The Snake and The Shade

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 Research: Serpents and Sickeness

The wastes were a windy white plain, pale ashes whirling about. A wanderer walked alone in the wastes, having forgotten their name and face. Wandering in that wretched place of bones and broken ruins, even Death mistook them for a shade or a skeleton born by the breeze. The wanderer’s voice had not broken the silence of the wastes in ages unknown. In such silence they wandered slowly, as if beneath the weighty sea, until something broke the horizon. Which horizon cannot be said, for direction itself died in that land.

Lo, over the horizon rose a new color, neither white as the breeze, nor the black of ash and shadow, nor the gray of the sky. A brilliant green shown forth, alien to the wanderer’s eyes. The traveler, now aware again that they were not dead, or not as dead as they once supposed. They could feel blood pumping again, and a heart beat slowly quickening.

The green as he stared became differentiated, varied, formed and shaped. There were leaves, and vines, and bushes. Yellows and browns now came into view, and as the wanderer went from shambling to walking to running, it became apparent what was before them. A jungle, as vast as the sky above, and as deep as the earth. If the traveler had yet mastered his voice, he would have cried for joy.

Rushing through the jungle, the traveler reveled in the sounds, the choir of the jungle. Buzzing of insects, chirping of birds, and the howl of wild dogs. Wild apes and monkeys lent their voices, bellowing warnings or battle cries. And the noises, all new again, delighted the traveler. More innocent then a babe was the long tired wanderer. But there was one noise, at last, that struck an unwelcome chord. A scream.

The pale shade, still covered in the bone-meal and ash, stood still again, staring in the direction of the hideous sound. Nothing was so unpleasant to such simple ears. And he saw then, men and women fleeing between the trees in strange dress. The shade remembered such clothes distantly, as if in a dream. Permitting, of course, that the shade could name dreams. Sleep is the first to give way to death, after thirst and hunger and companionship have faded.

“He’s gone snake headed!” the shade heard one of the many living people shout. For while the shade knew, distantly, that it was like these hairless creatures, they seemed to him more akin to other animals than to him. Still, their tongue was strange to him. It lacked the music of the wild creatures, but it bore understanding.

The pack of living continued to run as he followed, not seeing what precisely they were fleeing. Then another of their kind came clattering through, his clothes torn and disheveled. Another new color marked this one different in the shade’s eyes, however. Red dripped from his sharpened teeth, red was on his hands, red was stained on his shirt. His eyes were wild and yellow, more slit like then the others. His expression was apelike, grinning broadly. And unlike the others, who’s voices sounded native to their mouths, his was a howling hissing sound, dreadful as a scream.

“Come, come! Return, return friends! I have so much to show you, so many lessons to teach!”

And with laughing glee he pursued the party. The shade stared on, confused at what occurred. The man tore and laughed, bite and clawed, shriek and smiled as the others stuck him with spears and arrows. They screamed in terror before the bloody man, but none died when struck. When a careful blow with a spear lodged it’s head into the man’s neck, such that red came pouring out of it like a fountain, the yellow eyed man barely twitched.

The yellow eyed man’s teeth has as little effect as the spears, but with each bite, he tore away some flesh. It was not long, to a shade use to a land without time, before he had devoured many of them whole. He swelled tall and large at this, and seemed exhausted as the other’s fled.

The shade approached slowly.

“Now isn’t that better?” the man said, in a hoarse voice, “We’re all here together now.”

While he spoke, other voices, fainter attempted to escape his mouth. Shrieks and shouts dampened to pleading whispers as his voice carried over. Most, however, echoed his words. It was as if a distant choir rejoined them, or the very wind was mimicing the strange savage man. His mass shifted about in his body, muscles growing, his chest expanding with more ribs than before. He grew sinous, his legs falling like useless masses of bone on the ground. As he slumped and crawled forward, his skin began to grind against the ground.

“We’re all together, now and forever.” the man said, more clearly and with a smile as his mouth widened and his head exteneded out.

The shade, curious now, approached slowly. The man thing was clearly no longer a human, or at least not as the shade recalled the living. It turned slowly as the shade approached. It grinned wide at the shade, it’s teeth now long fangs. The shade did not flinch as it breathed putrid breath, a number of maggots crawling in the beasts now long jaws, nor at the sight of rows and rows of bloody teeth.

“Are you not going to run, little one?” the creature asked.

The shade was silent, staring at the thing.

“Come now, you must run. I am one of those great beasts, immortal and beyond any bonds now. Come, won’t you run?”

The shade was silent, feeling the putrid breath wash over it, and the cries and pleads with in. In the skin, it was now apparent that a number of faces pressed against it. As the creature tried to rise, it’s skin finally fell away, reveling a set of golden scales.

“You are strange, little thing. You act as if dead, but none of the dead come here nor may ever come. We ate them all. Then broke apart again, and now ate them again. But you are new.”

The shade stared, unmoved.

“We will eat you too, add you to our immensity and wonder. Immortal you will be, part of one of the greatest.”

The shade was unmoved.

The serpentine thing was not and struck rapidly, biting hard and fast. The shade, long since lost senses of pain, barely spoke as it’s white clay stained the red of the teeth. It was aware of itself, it’s body moving and building the serpent. The serpent, it now felt, was a great old thing. A terrible thing, from long ago, that bartered away it’s fellows for power and praise. But that did not matter.

The shade was dead after all. Not as dead as they once thought, but the traveler felt it’s body scatter. The wanderer remembered the breeze and solitude of the wastes. And resolved, as a reasonable creature, that it was dead again.

The serpent went on it’s way, shifting and shedding, slaying and screeching through the jungle for a time. Then, then it felt a breeze. A familiar cough catches it’s throat. It’s eyes begin to blur and rage. The beast immortal feels a strange thought cling at it. Is it alive still? More and more of the chorus within grows silent. A dim darkness falls over it’s pupils. What strangeness was this, what death released his prey?

The beast staggered about again, feeling it’s teeth rotting and falling out. More and more believed now, as the shade did, that though they were thinking, they were dead. They were dead, a collection of corpses.

And the beast felt this tugging at it. It was a collection of sleeping corpses at rest. A dream, a nightmare that did not end. But naught but a dream. Screeching, that oldest of minds, that master who had partaken in the great serpents flesh and who had cast his lot out of heaven, felt a heavy weight come over him. That aged creature now found it’s limbs disobedient, convinced they were dead. Trapped he shrieked, as the other beasts of the jungle came to his inert body. And they feed.

And so the great serpent head, the mind of sadness, was scattered by a single lowly traveler who supposed he was dead.


 

This story, my brothers and sisters, I admit was rushed. Time has become short as of late, and I began work a bit too close to the deadline. Still, I think this is a salavageable wreck. What did you weave from the life drenched corpse?

 

Come next time for research on Mr. Lovecraft’s beloved furry felines!

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

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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