The Island of Curses

This Week’s Prompt:  110. Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.

The Prior Research: Taboos and Makutu

This story in part brought to you by our patrons on Pateron

The oars of Abasi’s trade ship cut into the wine-red sea, the boat heavy with gold from Egypt, destined for Ionia. It was a pleasant day, the wind at their backs and the sky clear of storms. A short stop in the southern coastal towns of the Hitites would perhaps be doable without losing too much time. Nestor, the quartermaster, was concerned they would be lacking provisions if they did not make the stop. He and Paimu got into a small debate on the matter, when there was a cry from the front of the ship.

No man aboard had seen such a thing. It resembled a great crocodile of the Nile, but with limbs that ended like a monkey’s, with claws that were as long as knives. Its mouth grinned and was wide like a shark, and its tail flicked about like a perverse lion. In a moment, it set upon them—first catching Yohannes between its jaws, then bounding to slash the throat of Menmu. Abasi himself drew his bronze khopesh, that had run red with pirate’s blood, and watched it bend and break on the armored hide. Nestor and Paimu, startled, rushed back as the beast dove, its head shattering the boards.  Nestor took his heavy club, for killing fish when he cast his nets, while Paimu took up an oar.

Both waited, looking over the ship for the beast—and then felt the ship shake. And slowly the water rise. As the two men realized what was happening, the beast remerged—smashing apart the boards beneath them, its claws grabbed their throat. Yet neither perished- the claws held back from slicing their necks. Instead, both felt the chill of the Mediterranean, and faded into unconsciousness.

trireme

*

When the two men came to, they found themselves in a large circular room, with a great hole in the ceiling. Paimu stretched his limbs, and found them sore—and as he started to stand, a sharp pain came from his neck. He traced a small wound on the nape of his neck with his finger. Shallow cuts ran down his spine, Nestor rising to check his own.

“Some sort of…brand perhaps?” Nestor murmured, looking around the room. Huddled masses slept against the walls, some asleep with eyes wide open.

“That doesn’t bode well…there, that man Nestor…does he not look to be from north of the sea?” Paimu muttered, pointing to a pale redheaded man. “And that woman…I have seen her kin in Babylon I think…and some of these people are from even farther shores.”

Nestor, for his part, walked down the step and looked around. There were no chains here, and it struck the Hellene very strange that none should be here. If this was a place of bondage, did they not fear some would try to organize an escape? None the less, his sailor’s eyes were drawn to the sky light. How the owner of this structure had built a perfectly circular roof, with a hole at its center like some sort of wheel escaped him.

The sight of the stars, however, were unfortunately familiar.

“That and this neither…those stars ought not rise until winter.” Nestor pointed upward. “I see the twins far too high in the heavens, even in autumn.”

Paimu heard the sound of steps first. They looked at one another—the two of them had been in such binds before, by pirates and thieves of the sea. Yet, so far from familiar shores, things might not be in their favor. Before the men could seal their fate, a great horn was sounded. And searing pain ran down their limbs, seizing them up in agony. The other prisoners in the room bolted awake, and the doors were thrust open. Each had a long wooden staff, tips lacquered with with strange swirling signs, and armor wrought of a strange dull silver.

They barked orders that neither Paimu nor Nestor understood—but like children, they imitated their fellows, who formed neat lines a followed the two men out of the building. They found themselves now on a path, carefully covered in stones—each seeping and glistening. Great mountains rose about them—or at first they mistook them for mountains. But to their shock, they saw the careful markings of  brick work and mortar. Columns rose of such craft that the tops of the mountains seemed to be floating island. And their summits were not shrouded by great clouds—no by mists that marvelous statues breathed into the sky. Through the mist, gardens could be seen.

Along the slopes, they saw more of those fearsome beasts that had stolen them away, but other wonderous things—men and women with avian aspects, who’s songs intermingled with distant screams. They stayed close at hand as they joined a greater throng, and marched out of the city—past gates with hundred headed guardians and spider sentries hanging from the ceiling, past cyclopean laborers carving great obelisks of stone, past the monolithic inverse mountain that was silent—to vast orchards.

At the entrance, there were piles of workman’s gloves, made of smooth leather, with wards written on their finger tips.  Both Nestor and Paimu followed the lead and donned the gloves, and watched as others all took baskets—and began the work of harvesting the delectable fruits of the trees. The two were cautious moving away from the others—who spoke to each other in a strange tongue, one that they stumbled or mistook, a tongue born of a hundred peoples trapped under one boot.

“Mere slaves…seems a waste to send such beasts to capture men only to work their fields.” Nestor said, the fruit coming free with ease. Paimu shook his head.

“Did you not see the wonders of this city? We are in some enscrolled place, who’s to say the logic of poisoners and their kindred? What if they have some pact that only people of certain nations may work their fields, to hold their power over death and spirits?”

“Perhaps. Still.” Nestor looked over the orchard and pointed lazily outward. “I see the sea. That at least is some comfort, that she is not too far away.”

Paimu followed his gesture but his eyes caught something else. He let out a gasp, and pulled the finger down. For there, they saw one of the other prisoners had stuck his glove on a thorn. As such, he laid a bare hand on the tree—and before their eyes, boils and blood ran up his arm. Shaken from his stupor, the man began to scream and stumbled—laying his bare shoulder against it’s truck. In a moment, his screaming stopped—the twisted and withered remains of his body fell against the roots and began to rot.

The two men were not total strangers to death, but the sight of one so painful and wicked was chilling to them both. Worse still when the scars along the man’s back—ones that no doubt mirrored their own—crawled free, a dripping web of blood and poison. In an instant it pulled low to the ground and then flew off—springing into the air like some horrific hawk or buzzing insect, back to unseen master of the orchard.

“…You are right, Paimu, this is a poisoner’s hold…more than one surely.” Nestor murmured.

“We must be cautious, if we have any hope of seeing Crete again.” Paimu agreed.

“But also, swift—I do not wish to be as dead eyed as the others here.” Nestor said, turning back to removing the fruits. “I do wonder how they taste.”

*

Inverse Mountain

Times came and went, seasons changed—or seemed to, as the great clouds over head shifted and the winds grew colder somewhat, the stars shifting slowly over the deep prison. They learned to speak some of the tongue of their fellows—some were from Athens or the Nile, and spoke some of the trade tongue that Paimu and Nestor knew. They learned that this isle, as far as others knew, was a great hold of hundreds of dread wise men—men who knew the secrets of making death into a metal, of working poison into every shape, of causing boils from afar and command spirits of ruin and power.

None had any hope of escape, only surviving past the coming day. For in a few months, there would be—according to the older prisoners—a great congregation at the upside-down mountain. There, sorcerers and witches from the world over gathered, having expanded the dominion of the island. They would have revelry and preform many offerings to their ancient spirits—the screams and blood of men and women would run deep, the gods of death and curses, the poisonous lizards and bleeding beasts, and other monsters would drink deep.

Paimu and Nestor, having some sense between them, resolved not to merely hope to survive. No, such a day when the bestial celebrants would descend on the many holds of the slaves was a day when they must escape. They learned from others how they might find the docks—for the sorcerers maintained many boats in secret places. Why they had need of such craft, when they might take to the wind, neither Paimu nor Nestor know—perhaps they enjoyed fishing.

Still, not all the knowledge had stayed among the sorcerers. Paimu had watched the guards closely, and listened to their speak. Nestor had paid rapt attention to the drawings on the gloves and arms. They knew little of hidden arts, but they knew enough to imitate them. With stolen rags and careful pricks of blood, they wove their own attempt at charms. Paimu knew some words he had heard priests say before, and they shared those secrets for good measure.

It was late in the day, when the march back to the orchard began, that they made their escape. They broke off from the marching order, past the dogs with serpents for colors and scorpion tongues. Paimu scattered ashes gathered from a dead man, confounding the watch-beasts’ senses. Nestor spoke words of reverence to secret gods he knew from the Myceneans, who wore helms of darkness and hid from men on the pass way. And with crude carved stones they found, ones that had no voices, they broke the locks on the old ships. The ships were strange, long and thinner than their old trading vessels—but the small ones were simple enough that they set sale, kelp sales catching an evening wind as they quietly rowed out.

Hope swelled in their hearts as they saw the light of the moon, shining on the blue waters. Nestor looked up at the familiar stars—there was no way to know how far land was from this blasted and twisted font of poison. But at last, the two sailors were on their old friend and foe the sea, and the strange beasts behind them.

Then smoke issued from their backs—smoke that smelled sweet, yet burned their skin, causing Nestor to fall over and grip his stomach. Paimu turned, and in a moment caught sight of what the smoke had called. When a drop of blood falls in the water, sharks swim across the ocean to the source—so to do the dread creatures of the isle chase those things or persons who try and escape the tight grip of their masters.

Taniwha A

An artist rendition of a taniwha, which looks more lizard like.

Paimu drove his oar into the water, yank the sail that always caught the wind to turn the ship to the side—hoping that the swerve would delay the chase as he ran to the front. Nestor, the old quartermaster, gasped out in pain but pulled himself upright. From the sides of the ship, he cast the nets he found—nets that cut his fingers when he cast them, boils spreading up his arm.  The sail suddenly clattered—the winds having heard some unspoken word, and now drove the ship to the shore, closer to the waiting jaws of the beasts. Paimu saw death before him. Nestor, feeling the end draw near, took hold of Paimu’s shoulder.

“Leave a sculpture of me in Knossos—and do me good with my kin, when you come to them again.”

And with those words, the old Hellene tossed himself from the ship—and as Paimu turned he saw the host of beasts set upon his thrashing form, the body of Nestor becoming a flotsam of pus and blood in glittering jaws. The ship crashed onto the rocky shore, shaking Paimu from his terror. He clambered onto the rocks, the beasts now devouring the boat behind him. Alone, he found his way to the great cliffs, paths marked with inscrutable signs—and there a cavern in which to hide. For Paimu had been told that the sign above the caverns prevented the beasts from entering, so that the stores of the sorcerers were not eaten. Among the strange blind fish, Paimu cowered and hoped this at least was true.

*

The sun rose over the shimmering sea, ships setting sail with unseen crews to harvest the glories of the sea. Guards dragged men and women to harvest from the orchards. Birds with brilliant feathers begin to sing. The smell of smelted iron and burning wood covered over the land. And the sorcerer Tane Baalbadur walked the shore, looking over the crashed and ruined remains of vessels from far off lands. His mount was a great red horse, with legs that bent like a spider and a serpent’s mouth. It hissed as it crawled over the cliffs. Baalbadur listened to its speech with amazement. Surely, the old sorcerer thought, no man had managed to hide in one of the treacherous caves and escape the demons of the sea. But his steed could not lie to him.

Baalbadur’s voice was what Paimu awoke to—the sorcerer in his finery, with a crooked staff of drift wood and many gems hanging from his jaw, staring down at him. The eyes of the sorcerer considered him, exhausted and with the scars on his hands from his flight ashore. Baalbadur clicked his tongue, his pallid fingers examining Paimu’s wrists.

“What we have here I believe,” Baalbadur said, in words that Paimu could not understand. “Is an error in accuquistion.”

Paimu struggled, mind blind by exhaustion and the aches of last night—his mind felt split by a great ax, his heart was pounding still from the terrors of the night. Still, he managed to strike out against the sorcerer, mustering every ounce of strength he had. The blow fell limp on Baalbadur’s shoulder.

“And a crass misunderstanding of our current condition.” The sorcerer continued—his nail jabbing into Paimu’s skin. Paimu felt a rush under his skin, as if his blood was replaced with the very wind. The sorcerer lifted his nail, and Paimu saw a knotted, tumorous mass hanging from it—like a fishing line covered with algae and blood. The burning in his back, from his poisoned brand, stopped.



 

I’m not happy with this story. It is, frankly, incomplete—it ends at what I intended to be the half way point. But after two weeks, the stress of the pandemic, of personal and professional issues, and of completing the story became too much. I’ve cut it off here—perhaps we will return to Paimu’s trials on the isle another time, under a different prompt.

Next time, we will return to Louisiana and discussions of voodoo!

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Taboos and Makutu

This Week’s Prompt: 110. Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.

The Resulting Story: The Island of Curses

 

This research in part brought to you by our patrons on Pateron

For this week’s research, I decided to try and examine things as locally as I could—albeit I misremembered this prompt as specifying Polynesian, when it only says Pacific. Still, a vast region to examine, and one where zooming in on a specific culture can be greatly beneficial. This prompt to me seems clearly one of the many that lead to the Call of Cthulhu—although in this case, the Cyclopean Ruins are the center of the cult, and are there all year round instead of rising and falling into the ocean. To supply some ideas and inspiration on the matter, I decided to look into witchcraft and sorcery of the region.

Witchcraft and sorcery are topics that often have broad similarities across the world, and thus it is in the details that things grow interesting.  In the reports I have, witchcraft is again associated with lower class and elderly, often the feeling of envy. Shamans and traditionally knowledgeable members of the community also faced witchcraft accusations—although colonial authorities justified the criminalization of such acts not because of feared harm of witchcraft itself, but the belief that traditional medicine was leading to neglect and death in the communities who had few alternatives.

The sources I stumbled upon were focused on Maori descriptions of witchcraft, specifically makutu. Makutu is a form of magic that takes many familiar forms—often it is employed by those who have been wronged against others. One thing of particular note is that the practitioners of makutu can pass down these powers to others through objects—and that in some cases, secret societies are rumored to form around these objects and their usage. The topic is not one commonly discussed, by all accounts, meaning my most common sources were either old or very specific.

But more to our interest, is a report by one S. Percy Smith. Here we are told that the origins of witch craft—the various forms of which include death dealing lizards, gods of withering flesh, and more from the power (mana) of Miru. These powers included the ability to send invisible bullets with the tip of the tongue, the power to render objects and water sources taboo, and to render environments taboo. Those who drank from the waters made taboo or trespassed on islands were attacked by horrific sea monsters called taniwha. The natures of these creatures is unclear to me, although a connection to sharks was mentioned in one article. Some witchcraft could be passed on in taboo places, others were unable to be passed one at all.

Taniwha A

An artist rendition of a taniwha, which looks more lizard like.

A separate source claimed that the origin of witchcraft was with a defeated god, Tane, who wished to keep his mother and father close together and the world forever darkness. In order to wreck revenge on the world, he created all the ills of the world—he in a way poisoned it to make it inhospitable to human beings. He taught, as one of these efforts, witchcraft which is among the worst dangers.

Those who practice these spells do so with a proper incantation, and then let an invisible bullet fly from their tongue. Their victims die, sometimes in gruesome shriveling ways as their arms shrink or wither away. Sometimes in more sudden ways, as if quite literally shot. Afterwards, that it was a wise man who did so is apparent, although which isn’t for sometime.

But makutu is not limited to murder or invisible bullets. Envious sorcerers who are rejected by women may drive them mad in response. These women would tear their garments and go naked, able to see the sorcerer’s spirit and describe it to others. Other victims of sorcery could see the sorcerer in wicked dreams, and recognize him. I wonder if this had the effect of spreading dread, or dooming the sorcerer’s endeavors.

Taniwha B

A sculpture of a taniwha, from the side.

Objects could also work sorcery—particularly carved objects of stone or wood. A sorcerer might attack someone with a gift, which if not returned within five years, will cause untold suffering. Objects stolen from a sorcerer likewise attract the ire of a sorcerer, who may send the taniwha to retrieve it and murder the thief.  Carved stones and objects can be rendered taboo—and in some cases, those marker stones from ancient times have truly terrifying creatures guarding them. For this reason, these stones are left unmoved, least the creatures beneath murder those who would move them. Many of ancient places left such terrible wards behind according to an informant, infecting the whole world with wickedness that even plants might bight back against a man who picked them.

Perhaps the most destructive use of this sort of magic is when a sorcerer wants to kill a community. He first must find the ceremonial center of the community. By burying a prepared piece of wood in the ground here where none saw him, a makutu practitioner can murder an entire people if not stopped. Those first affected dream of the cause, and if they alert a healer, the object can be dug up and swallowed.  Those first afflicted will still die, but the community as a whole will live.

Other reports indicate that a star appearing visible during the day has been sent by a sorcerer to curse a victim. Some sorcerers instead dispatch the less visible bird to make their ill will known. In either case, reciting a proper prayer can reverse the harm, sending the doom back to the sorcerer.

Some of these are easily stopped—the use of lizard gods to cause illness, for instance, is relatively easy to end for priests who specialize in such matters. And charms to keep sorcery at bay are common knowledge for many. But others are more direct and harder to stop, moving to quickly to be caught.

Even death may not end these torments. Reports from the 1950s indicate that some practitioners could pass on their skills and talents, or even that such dead practioners still rode the wind. Whether these are exaggerations of practice or not is hard to say—the documentation reminds me of claims of witch practices in the countryside, and the language of the documentation is…of its time.

Location Ryleh

For those wondering where Lovecraft’s pacific island was, here are approximate locations of Ryleh.

So where does that leave us for this prompt? I think there’s something very interesting about the assertion of a house from which all evil things originate—one source even said that the first people to bring these powers into the world sacrificed one of their own to keep the powers permanent—that is considered by all taboo. The idea of ancient stones and places that are filled with something like a poison is fascinating.

The other notion that strikes me is the passing down of powers through generations to endow mastery and greater powers beyond. The writer of that section suggested the stories came from or were related to the old testament stories of Elijah and Elisha—and that may be the case. But for a narrative that traces itself back to a truly ancient time (antediluvian being before the great deluge that wiped the world clean), such notions of continuity are important. Which brings us round to what sort of narrative we are working with here.

We are given here a location more than a narration. The Cthulhu story has this strange island rising, and being stumbled upon by nearby sailors who interrupt the waking creature by ramming it. Yet, I don’t think I want to repeat that particular idea of just ‘stumbling across’ such a hidden and dangerous place. One idea is following someone to their first meeting of a horrific conspiracy—or perhaps being dragged back there, in a case of mistaken (or misplaced) identity by someone fleeing the conspiracy. The idea of vengeance or having wrong the witch or sorcerer in question is a common one that I think could also play into the idea. The question at the root then is what is the horror about: Being inducted into this conspiracy or being the victim of it, when one is dragged to this island of horror where even the trees try to bite at anyone who sets foot on them?

 

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Bibliography

Palmer, G. Blake. “TOHUNGAISM AND MAKUTU: Some Beliefs and Practices of the Present Day Maori”. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 63, No. 2 (June, 1954), pp. 147-163

Voyce, Malcom, “Maori Healers in New Zealand: The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907”. Oceania, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Dec., 1989), pp. 99-123

Smith, S. Percy. “The Evils of Makutu, or Witchcraft.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol 30, No. 119 (1921).  Accessed here: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document//Volume_30_1921/Volume_30%2C_No._119/The_Evils_of_Makutu%2C_or_witchcraft%2C_by_S._Percy_Smith%2C_p_172-184/p1

Terrors in the Night

This Week’s Prompt: 106. A thing that sat on a sleeper’s chest. Gone in morning, but something left behind.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

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Mr. Lovecraft has here given us a terror that is very common in the world, rife with folklore explanations, and that plagued the man himself in his life. Sleep paralysis is the experience of waking up, but being unable to move, speak, or in anyway act. Victims often hallucinate, and commonly report the sensation that someone or something is in the room with them—something the brain processes as dangerous.

Such an anomalous sensation is the source of many terrors of the night—the most famous perhaps being the nightmare or night hag. In documents across Europe, the night hag finds sleeping people, binds them, and then rides them—like a mare—to her various delights, before returning them exhausted.

At various points in history, the nightmare has been its own spirit, either a being named Mara or a dwarf or the like. However, in English, the spirit quickly became associated with the more common source of supernatural evil: the witch.

Nightmare witch

Witchcraft reports from England suggest that such enchantment requires the insertion of objects—often sharp and deadly ones, such as scissors—into the victim for the magic to work. Some of these witches sent spirits, supposedly, to disturb the sleep of their victims. Often a these spirits took the form of cats (the recurring internet meme of cats making it impossible to move when they lay on you has some ancient parallels it seems). Other times, the shadow figures are witches themselves, who attempt to strangle their victim as well as prevent them from sleeping.

In South Carolina stories, the night hags are even more nightmarish. They often drink blood of their victims, and sometimes ride their victims without skin. With salt on the floor or certain rituals in a bottle, the Night Hag can be captured in a bottle while trying to reassume her skin. An informant claimed that the hag left a detestable slime when struck by salt—perhaps indicating there is something not entirely human beneath their skin. These hags might go door to door begging for food or hitchhiking, cursing those who show hospitality in a perverse inversion of regular witchcraft.

Witches in Nigeria were also believed to also engage in terrible acts during the night. They might make off with the breath of children, or feast on the souls or psyche. Meetings between witches, in both Africa and Europe, were often described as out of body experiences—as where some of the transformations a witch would engage in. These psychic feasts and meetings are the cause of illness, sickness, and death among communities—often by weakening the victim’s body such that more mundane illness can enter.

NightmarePainting

Of course, human intervention isn’t the only potential source. In China, Thailand, Poland,  and Uganda (among others) it is the dead that harass the living this way. The kokma of St. Lucia is a ghost, but rather specifically a ghost of a dead child that leaps on and throttles its victims. In Zanzibar, there is a terrible bat like demon that assaults people in their sleep. In Cornwall, the creature is instead a large hairy thing that binds a man down and called the hilla. In Ireland, it is instead a great bird with many talons and wings called tromlui. Beyond cats (who are easily the most common), sheep and roosters also appear as oppressive spirits in the world.

That isn’t to say there is no protection from these powers! Salt in some communities will work, but one particular charm from Anglo Saxon Texts protects against a spidery dwarf creature that enters illness upon the victim:

“Against a dwarf one shall take seven little offerings, such as one has worshipped with, and write these names on each of the offerings: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martimianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards one shall sing the charm that I say hereafter, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, and then above the top of the man’s head. And then a maiden must go and hang it around his neck, and do so for three days; he will soon be well. Here he came in walking, in spider form. He had his harness in his hand, he said that you were his steed, he put his traces on your neck. Then they began to travel from the ground; so soon they came from the ground, then their limbs began to cool. Then came in walking the beast’s sister; she put an end to this then and swore oaths that this would never harm the sick one, nor that one who might find this charm or knows how to recite it. Amen.So be it”

NightmarePainting 2

Here, we see the Seven Sleepers invoked as they often were to protect against sleeping illnesses and the like (We discussed the seven sleepers here). Other cures exist through out the world, from the aforementioned traps to cleansing to finding the witch responsible.

We come then to our story of horror. One of the most fascinating things, implied here, is that an object is left behind by the creature, spirit, or witch. This parting token to me marks not a gift, but rather a cursed object returned or some calling card—I am reminded of the discarded ring from our Netherlands stories that were in fact the doom of the woman who found them. Terror in the night for Lovecraft is not uncommon—the Witch’s House deals with dangerous dreams from living in a cursed place, and the threat of nightmares is common in horror (we could also consider the Hugenot house and other haunted places that torment victims in their dreams). But here, the presence has a dreadful physicality. It is not just terrible dreams—which might precede or follow from the spirits presence—but it is the arrival of something terrible and barely visible in the night.

We had a  similar story with the night monsters earlier—the aswang was our creature then, that slowly revealed itself and well. The story is here. But still, we need I think a distinction between this story’s terror, the vampires we’ve discussed, and the earlier version of this story that we examined with the Horla (here). Making things a bit more difficult, the night hag and it’s many other names does not do much. It sits on a person, it strangles them—an experience that I can say personally is terrifying, but difficult to communicate a whole story about.

Strange isn't it?

For some surely unknowable reason, all the artistic representations of sleep paralysis and nightmares sitting on people feature attractive women in distress.

Perhaps we can build on the notion or terror of SUNDS—sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome, a phenomenon referenced in some of my works as being related to nightmares and their kind. Mysterious and horrific deaths work better than a single stalking thing in the darkness. I have the notion now of a rash of mysterious deaths and killings, as creatures of darkness and night begin to swallow up a town or city—things that perhaps resemble our earlier aswang, that wait until nightfall to make their presence known, while walking in the day in more innocuous forms.

We can play with forms of horror here, I think. There is an existential fear, of falling asleep and not knowing if you will wake up—of falling asleep, and being started awake by some unseen terror—of waking up to terrible news while you were powerless. There is something we can wrap into and work with this story, as well as a monster story that has a resonance with the sleep deprived and brightly lit modern era.

 

Bibliography

Adler, Shelly R. “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome among Hmong Immigrants: Examining the Role of the “Nightmare””, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 411 (Winter, 1991), pp. 54-71. American Folklore Society

Davies, Owens. “The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis, and Witchcraft Accusations” Folklore, Vol. 114, No. 2 (Aug., 2003), pp. 181-203. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

Gay, David E. “Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charm 3 against a Dwarf: A Charm against Witch-Riding?” Folklore, Vol. 99, No. 2 (1988), pp. 174-177. . Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

Ross, Joe. “Hags out of Their Skins”. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 368 (Apr. – Jun., 1980), pp. 183-186. American Folklore Society.

Parrinder, E. G. “African Ideas of Witchcraft”. Folklore, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Sep., 1956), pp. 142-150. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

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Dutch Tales About the Sea

This Week’s Prompt: 104. Old sea tavern now far inland from made land. Strange occurrences—sound of lapping of waves.

The Resulting Story:

This Research in part brought to you by our patrons on Patreon.

Did you know “made land” means reclaimed land from the ocean? I didn’t! I spent a slightly embarrassing amount of time trying to find places or folktales about where the sea has receded before at last finding stories that fit this prompt (somewhat). The only one I found there had to do with the Norse God Thor and while it was…interesting, and connected to drinking, I think I’ll save it for another time.

No for this week I decided to delve into the folklore and urban legends of a part of Europe I admit I knew little of before hand: The Netherlands. The Netherlands have been making land for centuries, and unsurprisingly they have many stories about floods, storms, and the sea. Some of these are fantastic, some of these are rather mundane.

For instance, the story of how the north sea became salty. Once, there was a ship over one hundred kilometers long. It was so vast that a man on horse had to relay orders up and down the ship, taking six days to deliver each command. Where this vast ship came from is unknown—certainly it is a magical marvel, lacking telephone or telegram, and yet almost a small island in scope. But as perhaps was inevitable, the ship and it’s many crew members where wrecked at sea. The salt needed for such a vast ship is almost incalculable, and so the entire North Sea became salt water instead of fresh water.

Ships of same build if not scale were in the employ of a Woman of Stavoren. She was wealthy beyond compare, as a widow running a vast shipping empire. One day, she demanded that the most valuable thing money could buy be brought to her—and in time her ships returned, full of rye. Enraged, she ordered the barley be thrown overboard. All this was seen by an old man on the quay, who told the woman that one day she’d be poor. She swore to him that she could never be poor. To prove it, she hurled a ring into the sea and said she was like to get that back as to be poor again.

The next evening, a cook served her fish. And inside, the woman found the ring. Needless to say, storms struck and sank all her vessels—and she was rendered destitute, forced to beg on the street. The rye still grows where it was thrown, according to rumor. They bare no fruit.

Witch Burning 1

But let us leave the sea behind, but not to far—and venture into taverns and cellars. One story tells that there is or at least was a wine cellar well known by older women. Here, witches flew to meet and drink and enjoy themselves. One woman, after her first trip to the cellar, decides to bring a younger friend along. However, she is too excited to recite the spell to bring them there properly. Most importantly, instead of “Afterward home again” she says “nevermore home again”—and curses the two of them to be forever lost on the road. The younger friend realizes the trouble their in—and as they can’t get home, the devil will come soon to snap their necks. In true college friend fashion, the two decide that if they must  go to hell, they will go drunk.

Later, the two are found passed out in the cellar by some workmen, with incriminating brooms. They are found guilty of witch caft and sentenced to burning—they awaken during the burning, however, and manage to escape the devil by converting on the stake. The devil, having appeared as an owl over head to seize their souls, leaves enraged.

Another tavern cellar had a more dangerous creature lurking in it then two drunk witches. Down in a inn at Utrecht, there was a basilisk. The basilisk was born of a rooster’s egg, laid by a snake. The creature was born down there, unknown to the inhabitants. It was first discovered when a man went down to get a drink—and never returned, as the venomous eyes of the basilisk killed him and ground him to dust. This first victim was dismissed, many assuming he had just gotten drunk and passed out—until a second man went missing. And a third. At last, the innkeeper was about to investigate when a monk happened to come in and stop him.

Basilisk1

Now, the discovery of a fire breathing—the story mentions this offhandedly, and so shall I—murderous chicken-snake is of course bad for business. So the innkeeper asked for anyone to help, offering a hefty reward. At last a street urchin came in, with a plank of wood as his only tool. Despite the pleas of the adults, the child descended to fight the cockatrice—and triumphed! For to the beasts surprise, the otherside of the plank was a mirror! So the beast died to it’s own gaze.

A more comedic inn story comes to us from Zuiderwoude. A solider was playing cards with his fellows, to pass the watch. Off hand, he offers to send the Jack of Clubs to fetch some jenever. The others laugh at such an impossible trick—but the solider insists. And with their agreement, he goes unconscious. He turns as pale as paper and sweats like a pig, as the jack of club vanishes. A few minutes later, to the horrified soldiers shock, a bottle of jenever appeared with a jack of clubs in its neck. The original solider drinks heartily, and they all join in.

The next day, they walk pass the main gate and learn someone assaulted the guard, nearly knocking him out and slipping past unseen. When they pass a local innkeeper, he accuses them of making a terrible ruckus last night to get nothing more than a bottle of jenever. When they deny it, he singles out the solider with the jack as having come to him in the night. The storyteller asserts said solider was a sorcerer, who never truly left the room.

But one that stuck out to me for our purposes is the Herring in the Bucket story. It is a short and simple and rather mundane story.

The story goes, a farmer was drawing water from a well. When he brought the bucket up, he saw there was a herring in it—a fish swimming in his drinking water. It occurs to him that the fish must have swam into the well—and if it swam into the wall, the ocean must be seeping beneath the earth. A single good storm would sink the entire area, washing it all beneath the sea. And with this in mind, he became miserable and angry, until at last the storm came—and when the waters receded he was found dead.

Herrings

This sort of story has a few other variants—the maintaining of a dyke is a communal activity that the rich and arrogant often neglect and are ruined for ignoring. But what to me works here, in this small simple story is the horror that it displays. The growing realization that the buried sea is ready to rise up again and swallow it all. I pondered for a moment, why the farmer didn’t leave—but how could he? He is a part of this land as well. In our story, the old sea tavern is perhaps safe—it is where the coast once was, after all. But the made land is unstable—the symbolism of unstable lives, of long buried tensions coming to surface is apparent. Especially considering in vino veritas. There is a lot here, with simple and growing signs of impending doom.

Whether we take it to be the utterly mundane terror of a rising tide—something that is topical these days—or if it has some supernatural to it (we have many many many examples of the sorts of strange things that lurk in the sea), the story has I think a firm and clear footing. What stories have you heard, about seas, taverns, and tavern basements?

Bilbiography:

Meder, Theo. The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

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Salem

This Week’s Prompt: 99. Salem story—the cottage of an aged witch—wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.

The Forthcoming Story: The House of Witchs

This prompt continues our haunted and disturbed houses of New England—a tour that has gone on for almost a month now. Here, however, Mr. Lovecraft has grounded us in a very particular historical tragedy—the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The story of the Witch Trials is an infamous one, but one where the details are sometimes lost. So I will describe the chronology in brief here.

The Witch House

The Witch House, former home of Judge Johnathan Corwin, is the last building standing from the Witch Trials .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witch_House

At the center of the witchcraft outbreak are two girls, Elizabeth and Abigail Parris, daughters of Reverend  Samuel Parris, and their mixed race servant Tituba. According to documents, Elizabeth and Abigail learned tricks from Tituba during the winther of 1691-1692. Other girls are documented as possibly being there. A time after this, it is reported that the children began acting strangely—they spoke in tongues, crawled into holes and walls, and others acted foolishly. The local doctor could not identify the cause of this behavior,  and proclaimed them bewitched. This of course attracted local interest, including a gathering of Ministers to determine who had bewitched them. Tituba and her husband offered their skills at finding witches—but were accused of witchcraft themselves by the children. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn were also accused.  All were found guilty, and executed. Shortly after there were waves of witchcraft accusations in the area around Salem—A total of 151 people were accused, most but not all women. At least 20 were executed. Most of towns accused one to three individuals, and often only held one trial that year. Most of the accused follow expected trends—they were usually of low means, mobile, old and asocial. Those of greater means were rumored witches or accused before hand, and often new arrivals. After 1692, the hunt ended as the commission founded was dissolved. Numerous suggestions have been made for why—the targeting of less stereotypical

Recurring incidents associated with witchcraft and the trials are appariations terrorizing their victims, often to compel them to sign a book; the pricking or draining of blood; the appearance of people far from home; and the unheard speech of witches, often taken as cursing. This is not particularly new for witchcraft. In fact, one of the reasons Salem has attracted attention is not do to it’s bloodiness—it is far from the largest witch hunt—nor its symptoms—witchcraft symptoms, being based on witch hunting guides often enough, are very similar.  The only new notable symptoms is the betwitched cannot say the name of God, nor read the Puritan catechism, but can read it and say the Quaker and Catholic ones. Which indicates a curious and genuinely frightening notion for a community so defined by its religious convictions—that some force has compelled them into the hands of the enemy. But that is for the end.

Salem Trial.png

No, the primary point of interest with Salem is that it is very late in the history of witch hunting, and in a community that was not prone to it. Popular imagery of the story has suggest the Puritan Witchhunter as the most common participant in these massacres, but historically that does not bare out entirely well. The sum of Salem is a strange aberration in time and space, fitting into a common narrative of history during it’s era and until to this day—that as one moves farther in space, one moves backwards in time. So far from the continent, it is no wonder such barbarism occurred.

Certainly, the witch hunts have a character about them that lend themselves well to horror stories—they are a gothic horror for New England, remembered well by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. Here the witchcraft trials serve as a strange, spectral ghost that haunts the landscape and the characters. From the echoes of the accusations in the Scarlet Letter to the haunted images and manuscripts in The Devil in the Manuscript  and Edward Randolph’s Portrait. Given his admiration for Mr. Hawthorn, such an interest is not surprising for Lovecraft.

They are also a frequent stand in for the notion of a paranoid and superstitious community turning on its own—Arthur Miller’s The Crucible used the trials as an allegory for the MacArthur era of anti-communist witch hunts, for instance. Again, Mr. Lovecraft’s own lurking fear of tradition—his fear that the so called enlightened era of humanity was a mere moment, and soon darkness would descend in its old way—makes the connection rather clear. It is at times the use of authority to establish itself over the mob and quell progress—a line with more than some truth—and other times presented as the mob calling for blood and at best moderated by the priesthood.

Beyond these older sources, other media has of course taken on the notions of the witch trial in the new world—if not Salem itself, then certainly it’s presence. The Blair Witch, for instance, is also accused by children of her nefarious acts and haunts a nearby woods. The online series Catghost enters into these notions of magic and witchcraft—and even goes so far as Lovecraft’s witch house, crediting to the witches there some true knowledge of the universe beyond mortal ken. VVitch is a more direct example, featuring a Puritan family and being within a century of the witch hunts themselves.

MoreWeight

Giles Corey, one of the men executed for witchcraft, famously said “more weight” before dying by being crushed to death with stones.

What then should be done?  The prompt presents us with a rough timeline of events: A witch trial, followed by the search of her house, in which terrible things are found. This is a profoundly bad outline—there is no clear surprise, except to subvert the modern expectation that the victim is innocent. I do not believe we are in need of a story where the witch was really a witch. Alternatively, perhaps this is meant as a less direct version, akin to Dreams in the Witch House. Here, it becomes something again like a haunted house. And certaintly, there is a tradition of ghostly witches and associations between witches and necromancers. Here the history of the house comes to grossly manifest into the new inhabitants lives. And something could be done with that sort of horror.

One author suggested that the witch trials, and Salem itself, stand for the intervention of a spiritual evil in a material world. They are the imposition and manifestation of a very non-‘whig’ or modern sort of horror. They are the ancestral sin of the region—one of many perhaps. This then becomes a collapse of history in two ways. First, the most literal—the victims of the past refuse to stay dead and quiet literally disturb the modern world. Secondly, the means of this disturbance is not in the methods the modern world would permit—it is not an avenging family member descended of the witches, it is not some structural or biological secret lost from beyond the grave, it is instead a horror like those older horrors. It is a specter, a phantom, a shadow that lives.

If we wanted to go in a different direction then a simple Lovecraft haunted house, where ancestral guilt and fears stalk a new victim, we could play with the notions of memory and history that crop up in researching Salem. A major difficulty for those investigating Salem is the lack of proper documentation at times. Not all court documents are preserved, not all the accused have court documents, and so on. Things have simply been lost, some recovered in poems and stories, but most abandoned. Things that perhaps should not have been forgotten, for forgotten things still remain.

How would you approach a horror story about a witch’s cottage? Was she holding back something in the basement, now unleashed by foolish clergy men? Was there no horror before, but the tragedy has invited it in?

Bibligoraphy:

Latner, Richard. “The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chornology and Collective Violence in 1692”, Journal of Social History. Vol. 42, No. 1, Fall 2008. Oxford Universtiy Press.

Nevins, Winfield S. Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692: Together with some account of other witchcraft trials in New England and elsewhere. North Shore Publishing, 1892.

Stock, R.D.. “Salem Witchcraft and Spiritual Evil: A Century of Non-Whig Revisionism.” Christianity and Literature Vol 42 No. 1, Autumn 1992.  Sage Publications Inc.

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A Witch’s Best Friend

This Week’s Prompt: 88. Lonely philosopher fond of cat. Hypnotises it—as it were—by repeatedly talking to it and looking at it. After his death the cat evinces signs of possessing his personality. N.B. He has trained cat, and leaves it to a friend, with instructions as to fitting a pen to its right fore paw by means of a harness. Later writes with deceased’s own handwriting.

The Following Story:After the Funeral

Well this story just makes me sad. We’ll go over the full implications of this as a narrative at the end, but I’m almost touched by the notion of a friend finding their dead colleague still persisting in their pet. I half wonder if this is meant as a horror story at all. We’ll discuss that a bit later, after going over the ideas of horror.

The use of hypnosis is an interesting note, one we will go over in more detail when we can—the power of the gaze and hypnosis was often invoked during Lovecraft’s time to explain magical powers in the world. The philosopher here is therefore somewhat in the vein of a wizard or witch, albiet more scientific. The use of it on a cat is more fitting then—not only to continue the legacy of the familiar but because hypnosis was for a time known as “animal magnetism”. It’s also worth noting we did discuss cat’s before (here).

The animal familiar of a witch is a common feature of magic stories, often possessed in someway by the genius of their witches. One of the most famous non-cat examples, in my research, was that of a serpent. In particular, there was a large rattle snake that supposedly attended the Queen of Voodoo during her life—the creature slinked off into the swamp after her death, and had not been seen since. At least one informant claimed his magic came from the skin of said serpent, but whether this was honest belief or blustering and boasting for a credulous writer is difficult to say.

Louisiana RattleSnake.png

The same book—and the issues of researching Vodou/Voodoo/Hoodoo will be discussed at a later time, believe me—refers to one wizard making use of a crocodile to work his magic, marked by a read handkerchief. Both creatures have stories of being sources of magic themselves—tools by which their owner cast spells as well.

In Scotland, we can add the toad to this set of wicked beings that aid in witchcraft. The toad is said to have been perhaps of more value dead then alive, however. The head of the toad supposedly contained a stone, and as we discussed in our witchcraft article, there are multiple rituals in Scotland and Nova Scotia that rely on feeding a toad alive to an anthill. One exception is from the end of the sixteenth century in Flanders. Here, a man tried to escape his threatening landlady by boat, but found the boat could not move. When he asked some soldiers for help, they too could not move the boat. At last, they suggested checking under the vessel—and there was a massive toad with fiery eyes. The soldiers stabbed the creature and threw it out. When the man asked after his landlady letter, she was found near death from unknown wounds.

The cat in Scotland has some significance—most prominently when it has a large white star on its chest. One source named these elfin cats, and claimed they were witches in disguise—not, as might be guessed, simple faerie cats. Others take the form of great tigers in Orissa, red deer in Cumberland, and in many parts of Europe a hare. Beyond this, Scotland has superstitions regarding cats as prognostics—washing their heads to indicate fair weather for instance—or as potential witches. In the same way that the earlier toad could be possessed by the mind of a witch, so too was there a story of a cat possessed by a witch. A rancher had lost a number of cattle, and determined he was bewitched. Seeing a cat nearby, who had been following his cattle, he hurled a red hot iron at the cat. By chance, a neighbor broke her leg that night.

Cat Sith 2.png

In North Germany, to tie in a way back to the witches sabbath, a miller became convinced that witchcraft was being done on his mill—every year, on Christmas Eve, the mill burned down. At last he convinced a solider to stand watch. As he makes a bowl of porridge, in comes a long troop of cats—and they discuss where to sit, as they plan to burn the mill down again. The young man hurls the porridge at one of the cats, and cuts off her paw with a saber. The rest vanish—and the next morning, the millers wife is found to be missing one of her hands.

A strange Flemish story of a man who went to tell his mother that she was now a grandmother follows. The grandmother already knew by some means, and on his way home he was swarmed by cats. Not just swarmed, the determined felines stole all his silver and pushed him into a brook! A local priest learned of this and warned him to not give anything to anyone who begged at his door. He held out for a time, until a piteous old woman with child begged for bread. When he gave the bread, both his wife and child died in…rather gruesome ways.

Japanese Bobtail

I couldn’t find Ainu art of a cat, so I present the Japanese Bobtail, one of two cat breeds native to Japan.

Ainu lore places the origin of cats, sometimes, with a strange demon. The demon conspired to kill a mole god, by tossing him in the fire. He ingratiated himself as a guest, and then tossed the god into the hearth. However, as he left, the god appeared at the entrance. Before the demon could speak, the mole god seized him and tossed him in the furnance. The mole god stopped him from becoming smoke or breath—but the demon’s life could not leave his ashes. So instead out emerged the first cat and fox to escape, and live on to do ill in the world. (For those interested in the power of dead shamans and demons emerging from burnt corpses, it is a reccruing theme in our research on mosquitoes and ticks you can find here on patreon). In a strange reversal of this story, there is a notion among the Ainu that ghosts of dead cats may possess their murderers. They slowly drive them to imitate the cats, wasting away their bodies until they die. Mewling.

That is, frankly, horrifying.

Of course, there are ways to avoid such things. One is to eat a part of the cat killed—this will keep the spirit at bay. Another is to find, kill, and eat an unrelated cat—this helps with cats that are simply lurking around and sending strange visions and manipulations to their victim.

The Black Cat has some saving graces—for instance, they were considered to be insurance by sailors wives. This made them very valuable indeed—and often stolen or wandering into homes on their own. Connected to this, throwing a cat overboard was considered a way to provoke a storm by sailors. The works on witchcraft by King James also note a ritual using a corpse and a cat to provoke storms by witches in Scotland.

But that seems rather far a field from our intentions—we are after all dealing more with possession, transformation, and transference then we are with black magic. So, what sort of story do we have in this prompt? The first thing that is apparent to me is the description of our philosopher—they are lonely. A lonely scholar kept company by their cat. They aren’t friendless—they have a friend who takes care of their cat afterwards. A cat that, I’m sure, would already be a living reminder of a departed friend. A new pet with new habits, new routines, used to the old owner in many ways.

And then, it starts making motions towards the pen. Or paper. Pawing at it. And the friend examines some of the contents of the box, and finds a curious crude contraption—a pen fitted for a feline leg. And then…its as if his friend is writing again, on the paper, starting to explain things.

I’m not sure what sort of story this is—while perhaps Lovecraft meant it as a horror story, of animal intelligence or of possession or the like. But honestly, given his love of cats and the general tone of this prompt, it feels more like a tale of wonder. A bit of magical realism, instead of terror.

Bibliography

Campbell, John Gregorson, Superstitions of the Highlands and the Islands of Scotland, J. MacLehose and sons, 1900.

Henderson, Williams; Notes on Folklore of the Northern Counties, The Folklore Society, 1879 

Hurston, Zora; “Hoodoo in America”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 44, No. 174, (Oct-December 1931), pp 317-417. 

King James VI and I, Demonology, Gutenberg Press. June 26th, 2008.

Batchelor, John. Ainujin Oyobi Sono Setsuwa. KyoÌ Bunkan, 1901.

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The Fire Breaks

This Week’s Prompt: 75. Black Mass beneath an antiquated church.
The Prior Research:Witches Sabbath

Part 1:The Black Mass Gathers

I watched as the blue and green lights on the mountain faded. They slowly went away, leaving nothing but strange scars in the side of the stone, and from the window even theses were barely there. I was transfixed a little longer—not much, but a little longer. I felt eyes on me, from those mountains—something strange and numerous gazing at me as I quickly packed my things and left. I locked the door behind me, and went down the by now mostly empty roads.

Mrs. Lorain’s cooking would clear my mind—she often made a stew or soup that was something else. Walking down the path, smoother than I remembered, I saw a few more new arrivals chatting in strange tongues while buying bread. Two women and a man, dressed in outrageous clothing—like something out of century old painting, stretching itself into parody. One was tossing something like dice, but shaped strange on the table as they talked. Suddenly, one of the women looked at me. Her eye was bloodshot and black. It stayed fixed on me as she resumed conversation. It didn’t blink.

BlackSabbathElderbir2.png

I hurried along, avoiding the other crowds of strangers and costumes. The eye was still lurking on me some. It was a bit hard to breath when at times they pressed close to me. But at last, I arrived at the Lorain house.

“Peter! Why, aren’t you late. Did the students give trouble?” Mrs. Lorain asked from the kitchen. I collected myself for a moment. I slowed, staggered onto a chair and managed a smile.

“No, no, but the cold air caught me. I thought a storm was coming, so sprinted home.” I said, waving at the sky. It was cloudier outside then normal, but the storm had resisted raining for at least a week so far. Such is dawn of Autumn.

“Ah, well, I reckon it’s got a couple days before it rains and washes away some of the rubbish.” Mr. Lorain said, looking up from his almanac. He read it daily for such predictions. “Weather’s rather regular when you look at it all the way, Peter, you should know. Why, its almost enough to set a clock by.”

“Maybe, maybe. I thought for a moment I saw lighting on the mountain.” I said, cautiously expanding into my fears. I was unsure what to make of the sighting—there were accounts of seeing a woman in the Mediterrian and of course in Ireland and Scotland stones took on strange forms on misty mornings. Flashes of light as the sunset…were not necessarily strange nor significant.

“Ah, probably just some kids with some of the fireworks or something on the hill.” Mrs. Lorain said, as one of the guests—who introduced himself as Rinaldo, but would not give his family name—came down the stairs.

“What already? Their getting faster.” Rinaldo said, his necklace of feathers and bird talons bouncing a bit as he stopped. “Yeah, thunder and lightings an old trick on the mountain. You get some iron bowls or pans, you drop the right firecracker in them with in the old caves and it looks like the devil himself is in the woods.”

“Ah, well…if that’s all that’s good. I was worried for my wits back there.” I said, nodding slightly. When Rinaldo put a hand on my shoulder my blood ran cold.

“Don’t worry, sir, you’ll see far greater spectacles in a day or so.” He said, smiling with his ivory white teeth.

That was not comforting.

*

During the night, I got little sleep—and when I would sleep, I was startled awake rather quickly after. At first it was just the evening wind. I sealed the window then, paying little mind to the dancing and reveling I could dimly make out by the moonlight. Then it was a scratching at the window—one of the strays around town I think. I knocked on the door to keep it away.

And then…I don’t know why I woke up. I just did, in that terribly uncomfortable place of being a wake but loathing it. I got up to pace, but my legs and arms felt like stone. Even as I slumped over to my desk, weight settled on my back to bend me over. I started writing blankly, unaware and uninterested. I waited until the small glimmers of light came through the window. I packed for work then, unshaven and disheveled as I walked down the road. I’d barely remembered to dress.

School Brick2.png

The weights did not go away as I arrived ahead of the students, into the class room. I scraped the structure of the latest writing on the chalk board, coughing a bit at the dust. Exhaustion slows even times long passage and dulls the best senses. I didn’t notice the arrival of the Tarneys until Mrs. Tarney herself gave a rather noisey cough.

“Are you alright Peter?” She asked, leaning to the side of the doorway in a blouse and skirt—black with thin white lines running down, creaking into lighting lines at the bottom. I blinked and focused more on her voice.

“I’m…yes. Had a rough night last night.” I said, resuming to diagram and map Prospero’s island.

“Oh, something disagree with you?” She said, tapping her foot. “Normally Mrs. Lorain–”

“No, no, her cooking was superb as always.” I said, shaking my head. “No, just some sickness that I suspect is at it’s end. I’ll probably not stay so late tonight. The autumn winds aren’t good for my health I fear.”

“Well, they are thin and cold up here.” Tarney said as I placed the chalk down and began to set up my other things. “You might want to start bundling up…you look absolutely pale.”

And with a click of her tongue she was gone.

The lesson for the week was rather dull as well, but not without merits. We had begun work on Shakespeare’s plays, and now came to the end of those stories. Prospero and his island on our minds, I reviewed the structure and sonnets. The children were more fond of this then other plays—the nymph and dread Caliban gave an air of wonder to it. Suitable, I think, to even the teenagers and the young children. Far more than the tragedies.

After classes were dismissed—and there were a number of classes I contrived to teach the same text, for different aims—I again settled down and started packing my things to go. After last nights…strange encounter, I thought it would do to leave early. But…but I must be honest, there was a macabre fascination with the sight that held me. I need to know—was it delusion that I saw fire on the hills? And the strange habit of Mrs. Tarney made me cautious to follow her down the hill.

So instead I waited, watching out the window. I saw the old path that wound to the mountains—a dirt road worn out when trade up the hills were common. Sitting in my chair, I saw a trickle of travellers heading up the winding path. Most were dressed…more ostentiously then before. Bright colored cloaks and dresses, with feathered collars and scaly neck pieces. Almost all wore masks worthy of Venice…although a few had masks that were so pale and untouched they looked like bone wrote in the shape of a long forgotten creature.

I paid the first few of strangers no mind. The next two or three piquied my intereast away from the hill—after all, it was not a well known route. And after a dozen or so had gone, it became clear that some gathering was going to take place. Some party no doubt—I wondered briefly it was a tradition from when these now grown guests were teens. No matter. I made a few notes of faces and particularly outrageous costumes. Most were rather macabre. But otherwise,not worth notice. Not really.

The sun was setting now, and distantly I saw…yes, a spark. And another. Just fireworks, as the young man had said. Nothing more, nothing more. With that in mind, I packed my things, and headed home.

*

The road back to the Lorain’s was oddly barren. There was a young man packing things in the bakery—which was usually open far latter than this. A cat, who seemed like a miniature tiger, crossed my path. Turning to face me, the cat let me know I was not welcome on these fair streets with a rather unwholesome noise.

Then he scampered off.

The incident was unremarkable…except stray vermin and the occasional cat were the only occupants in the whole town I could find. The Lorain’s had locked the front door to the house—although the back was open. None of the guests, nor either Lorain was home. After searching for a time, I considered if they too had gone to that strange lights in the mountains. I considered going to bed early—retiring again to make up for lost sleep. But…sleeping alone, in an unguarded home, with potential drunkards wandering back into town…If there was one reasonable fear I had, it was the descent of a hoard of drunk bohemians armed with mischief.

So I sat and read for a time by the candlelight. And as I poured over pages of Parisian lore, I lost myself. Time spun her wheel faster over my head, interrupted only by the mewling of hungry cats. Then, a loud crash—and a distant flash. Lighting and thunder outside, lighting and thunder. I nearly fell out my seat, and turned to the mountains—and there, those lights had grown. There was a great conflagration along it’s mount. Some strange shape was at it’s core—and long dancing shadows came down from on high.

Fire Outside ElderBir.png

I set aside my fears and terrors. For there, there I knew was some mischief about. I began walking up through the town—the light of the mountain cast it in morning twilight. The cats were all about, standing at attention on the main road. I walked in back streets, slipping around the strange street up towards the mountain. The roofs were thick with ravens. Red eyes followed me out of town.

The trail was only rugged until the woods—then it began to grow smooth. The remains of old Roman roadworks were visible—rocks and bits of blocks sticking up with increasing frequency. The rain…the rain had swelled the dirt. The orange dirt looked dark red in the twilight, clay pushing up against the rocks and stones. The road was better kept as I went—the stones sealed together better.

The forest was alive with lights—the great bonfire that was raging raced down occasionally, in great columns of light. And the sounds—the sounds that night. There was music, of course, drums and pipes and trumpets. A cacophony of noise, unearthly but not unpleasant noise. Except the braying—there was the occasional bray of some no doubt terrified donkey.

As I wound my way up the path, small candles—their wax dripping over stones—came into view. At the base of these candles, carved in strange shapes and colors, votives were left by guests. I saw portraits and coinage glimmering in the darkness. The exact details were unclear—but the shapes were strange, and some had writing or scars drawn on them. I stopped at one. It was a young man, with a nail driven into the portraits eyes.

As the noise grew louder and I drew closer, I was tempted to leave the road—I was not looking forward to being seen here. But the woods now seemed to alive. A thin film floated in the air, a membrane invisible that none the less divided the woods and winds from me.

At the edge of the road, just as it wound to the flame, I was assaulted by an foul odor. It was rot and burning hair and sulfur. It nearly drove me to vomit, like walking into a sewage filled slaughterhouse. Swallowing, I turned the corner—and what dreadful things I saw.

The Fiery Monolith.png

There was that roaring many colored fire—and in it’s center was a monolith. The flames made it hard to see how it was raised—it looked like a singular stone finger. And atop the monolith was a bestial thing, a man with the head of goat. Serpents came from his cheeks, as he stood with arms spread out. A woman was on all fours, a great iron cauldron resting on her back. Clouds of incense and smoke rose from the cauldron.

As I was agap at the sight, I felt hands grab me. Turning I saw a porcelian mask with tusks jutting from the mouth—the scarlet dancer pulled me in a line of dancers. Feathered veils and dresses whirled around—leonine heads and bleeding eyes. I felt the coils of serpents run up my arms and around my back as I was pulled every which way. I wanted to scream, but something choked my voice.

The Ritual Goat.png

There were other moniliths. Other men with masks of great birds of prey, of skulls, of bulls with snakes fangs lining their mouths. The dancers continued. At the gesture of the scepters and staves, they sang in bestial tones. A wicked harmony they compelled—even my own voice became rough and formless. An ectasy took hold. They dragged me into the fire’s cold grip. Up, up the winding monolith.

I saw the face of the altar, as the goat-headed priest grabbed my hand. I saw the priest’s familiar eyes. As the hands guided me, the entire crowd cheering—they lowered me into the cauldron. It burned. It hurt.

It hurt as it filled my lungs, with boiling tar.

It hurt.

*

I woke up in the small, drab room in town. I ached all over as I rolled out of bed. I stumbled a bit, pulling my coat on. It was morning—my head was pounding and my skin…my skin felt strange. It felt…heavy, like a layer of dirt was on it. I shook it off and buttoned up my jacket. It was cloudy out—an iron gray sky. The window showed a town full of mist. Slowly blinking my eyes, I went down the stairs.

The road clicked as I walked along, absently buying some bread for breakfast. I’d take it on the hill today, I figured. The rain hadn’t started yet, and a breakfast inside would give it too much of a chance. And the rain—well, it was autumn and cold winds were coming. The rain would be a fever or mold on my clothes. I’d rather avoid that.

The students piled in, and sure enough the rain started to fall. In the distance, a fire was doused. The chalk on the board blurred beneath my touch. I coughed—and blinked as a black feather came out of my mouth.


 

I’m not super fond of the ending–I ran out of time, and had to rush something to happen to Peter. But overall, I like how this story turned out. I got to write some old fashion purple prose description, for good or ill. It was a bit slow at first, and could use some  expanding. Maybe next year it’ll be voted as a rewrite at the Patreon, who knows?

Next week! Research into gargoyles and guardians of churches! Come and see!

 

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The Black Mass Gathers

This Week’s Prompt:75. Black Mass beneath an antiquated church.
The Prior Research:Witches Sabbath
Part 2:The Fire Breaks

The road to Elderbir was relatively smooth, even if circuitous. While a horse might have once navigated the streets with ease, the buggy struggled to make each ever tight turn. As we reached about half a mile from the small town, the path was too dense to continue for the driver. With a quick wave, I departed with my things the rest of the way.

BlackSabbathElderbir
Elderbir was a small town. It was far away from the city, and I hoped it would give me a chance to breath. English books in hand, I dragged my suitcase up and smiled at the young woman setting up a banner over the bakery. The smell of bread washed away a number of my cares, glancing at my slip of paper for the address I was staying at. I’d negotiated a place to stay with an agent in town—apparently this was a busy time of year, what with Midsummer approaching.
The house was a two store, square building, with a nice awning to protect from the ever threatening rain. I give the old wooden door a knock, rustling the pslams that are nailed to either side of the door frame.
“Ah, Peter yes?” A deep voice asked, as a broad and heavy man with a mustache down to his chin came into view from behind the door. “Auntie said you might be coming. Big city lad, here to work at the school?”
“Yes, yes, that would be me. You must Mr. Lorain. Yes, I’ll be instructing in English in a few days. Is my room ready or should I—”
“Is my room ready? Haha, listen to this guy. Yes, yes, of course it is ready. Clean and neat, thick walls and everything.” Mr. Lorain said, taking my shoulder with one firm hand and my bags with another. “Dinner will be cooked by my lovely wife and daughter, but that is a few hours from now. Let us get you settled, and then you can explore the town. Or sleep, I guess. It must have been quite the travel from Windgift to fine old Elderbir.”
I haplessly followed along, to a rather bare room with a small bed and desk, a half bookcase carved of dark wood against the wall. All in all very comforting, truly. Spartan, yes, but that left the mind able to be properly furnished.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Lorain.” I said, pushing my things slightly. “Think I’ll go look over my school at the least—I’ll be sure to be back for dinner.” With a smile, I made my way out of the house and back down the street. Distantly, I heard a clock dole out the hour mark—three dull resounding marks for the hour.
A gaggle of children came running down from the small foot hill the school squated on. A rectangular, unobtrusive building, with a bright red bricks and blue painted shutters. The children came toppling down, the younger ones rushing ahead laughing, while the older ones taking their time in small little clusters.

School Brick
By the time I was at the front gate, my soon-to-be coworkers were emerging. A woman and man—married perhaps?–who were a bit older than me descended down the path. Not the generation of my parents, but between them and me. The gentleman stopped at the door to secure it a moment.
“Oh, hello!” I said, walking up with a hand extended. “Peter Dorman.”
“The new literature teacher?” The woman asked, shaking back and smiling at me. There was something slightly curious about her eyes—one seemed larger than the other, by a hair at most.
“Yes, ah, Miss?” I asked,dropping my hand to my side awkwardly.
“Mrs. Tarney, and this is Mr. Tarney.” The woman said, nodding over her shoulder. “He teaches geometry, I think.”
“Oh, only the fundamentals and essentials. Most of the students benefit from a bit of logical thinking.” Mr. Tarney said, catching up. “Afraid the school is locked for the day—You can poke around a bit later. Already have a place to stay?”
“Oh, yes, with the Lorains.” I said, pointing over my shoulder and turning half around. There was a pair at the door actually that gave me a bit of pause—a woman with a bright red dress and hair done up in a net of braids, with little ribbons hanging off them.
“Oh the Lorains…there a good family. Mrs. Lorain’s cooking is amazing.” Mrs. Tarney said, smiling as she walked down past me, arm in arm with Mr. Tarney down the street. I watched after them for some time, before shrugging. Regardless, I could at least become familiar with the grounds for a bit before the sun dipped too low.
The school was a small building—only three or four rooms. There was a small fence, separating the bigger hills from this one. Of course, one of the kids had broken the beam, allowing a few children to slip out. The entire remainder of town could be seen from here, and beyond them the towering mountains. Mountains no longer distant, but almost breathing presences down my neck. The mountains that seemed to have dim letters scrawled on them, in long pale chalk lines.

*

I spent most of my days near the school house. Before classes, I would arrive early to speak with the Tarneys about the latest comings and goings. The next few days were a source of any number of rumors to share. Apparently, as autumn came, the rooms grew stranger. I had seen a woman with a heart shaped thing in a jar, that seemed made of human hair, somehow stuck together. Another man, living two blocks away from my own temporary residence, had arrived with a bright red hat, a bronze statue head, and small crowd of hangers on.
“Oh, well, we get all sorts. Lots of folks who move away come back this time of year.” Mr. Tarney said, as I told him of a woman with a black cat that I swore had thumbs.
“And do they all come back so strange?” I asked, laughing a bit as I wiped down the chalk board. The children were learning fast—faster than expected, really. I wondered if they knew more then they let on at first, but as long as a few were struggling a bit of review wouldn’t hurt.
“Well, one doesn’t often leave a place like Elderbir without being a little odd—small towns make interesting folks.” Mrs. Tarney said, shrugging her shoulders. “Are you staying late again?”
“I have trouble thinking with Mrs. Lorain’s cooking wafting into my room—and papers must be graded.” I said, nodding and taking the keys from Mrs. Tarney’s outstretched hand. Truth be told, I preferred to give some distance to myself—a cramped upstairs room affords a man little privacy with his thoughts. The school wasn’t private itself, but at this hour at least I could pretend to be alone.
Mister and Misses Lorain were a fine couple—and most of the other boarders were kind if eccentric. The most egregious cases did seem to be regulars—they spoke to Mrs. Lorain with a familiarity that now made some sense. Most were staying only a week or so, or so they said. The gentleman with the white snake around his arm said he made a yearly pilgrimage here. It was rather strange, none of them resembled many of the other towns folk. Truly at some point, Elderbir had played host to people from around the world—all within the last few decades.
Scribbling along on tests, I fancied what might have actually attracted so many visitors. Mrs. Tarney may say it was simple family reunions, but so many to fill almost a second city? Perhaps an army regiment once trained out here, and it became home over generations—first the soldiers return, then they bring families to visit yearly, and after they die, their children feel the pull like everyone before and so on. It was a remote location, but affairs of state have a strange way of transpiring all over the country.
While ruminating on these thoughts, something caught my eye out the window. An intense, but brief light—almost like a small orb of lightening in the distance. After glancing over and seeing nothing on the mountains, I wrote it off as nothing more than a delusion from overwork. But it came again. A small pulse of blinding light. Frowning, I walked over to get a better look—and then I saw it. On the mountain side and top, some how both brilliant as stars but barely visible as the sun set, were arrayed an army of multicolored fires.

Black Sabbath Mountain 1


So this week, I am afraid we will have to stop before the story is entirely finished—I simply didn’t have time to finish the story, and wanted to have something for Halloween! So, consider this a primer to the full story, out next week. What will Peter uncover about the strange guests, the strange lights, and this strange town? And what will he do with this new information?
Stop by Part 2 to find out! The Fire Breaks

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Witches Sabbath

This Week’s Prompt: 75. Black Mass beneath an antiquated church.

The Resulting Story: The Black Mass GathersThe Fire Breaks

The Black Mass is an intriguing part of folklore. It is hear that we come again to the explict religious fears of Mr. Lovecraft perhaps—while his fiction is angostic, the Black Mass is a fear in the folklore of Europe, particularly among Catholics. The concept of a Black Mass is rather simple: The Black Mass is a pervision of the Holy Mass by the agents of the devil, an anti-thesis to right and good churchly behavior. Thus, it is at midnight, it involves sexual acts and violence—sometimes cannibalism and human sacrifice, often poison and orgies. It is a night of witchcraft and Satan himself may walk at that dread hour.

The earliest accusations of something like a Black Mass—although not using that phrase—is leveled against the Gnostic sect the Borborites. The accusation includes tropes that are common throughout later accusations—the consumption of bodily fluids, sexuality, child abuse, and cannibalism. Like later accusations, Black Mass here is equal parts folklore and political attack. The Borborite accusations resulted in 80 people being expelled from the city of Alexandria, and the suppression of Gnostic texts since then has made determining the veracity of these claims difficult to say the least.

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The most famous Black Mass is the Affair of Poisons. The incident is detailed here in a translation of several recorded interrogations. Included is the mixing of the blood of a white dove with holy water and sulfur, the brewing of love potions of a duke, the invocation of three demonic princes, an abortion and the use of the dead infants in consecrations. To continue on in more detail would be a bit more grotesque then I am willing to do for this blog.

The result of this Black Mass was the arrest and execution of over 36 people. The dead included the mistress of King Louis X, Madame de Montespan, and a number of soothsayers, diviners, and alchemists. The chief witness was interrogated while intoxicated, however, and evidence of the supposed thousands of dead children is non-existent.

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However, it was far from the only Black Mass accusation to be leveled. Earlier works gave similar debauched and carnal descriptions of Black Mass, where the devil appeared as a great talking black goat. Witch hunters, comedians, heretics all in the twelfth and thirteenth century provide texts for Black Mass.

Another famous accusation was levied against the Knights Templar. While not accused of a specific Black Mass, the Knights Templar were accused of spitting on the Cross, denying Christ, worshiping idols, and of encouraging homosexual practices. Compounding accusations of fraud, secrecy, and corruption, these accusations eventually lead to the disbanding of the Knights Templar and the seizure of their lands by other states and the Knights Hospitaller. In addition, the accusation papers are the first time the now famous demon Baphomet is described. However, the demon has not taken its form as a black goat yet. Instead, it is described as : a dead cat, a severed head (sometimes with three faces), sometimes as a piece of wood with Baphomet upon it. The nature of this accusation is…difficult to find credible—the articles on Wikipedia document the strangeness of the name, the accusations specifics, and the theories around it. The idea of Baphomet as a demon was revived later for attacks against Freemasonry, and finally Baphomet’s shape became more concrete with Eliphas Levi’s satanic temple.

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In the folklore of Germany, Walpurgisnacht takes a similar role—or more properly, Hexenacht, the Witches Night or Witches Sabbath in the Brocken mountains. Here, on a night of a saint, the witches gather by flying goats. They trample crosses, are baptized in the name of the Devil, receive gifts from him, and have grand orgies—rather banal by standards of Black Masses. Spell preparations were also made—the unguent that allowed witches to fly was brewed, great spells were cast with the aid of other witches. And of course, copious amounts of human flesh were devoured. The location varies—while the Brocken is common, the mystical island of Blockula in Sweden also plays host, as do other mountains.

A slight variation on these masses, which resemble grand inversions of the order of mass, is the Mass of Saint-Secaire. Recounted most famously in the Golden Bough, the mass is a means of assassination. A corrupt priest and his lover go to a deserted church at eleven at night. He recites mass backwards, ending at midnight. He then devours a mass of three cornered black bred and drinks a cup of water, from a well in which an unbaptized child has died. Then, making a cross with his left foot, the priest proclaims the name of the victim. The victim then simply dies, rapidly wasting away.

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More innocuous inversions of Mass include the Feast of Fools phenomenon. A celebration among the subdeacons and lower clergy, the Feast of Fools traces its roots back to similair Roman celeberations. The Subdeacons took reign as the overseers of the cathedral for the day, and partying on a grand scale commenced.

In the folklore of the Balkans there is a recurring trope of devils gathering in the woods at night. Unlike the others described, these dark gatherings are regular reports of their mischief to their superiors, and get beatings when they fail. In folktales of unfortunate or poor heroes, these meetings provide ample opportunities to eavesdrop on the problems and solutions the hero can provide for riches.

A German folktale of a conclave of corpses has an implied diabolical aspect. The doubting monk discovers them buried in a forgotten vault at night—their hearts are ringed with fire, and all of them sit at attention. When inquired to their fate, the corpses reveal that they are being punished by their victims nightly, until judgement day. The conclave warns the monk of this truth—that hell is real, and coming for him. At the end of the gathering, the monk repents and devotes himself to the church.

In Shropershire, the Stiperstones are reported as the gathering place of ghosts and witches to elect their king—and the mysterious place Hegmoor’s End is an island where witches gather. Not much regarding these gatherings is recorded, so we must presume they are sabbaths like any other.

In Rhode Island, Goose Nest-Spring is where the witches hold carnival, and have Sabbath at Hell Hollow or Kettle Hollow, depending on the teller of the tales. African American folktales in Rhode Island report that those who see witches brew—made frequently by groups of witches in graveyards—will crave nothing else, and thus starve even if they escape.

A Celetic folktale gives a more somber occasion—from the Isle of Man, one Mrs. Peacock claims that the devil occupies churches on All Hallows Eve. There, he takes the form of a somber priest and blasphemies against God for the night, while invoking the names of those who are to die and be damned in the coming year. If one listens, one can hear their fate—and perhaps even escape with their life. (Celtic 328).

With this foundation of diabolical tales, I think we can start working on the outlines of a story. I think this is a prompt that is more a scene then a full story—the climax or midpoint, rather then a whole outline as is the case elsewhere. With the idea of getting to a witches sabbath, I think we can play with the notions that this Sabbath occurs yearly, in the same place. Something like a grotesque yearly convention. And with a convention, we can imagine that a community has grown around it, in the same way that pilgrimgae sites foster the growth of communities around a trail.

Given the associations with secret knowledge and plans at play here, I think a story about discovering the Witches Sabbath that is at the heart of the economy of a small village or town either as a small child or as new arrival in town. The mystery of strange people arriving and treated as welcome guests, the sights of early fires and sacrifices in the nearby hills, and the inevitably doomed venturing into those hills one night, to see the secret ceremonies. I think that as a story might work well.

The exact character of the Sabbath is another question however. As mentioned above, Black Sabbath’s are often gruesome and needlessly dark affairs. Scores of dead children might be shocking to write about, but in the space of only fifteen hundred words—three thousand if I’m being generous—the image is more tacky then effective I feel. On the other hand, making the Black Sabbath a merely ordinary event is dull. Walking the line between serious horror and schlock—a line I willingly and eagerly cross at times—is a difficult affair.

Bibliography

Bourgaize, Eidola Jean. Supernatural Folklore of Rhode Island. University of Rhode Island, 1956.

Nicoloff, Assen. Bulgarian Folktales. Assen Nicoloff, 1990.

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

Rhys, John. Celtic Folklore. Wildwood House, 1983.

Tibbits, Charles John. Folk-Lore and Legends, Germany. J.B. Lippincott, 1892.

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Dealing With The Devil

This Week’s Prompt: 71. Man has sold his soul to devil—returns to family from trip—life afterward—fear—culminating horror—novel length.

The Resulting Story: A Prodigal Son Returns

This month is something of a return to popular topics it seems. Last week, we had the creation of the world out of a person—not that dissimilar to the stories of Leviathan from a few years ago. This week, we return to the archnemesis of mankind and one of the most famed tropes in fiction: a deal with the devil. Through folklore onto plays in Shakespeares day, even into modern television, the Devil is a busy tradesmen and contract writer it seems.

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The first story of a deal with the devil—directly said as such—comes from the early church and Saint Theophilus. Saint Theophilus of Adana was a saint from the early 6th century, who according to the chronicler was a humble man that turned down an appointment to a bishopric. The bishop elected instead refused to give him a post as archdeacon. Now regretting his humility, Theophilus contacted a sorcerer or necromancer, and contacted the devil himself to gain his position. Theophilus renounced the Virgin Mary and Christ, and signed a contract in blood to become a bishop again. The devil fulfilled his end of the arrangement.

Not long later, however, the Saint Theophilus grew afraid for his immortal soul. He fasted for fourty days and prayed for forgiveness from the Virgin Mary. After chastising him, the Virgin Mary went to intercede with God. After another thirty days fasting, she returned and granted him absolution. The devil, displeased, three days later lay the contract on Theophilus’s chest. Theophius takes the contract to a real, non-diabolic bishop, who burns it. The saint then dies of joy.

Codex Gigas.png

This story is among the first we have, but there are many more. Another holy man made a bargain with the devil to complete a bible before dawn in the early 13th century. This holy man had broken his monastic vows, and was in danger of being walled up a live ( a punishment we are familiar with). He prayed to no avail, until at last he called upon the Lord of Darkness. The Archenemy of All Mankind finished the work in an hour, and in memory, the book—now known as the Codex Gigas—contains a large picture of the Devil himself inside.

The greatest holy man to supposedly make deals with the devil was Pope Slyvester II. Pope Slyvester introduced Arabic numerals to the Western Church, and was rumored to have stolen a Arabian sorcerer’s spell book. The sorcerer pursued him, able to see all in heaven and earth by means of the stars, until the man who would be Pope slept atop a bridge in order to evade capture. Later on he used the spell book to summon forth a demonness in order to secure the Papacy, and created a brazen head of bronze that could answer any question posed to it (as long as it was a yes or no question). The demoness or the head warned the Pope that if he gave Mass in Jerusalem, the Devil would slay him—resulting in the pope canceling his planned pilgrimage.

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However, Pope Slyvester II did give a Mass at “The Holy Cross of Jerusalem”. And what happened there is somewhat disputed. One instance says the Pope felt suddenly ill, and requested that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered. Another says the devil did assault the Pope and ripped out his eyes. The Pope, pentient, chopped off his hands and tongue. After death, legends formed—based on a misreading of his tomb text—that his bones will shake whenever a Pope is close to death.

Another man of learning who regular dealt with the devil—although who never lost his soul in the process—was Saemundur Sigfusson. Saemundur’s deals range from transport back to Iceland on a seal, to learning the Dark Arts from the master himself. In each case, however, Saemundur outwitted the devil, often by causing the devil’s end of the deal to become impossible. For instance, the Devil promised to take him to Iceland on the back of a seal in exchange for his soul. Saemundur, wisely, killed the seal moments before it met the shore and walked off.

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John Fian was a more recent man accused of making deals with the devil. A Scottish schoolmaster, John was accused and confessed under torture to being a witch who had signed a contract with Satan himself. This deal granted him, if accusations are believed, the power to bewitch town folk—including a botched attempt that resulted in seducing a cow—and raising storms to destroy ships. The schoolmaster did, to his credit, claim to renounce Satan to his face. Sadly, he then attempted to flee authorities and was predictably burned alive after a rather nasty torture involving nails.

John Fian features in the book of the same time, the Demonlogiae, by King James. The book contains a section devoted to contracts with the Devil, who takes various forms to render various services. When curing disease, he appears as an animal. When answering great questions, he possesses the body of a dead man to fortell the future (an example of Necromancy, no doubt). Other times, a devil may take the form of a ring or enchanted item, and elementals—those angels that occupy the air, fire, earth, and water of the world—are also fallen devils. The services of the devil are often ones of revelation—often of secrets King James reckons are not to be revealed, as God has sealed them up, or of secrets that do not require diabolic aid. Further, the Devil’s work is accorded to be no more than illusions—his armies are but strange shapes in the wind, for true miracles only God can work.

Devils Bridge.png

That of course, does not mean deals were made only for lofty goals of intellect. The tradition of a devil’s bridge is far more practical then the Faustian search for knowledge. These bridges are built with a pact of the devil and are often believed to be constructions of antiquity. Some versions it is the mason that gives their soul—in others, it is the first person to cross the bridge to give their soul. While there are many versions of the story, one version contains another saint—St. Julian the Hospitaller. The Saint, however, cons the devil by sending a pig or dog across instead of a human being.

Another case of practical skill is a man in Shropeshire wrestled or dealt with the devil for power over motion in many ways. He supposedly was able to compel a man to return to him after leaving a bar and hold him there in place, cast illness with his evil eye, and other nuisances.

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And of course, there is the most famous case of dealings with the forces diabloical—Faust. Johann Georg Faust is a historical figure attested to in a number of documents, but his legend makes any accurate statements difficult. Often driven out of town on accusations of fraud, Faust or Faustus—who may have been one or two individuals—claimed to be an alchemist, a doctor of philosophy, a doctor of medicine, an astrologer, and magician. His exact activities as he traveled are recorded somewhat:he preformed a astrology for a bishop in 1520, and banished from Nurnberg and Ingoldstadt in 1528 and 1530—on accounts of necromancy and sodomy. In 1536, he received recognition as a more genuine authority, and is last recorded in 1535 in Munster.

The legends around Faust existed in his life time. A man declaring himself Faustus Junior boasted of being able to preform the miracles of the bible. Other accounts credit Faust as boasting of granting the German Emperor victories in battle with magical means. Faust was rumored to have a dog that became a man servant, of flying, of deceiving men into rubbing their faces with arsenic to remove beard stubble, and more. In 1540 or 1541, Faust supposedly died of an alchemical accident. His body was greatly marred, reportedly as the devil had come for him at last to collect. Faust’s spellbooks have been published for two hundred years, the last one in 1691.

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Faust’s deal with the Devil is recorded in The Historical Faust, a German chapbook. The deal occurred in the Spesser Wald. It is recorded as such:

Now the Devil feigned he would not willingly appear at the spot designated, and he caused such a tumult in the forest that everything seemed about to be destroyed. He blew up such a wind that the trees were bent to the very ground. Then it seemed as were the wood with devils filled, who rode along past Doctor Faustus’ circle; now only their coaches were to be seen; then from the four corners of the forest something like lightning bolts converged on Doctor Faustus’ circle, and a loud explosion ensued. When all this was past, it became light in the midst of the forest, and many sweet instruments, music and song could be heard. There were various dances, too, and tourneys with spears and swords. Faustus, who thought he might have tarried long enough now, considered fleeing from his circle, but finally he regained his godless and reckless resolve and persisted in his former intention, come whatever God might send. He continued to conjure the Devil as before, and the Devil did mystify him with the following hoax. He appeared like a griffon or a dragon hovering and flattering above the circle, and when Doctor Faustus then applied his spell the beast shrieked piteously. Soon thereafter a fiery star fell right down from three or four fathoms above his head and was transformed into a glowing ball. This greatly alarmed Faustus, too. But his purpose liked him so well, and he so admired having the Devil subservient to him that he took courage and did conjure the star once, twice, and a third time, whereupon a gush of fire from the sphere shot up as high as a man, settled again, and six little lights became visible upon it. Now one little light would leap upward, now a second downward until the form of a burning man finally emerged. He walked round about the circle for a full seven or eight minutes. The entire spectacle, however, had lasted until twelve o’clock in the night. Now a devil, or a spirit, appeared in the figure of a gray friar, greeted Doctor Faustus, and asked what his desire and intent might be. Hereupon Doctor Faustus commanded that he should appear at his house and lodging at a certain hour the next morning, the which the devil for a while refused to do. Doctor Faustus conjured him by his master, however, compelling him to fulfill his desire, so that the spirit at last consented and agreed.

Faust’s bargain specified that the spirit sent would serve him for period of time. At the end of this period, he would surrender himself to the spirit. He forsook the Christian faith and signed such in blood. In exchange he gained any desire he wished—although not marriage, as that was a sacrament. The spirit appeared hence as a Fransican monk.

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Faust then inquired many things of his spirit guide, flying into the heavens, descending into hell, learning falsehoods about astrology and others. He stayed in the Pope’s palace invisible, slept with the wives of the Sultan while wearing the sultan’s form, and more. He cursed a knight to have antlers, trapping him in a window; he gathered food for a pregnant countess and created all manner of animals; he conjured Helen of Troy to show his talents of necromancy; he encountered sorcerer’s who could chop off their heads and put them back on again.

In the end, Faust’s students begged him to ask for forgiveness. And he tried to. But Faust was convinced his contract damned him, and so could not genuinely ask for forgiveness. And so he met a gruesome end, which I will not repeat here. Faust leaves a will and testament, granting his butler Wagner all of his belongings. (I will note here: the original Faust chapbook, linked here, is shockingly anti-Semetic in many ways.)

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Later versions of Faust include more details—the play of Goethe add a love intreast that might redeem him, and the role of doubt as near conversion is expanded. Goethe also added a happy ending—Faust at the end of Part II is redeemed by the angels as Mehpistophles lusts after them.

More modern takes on the Deal with the Devil focus on an interesting and specific talent and form of expression—music. Folktales about violinists making deals with the devil include: Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), who was rumored to deal with the devil and who was not permitted a church burial upon death; Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), who wrote a sonata based on his encounter with the devil; Philippe Musard (1792-1859), who’s wild conducting style convinced some that he had also made pacts with the devil; Tommy Johnson (1895-1956), a blues musician who’s brother claimed he sold his soul for guitar playing skills; and Robert Johnson (1911-1936), who made a similar deal. And of course, there is the folk song about the Devil going down to Georgia.

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The deal with the devil persist in popular culture, although the cause over time seems to have changed. The major deals with the devil I recall—such as Futurama’s The Devil’s Hands are idle Play Things or it’s later movie The Beast with a Billion Backs— present deals with the devil as matters of passion and love. The Disney movie Princess and the Frog has a non-literal deal with the devil for status and freedom in a more traditional mode, however. The film Anastasia features a reference to a pact with Rasputin in exchange for sorcerous power—in a way reminscent of the Disney film. Generally, however, deals with the devil are lately things of lost hope and desperation—I have more examples, but they are spoilers for shows worth of material. This contrasts the model that folklore presents, where deals are made not to save lives, but to advance one’s station and power over the world or to increase one’s knowledge. And to be honest, that is more tragic to me.

At the end of the day, a deal to save a life is a heroic sacrifice. It’s tragic, and poignant, and sad, but ultimately it’s a failure to think things through or let go or consider alternatives. The deal with the devil plays on character flaws, but often for a goal that is more easily accepted. The problem is mostly these stories are about saving people—not about the heart of the original deal with the devil, which is the loss of an immortal promise for mortal gain. Some deals change this by making the deal with the devil not about the soul itself directly, but about actions that lead to torment and the path of wickedness anyway.

Our story resembles a song I heard once: The Devil’s Train by Lab Rats. Unlike the more famous song, the Devil Went Down To Georgia, this story features a more diabolical assault. The character features an unspecified deal with the devil and…well, you can watch it here:

The Deal with Devil here is for the soul of the man. The question is, what did the man trade for? What did he receive for his immortal soul? For the story to work, we need I think for the stories unsettling terror and growing fear to work the change should be…less spectacular then Dr. Faust. More practical, more pragmatic. As to what a man is like without his soul…well, I think that is the source of dread and uncertainty isn’t there? That there’s something intangiblelly…unsettling about a person. The deal, of course, should be a secret I think. A trip abroad can change someone, and that gives us some cover for the changes in one of our characters.

The relationships at play here are also uncertain. I have been assuming the man is the patriarch of the family, but on reflection the horror might work better with a young man…it is easy to grow so distant from a person that you no longer recognize them. A trip abroad exacerbates that effect. I myself am going abroad soon, so such changes are on my mind…hm. There’s a good deal to think about for this story.

I will note that I intend to ignore the ‘novel length’ suggestion—The story may be long, but certainty not that long.

Works Referred To:

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

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