Left Hand Left Behind

This Week’s Prompt: 124. Hideous secret assemblage at night in antique alley—disperse furtively one by one—one seen to drop something—a human hand—

The Resulting Story: A Lost Limb

This story has a number of potential prompts. First, of course, there is the secret assemblage gathering in an ancient alleyway–each member leaving, and one leaving with a human hand they drop. The first thing that comes to mind here is we have borne witness to the careful dismemberment and scattering of a body by a group of strangers. We will go into what purpose this might serve in a  moment. The second thing to note is that it is a hand that is left behind. Something we can examine in detail as well, as there are one or two uses for a hand that come to attention.

In general, it appears that these strangers have murdered someone and departed with various pieces of him for their own purposes. It hardly takes a leap in imagination to suggest that they have done so for occult purposes, whether magical or scientific. We have discussed various uses for the dead before–relics here, the hand of glory here for instance–but there are many more that remain. 

In the more disgusting is the Bezoar, a concentration of human hair that forms within the body. Bezoar’s were collected as a cure for any poison, instead of an ailment or tool of murder. The strange, almost rocky things, were believed to somehow filter out the toxin as it passed. Alchemists further described various rituals as the bezoars of celestial bodies, and in Goa there was a business of manufacturing such objects. Using hair, fossils, teeth, and gems, they were used for much the same purposes.

We did discuss, in our work on cannibalism, the idea of monstrous bandits eating hearts of children for occult powers. They are not the only ones who sought power through cannibalizing human beings. The idea of criminal organizations harvesting organs can be found throughout the world–particularly the organs and eyes of children in the 1980s to 90s in Latin America. And we have talked about cannibals here as well. 

On a mythic level, eating the body of the holy monk Xuanzang during the journey to the west supposedly granted numberless boons–including immortality for the one to do so. Of course, the result of a demon devouring a divine personage was never seen in the story–the monk made his way across in safety. The threat remains, however, and reminds me of a Japanese story about eating Ningyo–by eating one, a given person might live forever. The most famous example of this is a buddhist priestess who lived to be 800 years old before taking her own life. Perhaps this congregation in an alley was dividing up leftovers?

One of the more esoteric and surprising suggestions of uses comes from the Magus, Book 1. This book of magic instructs that, by using a Grimoire called the Book of Pluto, one might generate animals from the bodies of animals. While it does not specify generating something from the body of a man–although it does generate a man from a hen’s egg–it is not beyond the realm of possibility to do such things. These creations have unique and potent powers–said man is a mandrake, a creature with an infamous song. The virtues a full grown mandrake might have were sadly not listed in the Grimoire in question. Still, we might imagine that the parts of a man might create something particularly potent and ghastly. The body parts of gods, in the Classic of Seas and Mountains bring forth their own divinities. 

The hand in particular is interesting, going back to an iteration of the Bluebeard narrative. In a version recorded by the Grimm Brothers, The Robber’s Bridgegroom, a woman marries a man only to see him and his comrades beat and dismember another woman at night. They leave behind a finger with a wedding ring still attached–and this becomes the incriminating evidence against the robber. This of course gets the robber slain by her brothers. A number of Bluebeard myths feature the grizzly dismemberment of the body.

There are also cases of the Hand of Glory. We touched on this here, but I’d like to expand somewhat from that. For those unfamiliar, the hand of glory is the hand of a thief, where one finger has been replaced with a candle made from the fat of a hung man. Its powers are many–it opens locks, it opens heavy doors with ease, it cannot be extinguished except by milk, and it can put to sleep entire households. In more than one case, it is lit by the fire place of the house the thief intends to rob–perhaps subverting the traditional power of the hearth.

Each light represents a sleeping member of the family.

In Germany, there are stories of thieves lights–similar criminal tokens but made from the fingers of unbaptized children. These light at the thief’s thought, and are visible to him only–everyone else sees only darkness. Further, anyone sleeping in the same room as a thieves light will not be woken, even by heavy storms.

In Poland, the finger of a hanged criminal preserved in a jar will bring about successful businesses. Sadly, he was caught by his own servants and arrested for possession of such a grisly device. His business did not survive him afterwards. Perhaps it was the lack of magical prowess…perhaps instead it was the rumors that a finger was preserved in his basement and the very public arrest. Who can say, precisely?

Another grizzly example of dismemberment comes from a Pope. Pope Sylvester II supposedly, as discussed here, made a deal with demons for his position or for his knowledge. The condition of a long life and knowledge was he not set foot in Jerusalem. When he fell ill after giving Mass at the Church of Jerusalem in Rome, he asked that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered throughout the city. Why is unclear–I briefly wonder if something about an intact body of a pope that made a compact with the devil would have left it open to possession. Another version leaves out the dismemberment–instead Pope Sylvester simply had his body taken out of the city by a cart, and buried where the horses stopped.

I would love dearly to now pivot to a story by Lovecraft that features this strange and ghoulish gathering–but sadly I cannot trace this story to its fruit. The closest I can find is a story about an alleyway where, eventually, a group of Russian communists plan a coup on Independence Day. That story…is so terrible, that I don’t think it makes for particularly compelling material.

So instead, I shall point to a better writer. Tanith Lee’s ghouls meet underneath the ground, every now and then, and feed on the bodies of men like ours do here. They also scheme and plan, and hold something comparable to a witches sabbath. Those too were marked by murder and canniblaism in stories past, which could leave behind a hand or eye for someone to find. 

The meeting here then has a number of gruesome implications. There are notions of ghoulish cannibalism, perhaps, but also perhaps occult attempts at preventing the living from returning from the dead. The construction of ritual objects of dark power. The prosperity of business at the expense of lives. 

Our character is no doubt an unintended observer–someone who one night stumbles upon this scene of terror. Perhaps they see it out their window, or maybe they see the alley when they are walking home. Given the phrasing, it is in an old part of town. I am inclined to think a mostly abandoned part of town–and given they leave one by one, and seem somewhat confident in their efforts. 

What can be done with a hand however? At best, at the very best, one might extract identity from finger prints. Maybe a ring or glove left behind, that is especially notable? But how to go about finding out who this victim was, without the authorities? And if it is with the authorities, how to involve them without them taking over the stories? Perhaps the sign isn’t entirely unknown ahead of time.  We will have to see.

Bibliography:

Burnell, F. S. “The Holy Cow.” Folklore, vol. 58, no. 4, 1947, pp. 377–381. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1257194. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

Samper, David. “Cannibalizing Kids: Rumor and Resistance in Latin America.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 39, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814829. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

“The Hand of Glory.” Hand of Glory Legends, University of Pittsburgh, 19 Jan. 2019, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hand.html. 

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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