The Beast Must Feed

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

The Resulting Story: The Family Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zahak, consulting about those snakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

Revenge Most Cruel

This Week’s Prompt: 74. Italian revenge—killing self in cell with enemy—under castle.

The Resulting Story: The Wound

TW: Suicide

Revenge is a common motive in folktales and modern media, and covering the entire breadth of it here would be quite impossible. Even the specificity of “Italian” revenge would make cover the wide range of hauntings, heroes, and deceptions undertaken for revenge over a slight difficult to summarize in one article. However, I have found a few cases of revenge in Italian folklore that are of interest, and luckily that involve castles. I have yet to find a version of this specific prompt, so kudos to Mr. Lovecraft in that regard—if you know of a story such as this, where suicide is used to get revenge on an enemy by framing him for the murder, please let me know!

CaskOfMonteEgro

That does seem to be the plan at work here. Our protagonist, in a fashion reminiscent of Poe’s own Italian revenge tale, has opted to go to extremes to make his enemy suffer. He thus lures his enemy beneath the castle, and commits suicide alone with the enemy. Done properly, this frames the enemy for murder, condemning and ruining his life. In fact, more elaborate plans might frame the enemy for even more crimes, damning his entire line.

The stories that might have most inspired this tale are of course Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, Castle Orlanto, and perhaps the Count of Mote Christo. Reaching a bit more, the story that this reminded me most of was Count Ugolino—an Italian noble who features prominently in Dante’s Inferno. Ugolino was a Count of Pisa, who in life was accused of treason for the cities disorders, and served for several years as the most powerful man in Pisa during the war with Genoa. Ugolino rejected peace terms, which would have brought back many persons in political opposition. Later in life, Pisa was hit with fiancial troubles and bread riots—during one of which Ugolino killed the nephew of the Archbishop. The Archbishop rallied the populace, and tried to burn the town hall Ugolino was having his meeting in. After Ugolino’s illegitimate child committed suicide, Ugolino and his sons were sealed in the tower. The Archbishop had the keys thrown into a river.

Count Ugolino Inferno.png

The rest of the story picks up form Dante, that the three were starving. And in a moment of tragedy and horror, the sons asked their father to eat them after their deaths, to preserve himself.

Father our pain’, they said,

‘Will lessen if you eat us you are the one

Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead

For you to be the one who strips it away’.

This resulted in the count dying of grief shortly after, descending to Hell and the ice as a betrayer of kin. The story recalls to me, both in it’s art and arc, some of the more monstrous stories of ogres and titans. At least Ugolino in hell is allowed to gnaw on the treacherous bishops skull in the frozen wasteland.

Stories of revenge from Rome are more elaborate. Amadea’s story begins with her happy marriage to a rich husband—the only issue being the opposition of her brother and father. Amadea, as a proper woman, brutally killed her brother, chopped his limbs off, and threw them at her father. While the display certainly prevented her father from stopping her, it made her husband uneasy. The newlyweds leaved peacefully for a time, happily even. They had two young children even. But as the children grew, their father remembered the crime, and ran off. 

When Amadea learned of this, she also learned that her husband had taken on a suitor. While her husband refused to let her meet her rival—after all, Amadea had brutally murdered once, she might again—he did allow her to send a set of pearls to the woman. Amadea had woven a poison into these, however, with her witchcraft. While these were on the way to her rival, she asked her husband to see their children for one hour. This her husband granted. That was a mistake. Amadea hugged her children and then, telling them that her love of them was too great, stabbed them before her husband’s eyes. In the next instant, she stabbed herself, and her husband died of grief on the spot.

Castle Poppi.pngAnother story, from Castle Poppi, tells of Matlida. Matlida was married, but not fond of her husband—it was a political marriage, and little love was between them. So she would send for handsome young men from the villages nearby, for comfort or for repairs. When evening came, she would take one of these young men to her chambers—and in the morning, to hid her adultery, she would drop them into a pit of glass and razor blades. When her crimes were discovered, a mob sealed Matilda in one of the castle walls, were she starved. She haunts the place to this day.

The Shakespearean story of Othello draws from Italian works on revenge as well—although like the Poe story, the motives of Iago are not overtly stated. The vengeance here is more long term, and certainly more through then the others, collapsing Othello’s reputation and entire life around him. Its scale is comparable to Amadea’s vengance in that regard. Based in scorn love and so thorough as to destroy the victim and criminal.

Titus Andronicus.png

Comparable further is the bloody and brutal Titus Andronicus. That story begins with the sacrifice of the sons of a German queen Tamora, in vengeance for the death of his sons in the war. Tamora eventually becomes empress, and she and her sons execute a cruel vengeance of rape and murder upon most of Titus’s family. Titus in turn invites the Emperor and Tamora to dinner…and arranges their death, having served them the remains of Tamora’s surviving son. Poison and blood ensue, resulting in the most deadly play Shakespeare wrote.


These tales of vengeance all maintain a motive of passion, often a betrayal of affections and close bonds—Poe’s friendship, Amadea and Othello’s love, and Ugolino’s betrayal of familial bonds. This reminds me of the story from the Balkans about the internment of a bride (here), that the betrayal of deep trust is the most painful and arguably resonant. Matlida’s murders are a strange, reverse Bluebeard—the internment is the main connection I see to the notion of the prompt.Our plot needs then at least two characters in any detail.

Another element I notice, in both Othello and Poe, is that the revenge is rather one sided. In the case of a rival lured to their doom, this seems more valid then Amadea’s. The victim being unaware of the approaching doom makes this more believable to me—unless we go with the notion that our mastermind has offered peace talks on false pretenses. That might be enough to bring them, but I don’t know if it would work to bring them alone.

No, alone and with no other witnesses seems to require something more.So, we will need to set up the feud—one sided as it might be—early in the story, and two characters that are at odds. It might work better to have asides—flash backs, or just the private thoughts of the murderer—building to that scene of suicide. I’ll have to re-read some of those earlier stories to see how they employ brevity. All in all I think we have a good short Gothic horror story from this. 

Bibliography

Busk, R. H. Roman Legends: A Collection of Fables and Folk-Lore from Rome. Estes and Lauriat, 1877.

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