to alter the world in a more virtuous way.

While the second aspect has some more interesting aspects to it, if we are being honest with the prompt, it is more fascinated by the first. Determinism gives it a way, really. The philosophy or more properly metaphysics of determinism often relates to whether the future is cast in stone (determinism) or whether we may yet shape it (Self-determinism). While both are filled with potential horror, prophecy leans towards the former.

That being said, there are some interesting facets to consider. And here I must admit, I have primarily knowledge of the Greek thoughts more than the vast Hindu or Middle Eastern thoughts. But I imagine such debates have some universality to them.

achillesshield

Achilles Fate, Reflected In His Shield

Among the Greeks, there are two stories of fate and choice that come  immediately to mind: Achilles’s choice in The Iliad between two fates and the tragic choice of Oedipus in his eponymous tragedy. We’ve discussed something of a Greek tragedy way back in our very first research post almost a year and a half ago, found here. But now we can discuss it’s Aristotelian elements in full.

First we are in need of a flawed man. Preferably one with hubris, narcissism, or curiosity as a flaw (while today we rightly laud curiosity, there is a reason for the ‘what men was not meant to know’ trope). Next we need his or her circumstance that begin tragedy. In all likely hood, this moment of action will be some mystery or another, given both Lovecraft and the great Oedipus. Some also involve homecomings and strangers, as the King in Yellow and Agamemnon’s tales do. Or, lastly, a simple strange phenomenon. Anyway, we must then show how, by means of the flaw inherent in our protagonist, he or she comes to a foul end. And end that they have been warned of repeatedly through out the narrative.

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Oedipus Rex by Sir Tyrone Guthrie

So, where to begin? Fate, flaw, or phenomenon? To be honest, it is probably wiser to develop a compelling character first. But I am not necessarily wise. So we’ll start with what has happened. As a writer, I enjoy finding these on weird news sites (like these and these). Sadly, these rarely have ‘ironic ends for those involved’ listed. Not to say that some aren’t interesting reads in a ‘what the hell’ kind of way. Tragedies classically end, however, in the death of all involved if possible. Odd crime sites are better for these (they even have a murder section!) but I must caution those who value animals and humanity from looking too long at them. For short works, a strange murder can often be tweaked a bit to make a good horror or mystery story.

For my purposes, a situation of the supernatural seems well favored. I read Castle Orlanto recently, and the madness that came about there from a sudden and supernatural death of a child has stuck with me as a good starting place. Proceeding, however, I’d suggest swinging in the opposite direction of Orlanto. Rather than the death of a child, a mysterious birth of a monster. A creature like the Jersey devil, strange and alien. This has been done (yes by the Simpsons) but it gives an easy avenue to explore the nature of determinism and the essence of people. Is such a thing, born of an alien mind in human flesh, necessarily wicked?

That brings to mind, for me, my favorite work of horror: Frankenstein. While there is no prophecy there, and ours will certainly have a prophet or seer to warn all of the doom they embrace, there is a discussion of why is the monster a monster. If circumstances were better, would the result be better? Do we control our fate or is it out of our hands entirely?

As a well crafted tragedy, almost all characters must feature some of this conflict (even if the monstrous child is at the center of it). Not that some ancient prophecy involve all of them, but rather that they all struggle in smaller ways to assert agency. And being a tragedy, said assertions are all doomed to fail or to backfire in horrible ways.

This ties the nature of determinism very nicely into Lovecraft’s own notions of cosmic horror. The smallness of one’s self in the face of the universe, how vast it is and uncaring, seems alien to any sort of individualistic notion of self control or determination. The horror comes with the inevitable march of time, and you as a small, singular human cannot stop it anymore than the Elder Things could slow their decay. The modes of escape presented are immortality in the Dreamlands or small, temporary victories that will eventually be overturned.

With that grimness in mind, we can set about our characters and setting. We must assuredly have at least four or five it seems, a large number for our stories. We need something like a family. With all our talk of prophecy and the Bible earlier, I’d say a new and full family. A father and a mother and perhaps an older sibling, as well as the child. Next we are in need of a prophet or prophetess. Not only that but we need a place where such people are somewhat believable. I have heard little of fortune tellers giving dire warnings about children in Phoenix Arizona in the last century, for example. The practice of speaking in tongues is more common in the South East of the United States but…well, frankly, I’ve only been to Florida to see Disney World and fear I would do a disservice. We could instead move in time, back to an era where perhaps such things were more common. It is easier to believe that a small desert town has a fortune telling old woman in the eighteen hundreds then today. It would also, depending on the location, permit for more of a regulated society with which our characters might combat with.

Of course, our point of view should be within the family. Otherwise, we are too distant to appreciate the horror and the tragedy that comes about. But who? I can’t yet say. But that is what I can dissect from this corpse. What about you? Did you find anything of note?

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Birds and the Bees

This Week’s Prompt:32. As dinosaurs were once surpassed by mammals, so will man-mammal be surpassed by insect or bird—fall of man before the new race.

The Resulting Story: Gil’s Gone

So, we have a couple wonderful things to talk about! So many horrifying ideas. I have worked with this concept before, for my own pre-society purposes, but I’ll try a different route than last time I touched on this one. We’ve talked about cyclical surpassing and ages a few times already, here and here. But now we have the notion of a much grander movement: an entire kingdom replacement. And this is new.
It is firstly an almost apocalyptic notion. The surpassing of the dinosaurs was their complete extinction, and the arrival of (eventually) a level of organization and planning that was utterly alien at the time. If there are any reptilian civilizations, they are so utterly obliterated as to be effectively non-existent. The horror of the future advancing suddenly on a viewer, and the world rendered unrecognizable, is often a reactionary thing.

The deep seated fear of the passage of time is common in Lovecraft, and in this it takes a biological form. The powers of the future will not only out pace us in prominence and intelligence, but they will also forget what to us seems so grand and powerful. We talked about that with Ozymandias here.

Now, insects and birds do share a few common components worth examining as horror authors. Both are occasionally impressive group animals. Both are often shockingly more intelligent then they seem, crows being quite ingenious and ants practicing almost human levels of sophist action in architecture, planning, and agriculture. Neither has a terribly expressive mouth and far less expressive eyes, an important aspect of the alien and horrifying.

Birds are less …strange, relatively speaking. Alot of their strangeness I know is thanks to this wonderful comic artist humon, who outlined the mating styles and courting of a number animals and is a fun resource for strange or alien ideas of romance or the like. Birds do flock, and of course there is the famous war they waged documented by the amazing Alfred Hitchcock (and the…admirable recreation by Birdemic). They are a bit more rife with folkloric and mythological imagery, however, and such things are my favorite to talk about.

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Races of intelligent birds brings to mind first the Tengu birds of Japan. The tengu are, at varying times, aggressive demons, angry ghosts, dangerous protectors, and mountain spirit. They often are practices of ascetic arts. They also often tricked, as mischievous spirit are, and well versed in sword play.

 

The next notion is that of the Garuda Garuda bird, who is a flaming bird that nearly destroyed the Naga. As a group of entities, it is exclusive to Buddhism. In Buddhism the Garuda has wings many miles wide that cause hurricane wings when flapped. Such vast and cosmic creatures border on that existential fear of wind and weather, and would be worth additions beside things like the Great Old Ones in terror they inspired. They could likewise level mountains, and warred with the Naga frequently, sometimes taking human form.

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Insects, however, are far far more bizarre. The sheer variety of terrors they inspire is astounding. From vast organizations to small scale assaults, insects are frightful characters. I’d detail all of them, but Tom Waits did it better here:

There is some folklore precedent for insects ‘taking over’. In myth, there are the Myrmidons who are (despite human appearances) born of ants. These legendary soldiers, renowned for their discipline, served beside Achilles at Troy and were among the finest in the world. Bee’s have an even more impressive history. Three bee maidens gave Apollo his famous prophetic gift in Greece. The San people of the Kalahari tell of a dead bee becoming the first human after falling into the ground as a seed. In Hindu myth, the form of a bee was used to kill the demon king Arunasura, who could not be slain by bipeds or quadrupeds.

With all this folklore, where to go with our monsters? Well, that depends a great deal on how we tell this story. There is the obvious way: as the apocalypse occurs, in rapid action. After all, the dinosaurs were quickly overcome, weren’t they? We could frame it as an alien invasion from within, a sudden hostility of the planet to mortal presence. Except…that’s not what happened to the dinosaurs. Sure, the death of the lizard kings was rapid. But the rise of mankind took millions of years to occur.

Such a vast scale is hard to communicate in a narrative. We could take on a sort of historical view, as a text book instead of as a disaster movie. But that borders on the dull unless done exceptionally well.. A mix of the two, as is the style of Planet of the Apes (which also features a humanity overcome and displaced by another species) could work, following the human survivors in an essentially alien world.

That latter seems the best. It allows an alien setting, amongst a reshaped world, while avoiding the time displacement. The plot is less obvious, but fleeing the new arrivals should not be hard to write as a starting point. Surviving to some safe place (which is invariably, it seems, not safe) is a common enough idea, although it tends to be used only in the few centuries after the apocylpse has touched down.

A nice alternative to the sanctuary narrative might be a rescue narrative. While maybe a little more upbeat (at least possibly) then horror is normally, being captured and held by alien forces for unknown (and given our monsters place in the line of history, perhaps unknowable) purpose is terrifying in it’s own right. And for good reason.

There is a stability we, as a species, insist upon. We are the top of the food chain among things we can see, particularly in Western ‘civilized’ societies. The Netsilik and other Inuit peoples, who rely much more on animals and hunting for survival then domestic animals, ascribe the reverse. We can hunt, only because the animals pity us. Such a notion is utterly alien to the world of Western theology and philosophy, beyond a few possible exceptions of animal nobility and particularly naturalistic philosophers.

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Threatening stability, rendering humanity another animal, puts our fear of chaos and ourselves on center stage. The uncertainty between our kinship with animals (such as cats and dogs) and our…well, feasting on them (as in cattle and sheep) and a general fear that we are not much more than them. There is a very of subordination of place in the cosmos (a common concern in Lovecraft’s) as well as the creation of alien terrain. For, the dinosaurs did not give way merely to humanity, but to all mammals as the apex predators and herbivores. How strange a world, where the chief forest hunter is not the wolf by a flock of hawks or peacocks. What adaptations would they have to help them prey on their new food?

Some of these are starting to form into concrete concepts, with new venues of perception and awareness available to the great garuda birds that is lost to us. The way to traverse between stars and worlds, the way into minds and souls, a race so much more aware and intelligent then we that the comparison would be as if brutes were to call their burrows shining metropoli. There is something…terrifying in beholding something so aware as to look down upon mankind, and I think a rescue of sorts from whatever occult experiments such vast things wish to preform on such small creatures. And there is a lack of avian monsters in the mythos…

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The Old Ones…The Human Old Ones

This Weeks Prompt: 31. Prehistoric man preserved in Siberian ice. (See Winchell—Walks and Talks in the Geological field—p. 156 et seq.)

The Resulting Story:At the Bottom Of The World

Finding textbooks is getting easier and easier my friends. Sadly, what exactly caught Mr. Lovecraft’s eye in Walks and Talks is unknown to me. The source I used can be found here, and seems to be dealing with the distribution of iron veins across multiple strata. It might relate to the lodestone, given the lodestone’s association with arctic locales. But given that it seems a bit distant, and obscure, we’ll focus on the other trope. The frozen caveman.

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The frozen caveman (unfrozen for our amusement) is a trope of television that is primarily the realm of comedy. Hence finding people frozen for their preservation in places like Scooby Doo, Futurama, and Austin Powers. But clearly there was something frightening about such a being to Mr. Lovecraft, and to explain that we’re going to have to look at the nature of time and ‘evolution’.

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I don’t mean ‘evolution’ as in the biological process of change over time on a massive scale. That is another discussion. I mean the more classic model of human change often accepted in the ancient world, the progress of Golden Age to Iron Age (back to Golden Age sometimes). These epochs are marked by mass changes in size and power and intellect, with mankind often shrinking in every capacity as time goes on. Occasionally there are tales of men from past time coming forth, and being revered for their older better ways. Ogier the Dane and Muchukunda.

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There are exceptions, of course. The Aztec passage of deities does not include a continuity, but rather a violent termination of each world by one or another of the gods, and the creation of animals instead of simply declining. In fact, the Aztec cosmos has a world where in man is growing more refined instead of weaker.
This theory of spiritual evolution had growing popularity in Lovecraft’s time, with the arrival of both Theosphany and the increasingly prevalent notions of eugenics. The past ancestors of mankind, as presented by pulp fiction authors of the era, where either alien in form and mind or inhabited an untamed and alien world. This is where we might find some of our horror, in the savagery of the past, but we discussed the problems (and strangeness) of that prehuman path here. Likewise, the snake men, who are often placed in the past of mankind were discussed here as a possibility.
So what does that leave us, for describing the shape of a plot? We fundamentally have a story of two worlds meeting, albeit separated by the gulf of time rather than of space. This disturbs both (well, barring time travel, it disturbs the one) and things begin to fall apart. How and why is then the questions.
Well, we are left with two possibilities. The one is a story where we sit as we normally do, as moderns observing the behavior of a discovered savage. Here, perhaps, the horror is formed like a monster story. We are concerned with a monster that is a man, almost a slasher film on the page.
Alternatively, we examine the discovery of a savages…well, savageness. If we begin with believers in the Five Ages of Man, then it is horrifying to find how cruel and monstrous humanities origins are relative to their expectations (we could attempt this with our modern understandings, and the numerous species of the homo genus we have, but that would be far less entertaining and frankly significantly harder). This basic outline could also be reversed, with the discovery of some primeval Adam or Eve that was as noble and civilized as the ancients would have expected being discovered by moderns looking for monsters.
Finally, there is the perspective of the awakened one. Either as a most noble ancestor shocked at the decline all around him (again, Muchukunda is more than applicable here) or the primitive ancestor horrified at the strange and noisy sights around him as modern technology is quite terrifying to the unawares.
Of these, the middle seems the most interesting. A ‘noble’ ancestor can be horrifying in unexpected ways, alarming moderns with antiquated ideas of proper behavior or with their bizarre physiology (drawing from Muchukunda’s accidental annihilation of a man with his mere gaze). There is something more horrifying about a well meaning monster. There always hope of relief from monsters and beasts, that some salvation will come in the form of civilizing endeavors. But when the opposition is the more ‘civilized’, than things are strained. When a demon comes, there is always hope an angel will arrive. When an angel comes, there is little refuge left.
That is what I will be starting with then. An ancient ancestor of a stranger, more noble sort. Constructing that sort of entity without treading into Theosphany’s imperialism or racism will be tricky if one wants to avoid going completely alien. But we will try. Multiple subjects might be better.

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This? Hopefully not this. I mean, good movie. But still.

What ideas do you have from this prompt? What lies beneath the Siberiean ice for you?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Victor and Mr. Marrigold Luther

Tyger

This Week’s Prompt: 18. Calamander-wood—a very valuable cabinet wood of Ceylon and S. India, resembling rosewood.

The Research:Down In Sri Lanka

The house a was a sturdy one at the end of the road. It was a desolate place, one that tested the definitions of mapmakers, for not even dragons could dwell there. The house was a brick and mortar place, the only sort that could still stand in fens such as these were lantern men dance and old giants held sway. Victor remembered the stories his mother told him, ages past, of devil dealing frogmen and great hounds of hell. How she would frown upon him now.

The house’s owner was one Mr. Marrigold Luther, whose name Victor was convinced had been arranged backwards by mistake. And a mistake Marrigold was. Victor had come down here five times this summer, at the request of nearby locals. Five time’s he’d knocked on the door to no reply, and left it at that. This sixth time, however, such things could not last. This time he brought a friend.

“So how loony is he?” George asked, as they drudged through the mire, mud sticking to our boots. George had come out in his old uniform, better look the part of muscle.

“He hurled a ram skull, horns and all, at old Lady Woodenseal. Clothed that time, apparently.”

“That’s a rarity?”

“Fully clothed? Yep. Old Luther doesn’t like shirts, or pants, depending on the day.”

“Christ, he is nutty.”

The house was more rotted up close. The wooden door couldn’t resist the wear and tear of time forever, and the brick was full of erosion worn holes. Some fungi had begun to grow, moss working its way from the base of otherwise immaculate walls.

“You got the notice?”

“Yeah, got it right here and signed. Best make sure he gets it this time. You know how often things like this get lost?” I said, unfurling the bright red eviction notice.

“Often enough I reckon.”

“More often than you’d like, or not often enough.” I said, pounding my hand on the old door. There was the sound of scuffling inside, punctuated by sploshing of wet shoes or feat on a sturdy floor. The door opened only slightly, a rattle of a chain accompanying him.

“What is it? What do you want? Who are you?” a voice came, accompanied the sliver of a sickly green face.

“Mr. Luther, we’ve met I think. Victor DeMone?”

“Oh, get you gone, I don’t have time for you. I am very short on time, my investment sdon’t seem to be good. So shoo, leave, now.” Marrigold said, trying to shut the door. George put his foot down however.

“Oh, there’s no need to be rude, sir. Me and Vic here are just delievering a notice –”

“I don’t care for notices. I ‘ve noticed all the important things in these parts. Now leave, or I’ll be forced to call the authorities!”

Me and George looked at each other before letting out a long sigh. George pushed at the door as I pulled the piece of paper out again.

“Mr. Luther, we are the authorities. This is an eviction notice. You have two weeks to pack your things –” I said, before he grabbed the paper and tore it to pieces.

“I know what an eviction notice is, you layabout! I’ll call down higher powers than yours if I catch you around here again!”

“Sir,please just be ready to –” I began again, before Mr. Luther hurled a number of white stones at me. Blinking and examining them, I realized they were deer teeth. That was new.

“Look, we’re not afraid to make this ugly. Get ready to get out or push will come to shove!” George said.

“You ever fight a Gurkha boy? Ever been on the cutting edge of curved Indian knife? Wrestled with the worst man kind has to offer? No? No you haven’t because only I have seen into that dreadful place. Dismissed. ”

We stood there a while after that. No clue what was going on in George’s mind. Probably whether to get the rifle now or later. I nodded out of the fen. As we tredged back to the more common path, the flickering of distant swamp fires alighting in front of a darkening sky.

“You think he’ll give us trouble? I’ve heard of Gurkha.”

“Probably just prattling on. Just bring some bats, and we’ll flush him out if he don’t leave. No need to get smoke involved, or even a knife…” I said pausing for a moment, “actually, bring a knife. That’d probably be nice.”

“Sure thing, I’ve got some hunting ones. Shouldn’t need more than that.”

We didn’t pay much mind to Marrigold after that. He and his house were at the edge of our minds, I guess, but they cast a small shadow. We’d remember every now and then that we had to rough him up if he wasn’t gone in time, but it was more the sort of thought that pops up when your thinking what to have for dinner. A side concern, both with time and importance.

So when we came back to the fens, with a pipe and cricket bat, it felt almost dream like. It was getting dark out, but we’d brought lanterns (ostensibly to see, but I think George considered lighting the house on fire). There were a few fluttering bugs and some croaks in the mire’s dirty water but otherwise, it was silent. The door rattled when George gave it a whack with his pipe. Silence again, though now followed by the sloshing of muddy steps. The door opened a crack. A familiar green eye and pallid face stared back at us.

“Didn’t I say get gone already? Get! Get at once!” he said. There was some echo to his voice, as if he was speaking from within a cavern or atop a hill. It gave me a moment’s pause. It did no such thing for George, who whacked again with his pipe.

“Your memory can’t be all that bad, old codger. It’s been two weeks, time to get!” George said, motioning him out.

“Get? What do you mean get?”

“You got your notice,” I said, regaining my composure, “Time to go. Your things packed?”

“Go?” Mr.Luther said with a glare and a growl, “what because some piece of paper said so?”

“We’ve had this disucssion, Mr. Luther. If not because the paper says so, then because the man with the pipe does. Now come on, no need for this to be difficult.” George said, raising his pipe again. I beat my hand with my bat as menacingly as I could.

“You’ll need more to get me out of this house!” Mr. Luther shouted, slaming the door and running off. George looked at me, before laying into the door. It gave a little, revealing the chain. Another blow ripped the chain out of the door. The rotted wood wasn’t hard to open.

“Alright, Marigold, come on now. No reason to make this worse,” I said, holding the lantern out in front.

“Yeah, come – come out where – where ever you are!” George said, stopping midway through to claw at his face. “Man the dust in here is insane. How do you live in a place like this?”

“Poorly. Stop scratching yourself, lets find the loon. If he’s gotten himself a kitchen knife, he’ll be trouble.” I said, grasping for a nearby door. Probably a closet, I reckoned. When my lantern’s soft glow illuminated the spot, however, it was gone. Accumlation of dust it seemed. With a shrug, I carried on.

The house’s interior was about as squalid as could be, without literal refuse being strewn about. Bones and rotting meat were just left on the floor, everything caked in a layer of mud that seemed to pulse. No wonder Marrigold was mad, place like that. And the stench! Oh, it smelled like the Thames must have when it burst in flames. It was thick and putrid in the air. There wasn’t a kitchen, just the big middle room and a door on the other end.

George and I got close, George still scratching every bit of him (though by now I figured some lice or fleas got into his clothing. As I grabbed the door, a great whistling sound broke out. With a shout, both me and George went to cover our ears, in my case forgetting I held a lantern, that smashed against the ground.

“Ah, hell with it!” I shouted. With the fire springing over the lantern oil and the shrill whistling running through the air, I ripped open the door, yelling a “Get him!” at George. And george ran in swinging.

Only to knock over a kettle with whistle attacked to it’s steam spout, spilling boiling water on the floor. We stood there, catching our breath for a moment, before I started laughing. The whistling, the whistling was some tea that idiot Marrigold had made. It was just some tea and a whistle, freak us out.

“Alright, alright, that’s clearly not him.” George said, scratching his back.

“No, no it’s not. So, where did he go?”

“Couldn’t have gotten behind us…must still be in here somewhere…” George said, raising his lantern and running his pipe along the wall, “In all this filth, you never know what might be hidden.”

I nodded and started along the other wall. It took a few minutes, but something bumped into the bat. I paused, staring at the blank wall. Another thwack with the bat, and some of the dirt and grim came off. A glistening gold doorknob rested there. Putting my ear to the door, I heard some muffled noises inside. Not talking, but the sort of growl you’d expect from someone as mad as marrigold. I nodded at George. And with a single gesture I opened the door and he swung.

First there was the crack of wood. I thought he had missed. Than there was the roar, raging on the wind, an echoing cacophony of sound. Shrieking, George jumped back, his face covered in little cuts as he tore at himself, his pipe and lantern clattering to the ground. I turned around the door and saw it. A wood panel in trembling hands, with a great tiger along the boarder. A hole was broken in it, a hole filled with eyes. Bright tiger eyes. Little men stood guard around it, faces feirce and battle ready, swords in their hands.

“Don’t hit me!” Marrigold’s nasally voice came from behind the panel at last.
“Don’t hit you? What the hell did you do? What is that? What’s wrong with George?” I shoujted, lifting the bat. AS I did, I felt bits of dust dropping on my fingers. The bat rotted so rapidly it’d make termites blush.

“I don’t know! I don’t know, sometimes things happen. I see things, feel things that aren’t there, when this thing is about.”

“So you held it in front of you?”

“It was all I had.”

He sounded ridiculous. No, he sounded moronic. Annoying. Stupid, arrogant, brash, foolish, whiny, pathetic, and holier than thou. Every bone in my body at once felt like it was on fire. My throat was full, a malicious taint on love. I was so full of rage I felt my muscles moving before I thought. I punched the damn thing right in the eye.

There was that roaring again. Louder, fiercer, full of blood. There was a frenzied light of orange and black, and the wind rushing by. When I could feel again, see again I was standing on the floor, the walls and ceiling battered down. Marrigold’s body…no carcass was strewn across the room, flesh ripped from bone. I found the remains of George skinless on the road.

I haven’t heard anything since. I haven’t seen anything, not a whiff of sulfur or the sight of a vast tiger. Nothing. But then again, I didn’t get much warning last time, did I?

Well my brothers and sisters wasn’t that a fright? I dearly hope so. I do have one last bit of parting wisidom: A story I neglected. I won’t say much, only that it is a bit of sublime horror by the great Borges who I hope we discuss again. The tiger in Zahir is truly something terrible.

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