Death Lights on the Marshland

This Week’s Prompt: 114. Death lights dancing over a salt marsh.

The Resulting Story: Marshlights

Strange lights floating over wild places are well accounted for in Northern Europe and beyond—the dancing will-o-wisp or Ignis Fatuus is a rather common trope around the world. A number of countries ascribe their origins to the dead stuck wandering the world—they are in Sweden the dead who have left unfinished business, in Denmark they are spirits of unbaptized children seeking baptism by leading to water. In parts of England they are torches carried by lantern men or by the famed Robin Goodfellow. Stories of their origins however are varied.

One from England tells us of a man named Will who spent a life time of wickedness as a smith—yet when a traveler was in need of a new wheel for his cart, Will quickly repaired it. As luck would have it, the traveler was none other than Saint Peter, who granted any wish Will wanted. Will asked to live his life again and—instead of repenting—lived another life of debauchery and wickedness. Having now finished two lives of sin, he expected hell’s gates to open for him. But they were barred. The Devil told Will that, with his experience in sin, he would easily overcome the Devil were he let in. So he was sent back. Of course, such deeds barred him from Heaven as well—and so Will now wonders the world, with only an ember of Hell to keep him warm on the swamp lands.

A comparable tale—traveling Saint Peter, blacksmith given wishes, banned from Hell—comes from Thuringia, Germany. This time, Saint Peter granted him three boons—as long as he didn’t “forget the best”. The man asked for two magical powers, that none could enter his house without his permission except through the keyhole and that any who climbed his pear tree couldn’t come down without his permission. And for his third wish, rather than eternal happiness, he asked for a never ending bottle of schnapps that granted eternal youth. And with these, he trapped both Death and the Devil and lived happily. That is until all his neighbors and friends died. He then went to Heaven’s gates, but Saint Peter rejected him for not asking for the Best—that is, eternal happiness. This smith then dwells under the mountain with the Emperor, shoeing his knights until they return.

In Wales, a man named Sion Daffyd made a deal with the Devil, on the condition that if he could cling to something successfully the Devil could not take him. The Devil eventually came and seized him—but Sion begged he be allowed to taste an apple to wet his lips for hell. The Devil consented, and predictably Sion clung to the tree for dear life. The Devil relented. Heaven however still banned him, and so Sion became a fairy.

A similar Jack exists in Nova Scotia, Canada—perhaps unsurprising given the colonial origins. Here, notably, the Devil is the one to grant the wishes instead of Saint Peter. Still, the effect is the same—the devil is bound first to a spot, then up a tree, and then told to transport sand from one side of the counter to the other, one grain at a time. At last, he gives up in frustration and casts out the all to clever Jack.  He gives him a lantern to roam with, ever after.

In Cambridgeshire, in the Fens, there is a particular kind of will-o-wisp. This apparition appears to be a man on horseback, running and holding a lantern aloft. We can find also a strange fiend here called the Lantern Man. While it’s not specified that this particular marsh fiend glows, his name associates him with the other foolish lights. Hunters keep some distance from the creature, as whistling for dogs will attract him and the only way to escape his wrath is to lie face down and fill your mouth with mud so that the fiery fiend will pass you without incident.

In Nova Scotia, there are stories of strange balls of fire—flames of unknown origin, more often then just the dead. A man walking home once saw a rabbit on his foot, and when he kicked it, it erupted into painless fire. The man was then struck by an immense weight until he managed to get home.

The Lantern Man connects us to a more distant group of ominous fires. In Trinidad, we have a variant of the demon tree story, associated with local witches. These witches, as we mentioned here when discussing swamp creatures of Louisiana and the surrounding region, shed their skin at night to take the form of flying balls of light and gather blood for their patron held in a tree. Louisiana itself has another strange swamp creature, Nalusa Falaya whose young are said to resemble children and float glowing in the swamps to lead travelers astray. They manage to float by removing their innards, allowing them to be perverse balloons. The Nalusa Falaya’s face is so dreadful that, if seen, it will knock a grown man unconscious. And while they are fallen over, the fiendish shadowy creature will put a curse on them to spread to all they meet.  

The Choctaw also tell of the Hashok Okwa Hui’ga in traditional stories. This being can only be seen at night, and even then only its heart can be seen. It lives near swamps, and attempts to lure people astray. In order to avoid being trapped, one must look away immediately upon spotting the glow. Otherwise, you will wander in circles without end.

Back to Wales, we have another swamp light—a creature called the Ellylldan. This creature lives on the edges of swamps, and glows with light. As it passes, nearby swamp creatures grow silent—and its light fades as one approaches, reappearing brilliantly as one moves. Often these creatures dance in the marshes and put men to sleep, and at least one account claims they are the same as the Pooka. This creature appears often in stories, mischievous and cruel. For our purposes, he too carries a lantern and leads travelers astray—often to high cliffs, near rushing rivers, where they nearly fall in before he escapes laughing.

One note I came across that interests me about these lights is the gradual decline of the creatures, as bogs and swamps are drains. In Wales and Manx, the cultivated field of the farmer explicitly made the region difficult or impossible for the fires to survive in. They thus have something of a tragic quality, as their environment is consumed. In Cambridgeshire, an observer noted that the loss of the bog and the increase in light pollution meant there were less and less will-o-wisps seen these days. There is, perhaps, a metaphor for the retreat of magic from modernity in that image. The fools light was dangerous and mischievous, but perhaps missed in the current times.

But beyond that, the nature of these lights from European lore seems durable. They are alluring lights, often of dead men but not always, who strive to lure you away from your path and often to your doom. Many are nefarious, wicked creatures—some the remains of men so clever and wicked that even the devil himself couldn’t match them. They live in swamps and often traveled but uninhabited places, and are often knowledgable in some way. Very few stories, strangely, mention actual deaths resulting from the lights. They are a nuisance more than a menace, which means drawing horror from them might require some stretching and creativity.

I have excluded two other mysterious lights for now, as not being exactly, well, marsh related. One is St. Elmo’s fire, a sea born anomaly where parts of a ship appear to be aflame. More extreme and out of my normal study—although not too far out—is the appearance of lights as UFOs. Most famously, there are the Foo Fighters (ah, not the band) who were sighted by World War II bombing crews. The idea of fairy concepts being repurposed into alien imagery is not without precedent—there has been research and discussion of how alien abduction and changeling or other fae stealing stories are markedly similar in details and distribution.

The other thing is the phrase “death lights” and the alluring, transfixing nature reminds me of Stephen King’s It, where the Dead Lights preform a similar role. In It they are of course more malevolent, consuming forces instead of mere tricksters—they drive men mad and consume their soul! There is also one of the most famous lights in Lovecraft, that haunts a blasted heath—the Color Out of Space, which is dangerous to have contact with and behold.

Bibliography

Bushnell, David I. “Myths of the Louisiana Choctaw.” American Anthropologist, vol. 12, no. 4, 1910, pp. 526–535. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/659795. Accessed 7 July 2020.

Cashen, William. Manx Folklore. Published by Douglas Johnson, 1912.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.

Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. James R Osgood and Company, 1881.

The Severn Valley

This Weeks Prompt: 58. A queer village—in a valley, reached by a long road and visible from the crest of the hill from which that road descends—or close to a dense and antique forest.
The Resulting Story: 
The Pale Hound

Mr. Lovecraft’s love of isolated, small communities is well documented. And given one of his original sources of inspiration, Arthur Machen, it’s not too surprising to see a fondness for the wilderness and great forests. But what to make of this hidden village, that we didn’t perhaps already do with Saint Silvanus? Well, this strange village is hidden. Perhaps it is stranger than it seems.

We discussed hidden lands to some length with Irem, but I believe we can yet go farther. The village is visible within a valley, and I think to keep it separate it will be a valley not a forest, isolated and away from the world. In the world of Mythos, there is a particular valley that this brings to mind. The Severn Valley.

The Severn Valley is, of course, a real location. It is, appropriately, in Wales and is run through by the river Severn. Folk etymology suggests that the name comes from a drowned nymph, a…curious notion. Alternatively, there is also a Celtic god Sabrina who may be responsible for the name of the river.

Severn River VAlley.png

Some notes, however, from Welsh folklore as recorded in the 1800s. Particularly hills. Hills have a couple of associations in the Severn Valley. Giants are said to have built them, particularly the large hill Werken. The inhabitants of the hills and stones are often giants, and attempts to build churches are frowned upon by these large natives. Often, stones were thrown at the churches, in an effort to destroy them.

Such giants in their constructions often carved out sections for water to flow through, making the rivers and causeways, with their massive spades. On a few occasions, they turned theses spades on each other in fratrcidal murder. Such is giants: Grand, mighty, and quarrelsome with each other.

An even more bitter resister of the churches is the arch enemy of mankind. The devil himself often disassembled churches that were raised on hills, until at last the builders gave up and went elsewhere. The devil also built a vast roadway, which he rides. His horse is pale, like all ghostly Welsh animals, and he has a cow’s horns and feet. Should he find a sinner on his old, Roman road, he will scoop them up and carry them off.

The devil also sometimes sits atop the Stiperstones mountains, hoping to send them back into the earth and in doing so doom England. He has, of course, not managed it yet. But the devil is nothing if not persistent.

Devil's Chair.png

Other mountains are haunted by Gywillion. The Old Woman of the Mountain would lead, by voices and cries, travelers up the mountains and leave the trapped in the wilderness. Other mountain faires frequently take the forms of goats. One Cadwaladar was taken away by such a goat-fae, to the meeting of such fae. He was promptly knocked off the highest mountain in all of Wales.

Further, the hills near Vicorium held once a wicked city, a heathen city that denied it’s prophet. A nearby mountain erupted and sent fire down, while the river rose in flood. The prophet survived, but searched for the governor’s daughter, who he loved. But she had drowned. And now, still on Easter, the figure of such the prophet, a Roman solider, can be seen rowing. Looking distantly for his beloved forever.

From another mountain, a Saint saw the land of a faerie king. Enraged at the faerie king’s presumption, he toured it, seeing armies with weapons of hot and cold, and dispelled them and their galmour with holy water. This apparently sufficed for him.

Alternatively, an antique forest. Faeries of the wood eat poisoned mushrooms and lead based butter, wear gloves of sedative leaves and lurk in every corner. In their ranks are the faerie fires, sometimes the will-o-wisp, sometimes the pooka. The will-o-wisp is often merely a luring fire, while the pooka takes many forms to taunt it’s prey.

Pooka

A Pooka, as illustrated by a Welshman

Some of these locations are haunted by ghostly dogs and pigs, often pale things without heads that bark or growl or hound their prey. The association of the color white with terrible creatures extends, as we have seen, to the mount of the devil. And it associated with a great hero of the region, Wild Edric. Edric, according to historians and folklorists, was a resistor to William the Conqueror.

Wild Edric’s traits are like many golden age kings. Eventually, however, he made peace with William. His lands, however, failed to stay in his family. He has since taken up residence…elsewhere. Some stories place him in a lead mine out west. Others say he rides in a wild hunt on a white horse, and if emerges during wartime, the war will be dangerous. His condemnation is said to last until the English are driven out, and all is repaid. Edric further made that awful mistake and married an elf maid. His sword is currently held by a fish-knight in the river, waiting his heir.

WildEdric.png

So what have we then? A haunted landscape, of ghosts and faeries and lost cities and giants. Much as can be found in any place. We need now what makes the village weird. What is it, from the hill or forest, that makes this small village that is hard to see from without, strange or bizarre?

Another facet to strange here is the role of ghosts and fae as ominous. Sightings of unnatural or bizzare creatures are often signs of greater dangers or terrible fates. And there is a peculiar event that I have wanted to include in a work of weird fiction or horror for sometime now. The Carrington event, which disabled electronics around the world. Aurora’s were seen all the way in the Carribean, with those over the Rockies being bright enough to wake gold miners from their slumber.

Such an event no doubt drew omens and signs and activity from the world invisible. It is a date in time which can ground the story we tell, as much as the Severn valley grounds it in place. From here, the encounters with these omens, and whatever really caused the auroras and activity (this is horror after all. The sun is a rather dull explanation when there are so many other options) can be disclosed. Perhaps one of the giants awoke again in the hills. Perhaps some grand hunt occurred through time and space. Who’s to say?

What do you think? What strange village lies in your writing?

Bibliography

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.

Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. James R Osgood and Company, 1881.

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