Just slap some spackle over it: Castle Houska and the gateway to Hell

About an hour outside of Prague, alone among thick forest, swamps, and mountains, there sits a 13th-century castle atop a sheer limestone cliff. The castle Houska (Hoe-skuh) has no outward-facing fortifications, and is guarded only by a lone statue of the saint Ludmila, now weathered and half-covered with moss. Houska cannot be reached by bus, and is too remote to bike to. The only way in is by car.

Castle Houska
Castle Houska.

Though the years have added new structures and purpose to Houska, its original, deeply odd shape remains. It must have taken an enormous amount of time and resources to erect that original structure, but when it was finished, there was little in it that made sense, and even less to encourage human habitation.  Houska was not positioned along any trade route, political line, or militarily strategic position. There was no water nearby. There was no kitchen. Some even claim that many of its windows were fake–stone frames that looked pretty from the outside, but let no light within. 

Most strangely of all, the castle had no fortifications of any kind. At least–it’s fortifications were not facing the outside. All instead turned within, aimed toward a chapel built over layers upon layers of heavy stone slabs. 

The walls of the chapel are thick. Unusual frescos stretch along them: Saint Michael the Archangel skewers a horned demon. A left-handed centaur aims her arrow at another woman’s throat. As the sun lowers down over the mountains, light disappearing off the altar, screams can be heard echoing from under the rock. 

The chapel.

Pit of despair

One of the great things about Houska is how far back its story goes. It could well be that humans inhabited (or avoided) its site since pre-recorded history. The stories that we can corroborate begin around AD 900, when a Slavic prince built a wooden castle there in honor of his beloved son. No sooner did people start to move in did a great crack split underneath of it, releasing unspeakable horrors that quickly left the castle abandoned and the surrounding countryside in terror. 

For 300 years, giant creatures with leathery wings stalked the sky, picking off livestock and travelers that got too close to the hole. Half-human, half-beast hybrids attacked people in the woods. Crops wilted and died. Any effort to investigate or seal off the hole was met with frustration at best. It was so deep that none could see its bottom; though the villagers tried to fill it with rocks, it simply swallowed them whole.

Come the mid-1200’s, one Duke Ottokar decided that something had to be done. The Duke set up a little experiment: prisoners condemned to death would be released from their sentence if they would agree to be lowered into this pit and report back on what was down there. The first man to go was a young, eager fellow. He held tight to his rope while the crowd watched the shadows of the pit swallow him. The rope went a little further down, then a little further. Then the screaming began. 

Ludmila trying to keep them demons at bay.

The man’s howls echoed in the hole, his rope trembling in the hands of the men desperately pulling him back up. By the time he reached the surface, it was too late. The man’s hair had gone completely white, skin withered and gray, eyes wild, speech hysterical and rambling. He blubbered about a terrible smell, screams in the dark, and then lapsed into incoherence. A few days later, he would die without offering the frightened people any more information. 

Some say that the Duke repeated experiment a few more times after that, with similar results. Others say that after seeing what happened to the first guy, no other prisoner volunteered for the job. Either way, if it wasn’t obvious before, it was now: The pit was clearly a gateway to Hell. It had to be covered up.

Down the rabbit hole

The Duke set his men about the long and expensive task of saving the countryside. First the pit was covered with tons of heavy slabs. Then they built  a chapel on top of that, with the hope that its symbolism and power would keep the demons permanently at bay. Around that chapel they erected a castle, all of its fortifications built inside out: it was not meant to keep invaders out, after all, but in. 

It was a great effort, but not entirely a success. To this day, disturbing visions plague Houska’s surrounding hillside: A horse (or man) runs full speed, their headless stump of a neck gushing blood. A woman in white peeks out of the castle walls. A group of shackled men shuffle forward, carrying dismembered body parts and cringing against attacks from a great black dog. 19th-century poet Karel Hynek Mácha spent the night and not only saw a disturbing funeral procession, but also had a prophetic dream of the year 2006. It’s not exactly a walk in the park. 

A shot of Houska’s interior.

Add to that the strange, sometimes evil things that keep happening there. Houska has been used variously as a hunting lodge (it is filled with an insane number of deer heads), a dumping ground, and a sanitorium. During the ugly Thirty Years’ War, a sadistic Swedish officer named Oronto took up residence in the castle, hoping that its power would boost his black magic. In a last, desperate effort to stop him, a party of hunters set out to shoot him down. They finally managed to get him through a window of the castle, but as he died, he called out for his black hen–presumably in an effort to work some spell to keep himself around for a while yet. While he didn’t survive, his spirit did, and haunts the castle still.

Then there were the Nazis. Houska was one of several castles that they holed up in during the war, where they stored thousands of confiscated books. It is said that they might have conducted human experiments within the castle walls. Certainly they would have tried to plumb its depths for knowledge of the occult–one of their increasingly desperate tactics to get any edge they could. We may never know; when the Allies defeated them, they burned all records, leaving only nasty memories (and a set of bikes) behind. 

Flip that castle

Has the bright light of modernity made the castle any happier of a place to be? Yes and no.

“Yes” in that there are no longer human experiments conducted there (so far as I know…). The castle is now open to the public and can be visited April through October. There are brightly lit, cheerfully decorated parts of it that would fit in in an episode of Gilmore Girls. These can be rented out for various personal, corporate, and artistic occasions–you can even have your wedding there

“No” in that weird stuff keeps happening. Car batteries won’t start. A wine glass floated several feet into the air in the middle of a conversation. A couple that was winding down in the hunting lodge one evening heard a loud thump.  Alarmed, they turned and were faced with two shadowy figures, which approached and started whispering about killing little girls.

Houska, ext.

But modern science and historical sleuthing can explain this stuff away, right? The visions could be the result of noxious gas leaking out of the crack in the limestone. The reason that Houska didn’t have the usual human accommodations or strategic positioning could be that it was built simply as an administrative building. 

The Astonishing Legends podcast (besides being a great resource for those who want to dig more into Houska in general) explores the gaps where these common explanations don’t quite make sense. Why would Duke Ottokar choose to build an administrative building over a giant hole in the ground? Houska is not situated over a volcano…any noxious gas that the initial crack might have produced should have dissipated over the centuries, right? And what kind of gas would it be, exactly, that would cause everyone to have the same types of visions over the years, that wouldn’t automatically kill anyone who got close enough, and that, instead of making people tired and dull, would make them active and fearful (like the poor sap that was first lowered into the pit)? 

My favorite myths are ones that can’t be fully dismissed. Houska is one of them. If nothing else, it is a bottomless pit of mystery, and will hopefully leave us guessing for years to come. 

Did you know that “Houska” means “braided bread roll” in Czech? Figure out the significance of that sh*t in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: A big thank you to Ladislav Boháč for Houska in the hills; Scary Side of Earth for both the chapel and the chandelier; ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) for Ludmila; and ladabar for Houska’s exterior.

Ghosted by a ghost: the black monk of Pontefract

It was August, 1966. In an unassuming house at 30 East Drive, Pontefract, England, Sarah Scholes was watching her 15-year old grandson Philip Pritchard while his parents and sister were away for the holiday week. Though the weather was hot, the house was curiously cold. Then Philip walked into the living room and stopped: There was a fine white dust falling silently from chest-height all around the room. 

30 East Drive.

The pair were very confused. It would make more sense if the dust were drifting down from the ceiling (though not much more, as the house had been recently renovated). But appearing mid-air? Sarah called Philip’s aunt Marie over from where she lived across the street to get a second opinion. Marie did not know where the dust came from, either, but she knew it needed to get cleaned up. She went into the kitchen to get a rag, and slipped in a puddle of water that hadn’t been there a moment before. Grumbling to herself, she mopped the puddle up, only to have another appear. And another.

They called the water company. The water company couldn’t figure out where the puddles were coming from, either. Marie went home, and Sarah and Philip tried to move on with their lives. Then, around 7 o’clock, Philip’s startled cry came out of the kitchen.

“Grandma, it’s happening again!”

Loose leaf tea and sugar lay strewn all over the counter. The button on the tea dispenser clicked and then depressed, splashing steaming tea over the mess. Then it went down again. And again. And again, hissing, continuing to depress even as the water ran out, faster, and faster. “Stop!” Sarah cried. “Stop it!”

CRASH. Something in the hall. They stumbled over see what it was. The hall was empty, dark. The silence built, and then light clicked on, startling them both.

Rue Morgue notes that a typically agreed-upon definition of a poltergeist is trickster-like activity stemming from from psychokinesis (often perpetuated by a young person in distress). The poltergeist doesn’t seriously harm its victims, and quickly goes away with time or therapy. 

The things happening at 30 East Drive don’t fit that definition. For one, the presence there has shown itself on multiple occasions to not just be energy, but a tall figure robed in black. It has a tendency to come in full force and then fade away, but has persisted for over 50 years. Instead of coming from children, it attacks children. And it means people harm.  

Still, they call the Black Monk of Pontefract a poltergeist, anyway. The most violent poltergeist in Britain

Who you gonna call?

After that initial day of horror (which culminated in a violently rocking dresser and the two fleeing the house to sleep at a neighbor’s), the activity ceased for a full two years. Grandma probably  got tired of trying to convince the family that they hadn’t been seeing things; maybe she even managed to convince herself. 

A grandfather clock was one of the many objects hurled around.

But just as they started to relax, the ghost came back full force. Loud crashes became a part of daily life, as did objects (including a solid oak sideboard) flying through the air or disappearing and reappearing in odd places. Green foam burst out of the sink. An aunt got an entire carton of milk dumped over her head. The daughter of the family, Diane, was thrown out of bed, and, on a few occasions, would wake up on the floor with her mattress on top of her.

Things escalated from there. The disturbances became so common that the family gave the ghost a name: Fred. Though there were bad signs–attacks focused on Diane, family photos brutally slashed–the Pritchards refused to move out. It was their house, after all. 

Instead, they tried to force the ghost out with exorcisms. These were met with walls weeping with holy water, people getting slapped and shoved down the stairs, upside down crosses, and a pair of women’s fur gloves conducting the songs meant to drive Fred out. 

Then one night Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard woke to find a tall, dark figure hovering over their bed. He quickly disappeared, but later, other people started seeing him around the house, too, though they never saw his face. More people–the family and visitors alike–got pushed, slapped, scratched, bruised. Then Diane’s hair stood straight up, and she was dragged, screaming, up an entire flight of stairs. The incident left her badly traumatized, and with finger-shaped bruises on her throat.

And just like that, all supernatural activity cut off again. The ghost, it seemed, was over it.

Historical reenactments

A Cluniac monk, to help along your imagination.

But the living were not over the ghost. 10 years after Fred took his leave, Cluniac monk researcher Tom Cluniff happened to hear about what had gone on at 30 East Drive. He put the  pieces of the past together with the present. A 16th-century monk had been convicted for the rape and murder of an adolescent girl (in an uncomfortable twist, an adolescent girl about Diane’s age), and hanged just across the street from where the house now stands. 

Suddenly the black robes of the figure so many people had seen in the house (and around the neighborhood, by the way) made sense. Of course! Fred was a monk. And thus the moniker “Black Monk of Pontefract” was born, and the interest in the ghost renewed. 

One of the interested parties was director Pat Holden, a Pontefract native related by marriage to Jean Pritchard, matron of 30 East Drive. Holden was so excited about Cluniff’s findings–and what he’d heard about the haunting–that he decided to make a movie. 

Back in black

In 2012, Holden’s When the Lights Went Out captured both the idea of poltergeists as psychokinetic energy as well as the history of the Black Monk. Though the indie film garnered mixed reviews, it further reignited the imagination of the public, and, in so doing, reignited the haunting. 

Producer Bill Bungay discovered house was for sale, and bought it so that he could have his movie premier in style. He didn’t believe in the ghost, so even though his phone behaved oddly in the house and there were reports of strange lights and noises, he didn’t think much of it. He dismissed the warnings of the neighbors, who had seen Fred around again. He shrugged off the psychic who said during the premiere that she could see Fred watching them from his favorite place on the stairs. 

Then came one night when Bungay was outside 30 East Drive alone, locking up the gate after a day of documentary shooting. He put the plunger on the gate down and secured it (with difficulty) with a cinderblock. Then he turned to lock the door to the house. But his house key had disappeared from his pocket. He glanced uneasily over his shoulder, and found that the gate that he had just shut stood wide open. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

Marbles are a common projectile.

Bungay has shown Fred more respect after that (though Fred often throws things at him, missing him by a hair). He now rents 30 East Drive to people curious about the haunting. This has resulted in a number of interesting photos, and 288 accounts of happenings at the house. Included in them is a story where the neighbors were visiting Bungay, and one of their granddaughters came into the room, taking a bite out of a polystyrene orange. Her grandmother quickly took it and scolded her, asking her where she’d even got it from. The girl replied innocently: “A man in black gave it to me.” 

You can browse the rest of the occurrences here. They range from your typical bangings and mutterings to reports such as the following:

“Asked sister in toilet “Are you alright” which she replied “Yes thank you” BUT at the exact same time she replied the WHOLE GROUP said “Wow, did you hear that!”? A man’s “HMM MMM” mocking sister’s reply.”

“Possible spirits of dogs photographed.”

There are also a few more serious ones:

“Arriving early the group knocked on the door of 30 East Drive on the off chance there was someone in but the house was locked and vacant. As the group turned and walked back down the path someone started loudly and aggressively banging on the window as if to get their attention. The group presumed someone was indeed inside and returned only to reconfirm that the house was still firmly locked and vacant, a fact later confirmed when the house was opened for the waiting group 30 mins later.”

“Group leader asked if ‘Fred’ wanted to “play”. Then a noise was heard on the landing so the group leader rushed to see and standing in the doorway off the small bedroom was a really tall black figure which moved into the room behind the door. Not thinking, the group leader walked straight into the shadow, an experience that affected him badly.”

Want to get in on the fun? 30 East Drive is available for rent today for £300-400 a night (free if you happen to be a theoretical physicist). If you’re not in the UK, don’t have that kind of cash, or don’t have the desire to spend the night in a place where the bed was recently flipped over and trashed at 3am, you can join the 30 East Drive Facebook group

Either way, I would hurry up and get involved before Fred ups and loses interest again. It’s only a matter of time. 

Flour, snow, talc, or cocaine? Free associate your thoughts about white powder in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Mark Stevenson for the house photo; Twdk for the grandfather clock that is not THE grandfather clock (but it will do); F. A. Gasquet for less murder-y monk; James Petts for the marbles (again, not THE marbles, but hey).

You’ve goat to be kidding me: the Bokkenrijders

The venerable Paul Karle recently did me the service of sharing a quote from Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit:

“Serial murder may, in fact, be a much older phenomenon than we realize. The stories and legends that have filtered down about witches and werewolves and vampires may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend the perversities we now take for granted. Monsters had to be supernatural creatures. They couldn’t be just like us.”

-John E. Douglas

In another post brought to you by Humans are Terrible!™, let’s dig into a crime spree so monstrous that it was blamed on Satan himself, and the equally monstrous response to it.

Ignoble steeds

Zoom in on Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands. Look at any pictures of modern Limburg and you can almost hear the classical music play: It is full of gently rolling hills dotted with the occasional patch of forest, exactly the type of imagery you’d expect to find under generic inspirational messages about wholesomeness or peace.

Bokkenrijder
A handsomely dressed bokkenrijder dude.

But back in the 18th century, especially on nights with a full moon, you would not have wanted to be caught in that quiet countryside alone. Voices echoed over the hills, cackles and hoots booming down from the black sky. If you looked up, you might see a group of men leering back at you, fingers clutched in the fur of unnaturally large, flying goats.

Satan gifted these goats (or bucks, because I guess goats without horns would not be demonic enough) to whatever outlaw would pledge himself to him. Night after night, his bokkenrijder (or buckrider) gangs soared through the sky, seeding terror wherever they went.

Preposterous deeds

You can imagine the kind of shenanigans that the brigands got up to when they had volitant goats as their getaway car. The bokkenrijders conducted raids throughout the peaceful countryside, robbing and beating all in their path, especially wealthy farm or church owners. As they flew, they could be heard crying “Across houses, across gardens, across stakes, even across Cologne into the wine cellar!” (One assumes that this refrain was born deep in the bowels of said wine cellar.) They trampled people under the hooves of their monstrous goats (*cue Grandma Got Runover By a Bokkenrijder soundtrack*) and drank potions in a bizarre gang initiation ritual that secured their pact with the devil.

Burning farmhouse
Real dick move, bokkenrijders.

Even people that may not have been legit bokkenrijders got on the bandwagon, capitalizing on their reputation to extort money from the terrified countryfolk. There are accounts of “fire letters” being delivered to wealthy farm owners by self-professed bokkenrijders–notes saying essentially “give me money, or I’ll use my Satanic skills to burn your house to the ground.”

One has to wonder if it was bold moves like this that eventually got the rijders into more earthly trouble.

Some suspect leads

Limburg officials began to investigate where these bokkenrijders were coming from, and reported back with some whackadoodle stuff.

Satan
“Let’s all get goaty with it.” -Satan

Reddit’s /NoSleep includes one take on the story. Late one night, ordinary robbers made the mistake of trying to escape law enforcement by running into a strange patch of woods. There, they happened upon a crossroads. The full moon illuminated a sign scribbled over with old Dutch, “Devil” prominent among the words.  The outlaws read the sign aloud (as one always should upon coming across something that is clearly a summoning spell), and a horned figure emerged from between the trees to offer them a sweet, goaty deal.

A few of the brigands said “hell no” (get it?) and escaped back to civilization, choosing to face the noose rather than the guy who left hoofprints in his wake. These were the ones who allegedly brought this bokkenrijder origin story to town, where it spread like arson fire.

Church-sanctioned bleeds

Keep in mind that all of this was happening at a time where a lot of people were struggling to make ends meet, and only the wealthy were getting by. It’s not surprising that some turned to crime. Sure, the burning things and the hurting people and the bringing ole’ Satan into it was not cool. But I think it’s safe to say that the retribution went a wee bit overboard. Some even say that officials might have invented the bokkenrijder myth themselves in order to justify their obscenely violent crackdown on thieves.

Between 1730 and 1780, hundreds were killed in a wave witch trials for bokkenrijders. In typical witch trial fashion, most of the victims were innocent and confessed only under pain of torture. They didn’t have a bright future once they did. Bokkenrijder executions were brutal, even for the time: People were strangled at the stake and then burned, had their hands cut off and then burned, or were simply burned alive. It was bad enough that one dude stabbed himself until he died, presumably to avoid the heinous execution in store.

Bokkenrijder statue
One of many bokkenrijder statues.

In spite of this outsized retribution (or maybe because of it), the power of the bokkenrijder myth persisted. Today, it continues to persist, albeit as a historical relic in the form of statues and business names. I think that the takeaways from this story are simple:

1) Trust not your fellow man.

2) Trust goats even less.

Have you ever been trampled by a goat? Share your story in the comments below.

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons for the poster (by Theo Molkenboer) and Satan’s face (artist not machine readable (…!)); Pixabay’s kolyaeg for the burning house; and Flickr’s Crossroads for the statue.

All I want for Christmas is human flesh: Hans Trapp

Happy holidays, everyone! To celebrate the season, let’s talk about a flesh-eating scarecrow that sometimes maybe hangs around with Santa Claus.

christmas scarecrow
Flawless execution.

Hans von Trotha (who now is better known as Hans Trapp) was a real 15th-century figure who lived on the woodland  border between Germany and France. He was six and a half feet tall–which is tall even now, but at the time was near monstrous–and had a reputation for being kind of salty.

A high-ranking official gifted Hans two castles. The first was a piece of uninhabitable junk, but the second was Berwartstein, an impressive fortress on a hill. Berwartstein technically belonged to a nearby monastery, but Hans didn’t care. He loved the castle and hated the monastery’s abbot from a previous dispute over a church fine. So Hans accepted the gift and moved in, essentially giving the abbot a giant middle finger.

So was born a conflict that would end with Hans becoming a boogeyman on par with Krampus.

Hans Trapp: The Monster

I’ll tell you the mythology first. The story goes that Hans became greedy and power-hungry to the point of being insatiable–he even made deals with the devil to consolidate his wealth. When the church found out the extent of his godlessness, they excommunicated and put sanctions on him.

Hans retreated into the woods, where the solitude (and his growing dependence on Satanism) drove him slowly insane. Along with insanity came the desire to feast on human flesh, specifically (because this is a Christmas story!) the flesh of children.

Hans Trapp
Just trying to blend in.

Hans concocted a brilliant plan to trap his first child: He would disguise himself as a scarecrow and lay in wait in a nearby field. Passing children would never realize who he was until it was too late.

Sure enough, before long a 10-year old boy came wandering past, oblivious to the presence of a madman under the stuffed shirt and straw. Hans stabbed him with a stick and then merrily carried him back into the woods, where he salted and roasted him. Hans was just lifting the first bite to his lips when a lightning bolt shot out of the sky and into his skull, killing him on the spot. God had had enough of his crap.  

Coincidentally, Santa Claus happened to spring up in the same area around the same time. Santa took on silly, reanimated Hans Trapp as a helper–one who would not-so-subtly reinforce the dangers of being naughty. Now Hans travels with Santa each year, always reaching for–but never quite getting–that first bite of flesh he so badly desires.

Hans von Trotha: The Legend

Berwartstein Castle
The sexy castle everyone was fighting over.

If you’re like me, you got caught on Hans’s property tiff with the church, and then called B.S. when suddenly there were stories about him being a flesh-hungry Satanist. Of course it would be in the abbot’s interest to spread stories like that–he was pissed off that Hans had taken over his castle. It’s a throwing around of political power so that you hear about so often in history that it borders on becoming stereotypical.

So what actually happened?

It turns out that while (perhaps) not being a flesh-eating monster, Hans was still a dick of legendary status–enough to make everyone even outside of the church hate him. Not only did he refuse to give ground to the monastery that had once owned his castle–he built extra fortifications on it, and then, when the conflict reached its head, dammed the river leading to the town the monastery was in, completely depriving it (and all of the innocent townspeople) of water.

The abbot complained, and complained again, and then finally Hans said “careful what you wish for” and unleashed the water without warning, completely flooding the town and devastating it economically.

So there was no love lost between the townspeople and Hans. It was even said that he was a “robber baron”–a landowner that would tax roads inappropriately and kidnap  people for ransom. By the time the abbot escalated the fight to the pope and Hans was excommunicated and sanctioned, the townspeople might have been a step away from storming the castle themselves with torches and pitchforks.  

Hans Trapp
Hans Trapp coming through the window like a creep.

Hans survived the sanctioning, however, and died of natural causes in the walls of his beloved Berwartstein less than a decade later. The excommunication was posthumously lifted, but the townspeople didn’t fear him any less. In addition to the scarecrow Hans Trapp legend, they cast him as a “Black Knight” (not the Batman kind) whose spirit restlessly wandered the forest hills. They also passed around a story about him trying to rape an innocent virgin.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that even if things get a little tense between you and your neighbors this holiday season, do your best to de-escalate. You don’t want a little argument over who gets the best seat on the sofa to end in an accusation of eating babies.

Who would win in an epic rap battle: Krampus or Hans Trapp? Share your opinions in the comments below.

IMAGE CREDIT GOES TO: AdinaVoicu on Pixabay for the scarecrow sunset; Ji-Elle (of Wikimedia Commons) for Hans  in the corner, and Ulli1105 (also of Wikimedia Commons) for the castle shot. The last fantastic illustration (or print?) is courtesy of the public domain.

Quite the monkey on your back: the Myling

Happy (almost) Halloween! To best illustrate the topic of today’s post (and in the spirit of the season), let’s start off today’s post with. . .

A spooky story

full moon
OooooOOOOOOoooooh!

Late one fall night in Norway, some 300 years ago, a man (let’s call him Daniel) decided to take a shortcut through the woods. He was familiar with the path–the way was not long. He had spent all day in the next town over, and wanted nothing more than to wrap himself in a blanket in front of his own fireplace, and to sleep in his own bed.

The trees stood quietly as Daniel made his way down the path. Finding the soft noises of the night to be peaceful, almost soothing, Daniel paused for a moment to enjoy them.  

A dark shape jumped out at him from the corner of his eye. Daniel looked up.

A child stood in the middle of the path. It was a little girl, no more than two or three years old and badly underdressed for the cold. She sucked on one knuckle morosely.

Daniel started to take a step forward. “Are you alri–” he stopped. Something was wrong. Her skin tone was off–gray, patchy; her hair was limp and matted; her eyes were too large, too flat, as if she were–

Dead. Daniel’s stomach dropped; he tried to scramble away, but the girl moved faster. With fantastic agility, she leapt onto his back. Daniel screamed and struggled to get her off, but she clung on tightly, clammy arms wrapped around his throat so that he could barely breathe.

“Take me to a cemetery,” she whispered into his ear. “Please, a cemetery, please.”

Daniel bellowed, feeling like his eyes were straining out of this head. He stumbled a few steps forward. The girl’s grip tightened.

“Hurry,” she said.

The nearest cemetery was i the next town over–Daniel’s hometown. The trip should take no more than 30 minutes, less if he ran. Daniel saw no other way out. He started to run.

The trouble was that the girl was much heavier than she looked, and with every step, Daniel swore that she was getting heavier. Though he was an agile young man, it wasn’t long before he was sagging under her weight. Daniel panted, and then wheezed. Still, he pressed forward.

Then his left foot sunk deep into the cold, muddy earth, and he nearly toppled over. The girl’s weight was literally driving him into the ground. Heart richoteing off his ribcage, Daniel pulled his foot out and lumbered forward. If he stopped, he was worried that the ground might swallow him entirely.

The trees were getting thinner now–he could see patches of the field by the church in the pre-dawn light. The church and its cemetery were right at the edge of town. He could make it. He had to.

But now every step sunk him deeper into the earth. Daniel cursed as he struggled to pull free his feet, then his ankles, then up to his knees.

They came out of the trees, into the field. A lone bird began to sing as the sky slowly brightened. Headstones loomed up ahead. They were so close. The girl’s arms tightened around his throat. She weighed as much as another man, as a horse, as a–Daniel’s ankle twisted, and the incredible weight on his back made something snap.

Daniel screamed, black dots crowding his view of the headstones and grass.

“Hurry,” the girl whispered.

“Hold on,” Daniel sobbed. “Please, I just need a minute–”

Light shined over the curve of the hill–the first rays of the sun.

“Too late,” the girl said. She gripped the sides of Daniel’s head and twisted. Daniel heard a pop, and the sun went out.

graveyard with sun

What in the Sam Hill?

We have Scandinavian folklore to thank for this one. A Myling is the vengeful spirit of an unbaptized or abandoned child that seeks to be buried on consecrated ground. Many encounters look like the one in our Spooky Story–Mylings latch on to unwary travelers and demand passage to a graveyard before sunrise, or else. Other stories feature them haunting the homes of their mothers, leaving behind bloodied corpses, and otherwise seeking revenge on those fortunate enough to have parents that kept them.

In all cases, the Myling is roughly the same age as it was when it was abandoned, and appears not nearly as decomposed as it should. It is often very large, very heavy, or both, and only gets heavier as you attempt to get it to consecrated land.* If by some miracle you succeed, it will leave you alone.

Otherwise, you can kiss your head (or innards, or whatever) goodbye.

GuiltTM

The Myling are born from a practice that no one wants to talk about. Back in the day (and still in some places today), if a woman had a child out of wedlock, she could be faced with severe punishment, even death. (No word on any punishment for the man who made up the other half of the equation.) As such, incriminating babies were sometimes left out in the cold. Ditto for children born to families who didn’t have the resources to feed them.

In both cases, burials in Christian cemeteries were out of the question–not only could they be expensive, but to have a funeral, you would have to be willing to explain how your child died in the first place. Yet without a proper baptism or burial, the unwanted child’s soul could never be at rest. Hence, Mylings.

Ugly practices beget ugly monsters. A lot of angry spirit myths are born out of shame and tragedy, and this is no exception. Out of all of the Scandinavian ghosts, the Myling is said to be the most malevolent. Only they are willing to finish the business that the living are too cowardly to tie off.

On a less heavy note, you’re welcome for trotting out the creepy child trope.

creepy child
Yippee!

Happy Halloween!

When running to the nearest cemetery with a malevolent child ghost on your back, what is your first choice for footwear? Is arch or ankle support more important? What kind of tread works best for off-roading? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Special Message: Happy 50th, everybody!

In addition to being 2018’s Halloween post, this is our 50th post to this site overall. I think that merits some kind of celebration. Monster Meet is what I like to call a (Very) Slow Blog, but it has been a pleasure to return to these three years. I appreciate those of you who have stuck with it throughout. Here’s to the next 50 posts (which at this rate we’ll celebrate sometime in 2023…HAHAHAHA)!

*And good luck if you don’t know where the nearest cemetery is. Is there an app for that?

PHOTO CREDIT: All thanks to Wikimedia Commons! Moon by Katsiaryna Naliuka; Graveyard by Parrot of Doom; Creepy child by psyberartist. Thanks, all! Long live Creative Commons!

Let’s Go For a Swim: Matthew Hopkins – Witch Pricker

Hey monster lovers! This month features a guest post by the esteemed Paul Karle, who is covering for me while I am away at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. In it, he covers a bit of a different kind of monster–a man who was depressingly real. I hope you enjoy; I’ll see you on the next full moon.

***

The year is 1645.

You’ve been arrested and locked inside a stinking cell. You aren’t allowed to eat or sleep for hours. You are stripped naked and your body is closely examined. All hair is violently shaved from your body and your head so that nothing can be hidden. There seems to be no concern for your privacy–in fact half the town is watching.

The man leading the investigation isn’t a member of local law enforcement. He’s an out-of-towner. Mild-mannered, perhaps a bit bookish, but obviously smart and perceptive. He points out a blemish on your arm. It’s the devil’s mark, he says. A clear sign you’ve made an unholy covenant with Satan.

You try to argue that it’s just a mole, a mark you’ve had all your life. There’s nothing sinister about it, but you’ve been kept awake for hours, your mind is muddled and your words incoherent.

scottish_witchpricker_needle
Witch pricking needles. Necessary tools of any Jacobian charlatan. Perfect for kids 10 and up.

The investigator orders you restrained. You feel the prick of a needle being stuck in your arm. There is a gasp from the crowd. He finds another mark, this one on your thigh. He jams the needle in. You gasp in pain.

Finally, he examines the bottom of your foot and finds another mark on your heel. He slips the needle into your callused flesh. To your relief you feel almost nothing.

The investigator seems pleased. He explains that a ‘devil’s mark’ doesn’t feel pain like the rest of your body. This is all the evidence he needs to prove that the mark truly is supernatural.

This is a very common sign of witches, you know. It’s how they feed their familiar. Their magical animal companion. The creature sucks blood from the mark as a child would feed from its mother.

A signed confession would seal your fate but you still refuse to provide one. You’re returned to your cell and kept awake for days. You can feel your mind breaking as you sink deeper into exhaustion.

Eventually you will do anything just for a little sleep. Sign anything. Confess to anything. Even if it means your death.

Your shaking hand scrawls out your barely legible confession. The witchfinder watches you with a satisfied expression. He’s the cat who caught the canary. He’ll be collecting his pay shortly; twenty shillings plus expenses. Not a bad price to rid your town of evil.

Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder.
Hopkins trying his best to look pull off the Quaker Oats look.

This man was the star of the English witch hunts of the 16th century. Matthew Hopkins: self-proclaimed Witchfinder General. A total, murderous fraud.

You’d spit in his face and curse him if you could, but that’s hard to do from the end of a rope.

The spark that launched Matthew Hopkin’s career was struck by King James VI of Scotland–a monarch uniquely obsessed with the study of witchcraft. This guy was seriously into witches. When he became king Shakespeare wrote MacBeth in his honor. He was sure to include three nasty witches right in the first act. That’s some next level fanservice right there.

James even wrote a book on the topic: Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince. Despite it’s long-winded title, it managed to create a public fascination with the topic, inadvertently creating the perfect market for Hopkins.

He seized the limelight when he published his unofficial sequel, The Discovery of Witches. He one-upped James’s text by filling it with his ‘personal’ experiences in the finding of witches. It was filled with tall tales that would make a modern day reader roll their eyes.

In one anecdote Hopkins told how he’d spied on some witches in a wood near his house and heard them mention the name of one of his neighbors. He’d tattled to the local authorities and had her arrested. After four days of interrogation she not only admitted to being a witch, but also provided the names of her familiars.

matthew_hopkins with witch familiars
Matthew feeling awkward around some witches and their adorable familiars.

These familiars, it turned out, had some pretty silly names and descriptions. One was Vinegar Tom, a greyhound with the head of an ox. Another was a chubby, legless, spaniel-like creature named Jarmara. After four days without sleep, she was probably just thinking of the family cat.

Hopkins took his show on the road. He journeyed from town to town, investigating any suspected witchcraft through highly questionable methods.

He was at first very fond of the swimming test in which the suspected party was tied to a chair before being thrown into water to see if they would float. Anyone who failed to sink like a stone was clearly guilty. Hopkins explained that witches rejected their Baptism, which meant that all bodies of water would reject them.

Fortunately, even the impressionable public of this time had problems with the swimming of witches. There were obvious risks in being tied to a chair and thrown in the water. It was something that anyone, witch or not, might be concerned about. The practice was eventually abandoned.

Sleep deprivation and ‘witch-pricking’ became the Witchfinder General’s bread and butter instead. He would often stab a needle into a suspect’s ‘devil’s mark’ to see if it bled or caused pain. These days, experts speculate that Hopkins and his ilk may have even used retractable trick needles to sell the illusion. What fun!

Usually the needle was simply inserted into any blemish that looked suspicious in search of one that showed no sensitivity. That’s right–they’d go around sticking needles all over your body to see what kind of reaction they could get. It’s also worth noting that torture had supposedly been outlawed in England at this point. Ahem.

witches_familiars_1579
“Here you go, have some freshly squeezed human-juice. I drained it out of the weeping sore on my arm just for you. Drink it while it’s hot!”

These supposed devil’s marks were a particularly damning piece of evidence. According to Hopkins ‘research’ these marks weren’t just to show your Satanic allegiance. They were also a kind of infernal nipple from which your familiar could suck blood for nourishment. Apparently a legless spaniel can’t survive on Purina alone.

Hopkins blazed a bloody trail across England, his investigations leading to the deaths of an estimated 300 women in just two years. He became a minor celebrity from his witch hunts, but he also amassed a huge amount of criticism. Even Parliament was reticent to give him full recognition, refusing to bestow his self-chosen title of Witchfinder General officially upon him.

As the public fervor surrounding witchcraft faded, Hopkins faded into history. His reputation diminished, and in the eyes of many he became known a ‘fingerman’, an old-timey word for someone who lies and slanders on behalf of the authorities.

Legend says that Hopkins was eventually accused of witchcraft himself and drowned after being subjected to the ingenious ‘swimming’ test. Sadly, this story is nothing more than a hopeful bit of legend. Hopkins succumbed to tuberculosis in his own home, which probably sucked almost as much as drowning.

His legacy lived on across the pond where his book helped inspire the abortion of justice that was the Salem witch trials. Fans of pulp fiction will no doubt recognize him as the inspiration for Robert E. Howard’s puritan witch finder Solomon Kane, though he was truly closer to a Jacobian Joseph McCarthy.

It’s no coincidence that the modern term of witch hunt describes a trumped-up, unjust investigation against an innocent party.

If this sparked your interest in Matthew Hopkins, I recommend you check out the 1968 Vincent Price film: Witchfinder General. This sensationalized account of Hopkins career is cult movie gold. You really can’t go wrong if you’re looking for something morbid to watch.

ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. Photo of Witch-Pricker by By Heinrichkramer.

Thrill of the chase: The Wild Hunt

Ah, winter. Darkness. Wind that cuts through to your bones. Creaking houses and falling shards of ice. There’s no better time of the year. My boyfriend has been attempting to get me into The Witcher franchise recently, and his demonstrations of their latest PC game reminded me that I’ve wanted to talk about the Wild Hunt. This month seemed as good of a time as any.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for awhile might remember the Sluagh, a host of flying fairies who like to steal children and drop their lifeless bodies off a few miles from home. The Wild Hunt is related to these, but with a different flavor and broader reach. Known variously as the Wild Hunt, Raging Host, Furious Army, Gabriel’s Hounds and more, it is a phenomenon that started in Northern Europe, then spread to infect the entire continent.

It’s an old story, beginning in early, pre-Christian times. A winter storm would blast through the forested countryside, bringing howling winds and blotting out the sun. In Scandinavia, the fun began with nothing more than a few, faint sounds: two dogs baying after the rest of the world had gone silent, one dog always louder than the other. In other places–Germany and Britain, for example–lone travellers would look up into the trees, or into the thunderclouds overhead, and feel their stomachs plummet.

An eight-legged horse emerged from the cold, driven forward by a shadowy, furious rider. These were shortly followed by a hungry cavalcade of around thirty others, hounds streaking between their horse’s legs. The sound must have been incredible: hooves pounding, dogs barking, riders jeering, the blaring of horns. Sometimes the Hunt would be chasing a boar, wild horse, or some poor woman. Other stories have it searching for the souls of the dead, and later–post Christianity–for sinners and the unbaptized.

oskorei-bild
Turns out there a buttload of classical paintings for the Wild Hunt. This one is by Franz von Stuck, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the Hunt rode through a town, it would take food and drink with it. If a house (or any other kind of human structure) was built in its path, it would burn it down. As awe-inspiring as the sight of the riders might be, few actually went out in search of it, for fear of being kidnapped, killed, or accepting the omen of plague or war. If caught outside, people could throw themselves onto the ground with the hope that the Hunt would pass without harming them. Those foolish enough to interact with the riders often got more than they bargained for: death if they attempted to mock them, and if they helped them, an enchanted leg of meat (animal, or, occasionally, human) that they could not be rid of without the help of a seriously skilled priest.

The leader of the Hunt varied with time and culture. Originally it was Odin (or Woden), the ancient one-eyed god associated with creativity, knowledge, and death (among other things). The eight legged steed–Sleipnir–was his, as were the storms brought with the Hunt ( it was said the storm winds wafted away the souls of the dead, so that Odin might collect them). Sometimes Odin’s wife led the hunt, or other gods, goddesses, or great warriors. Other times the Hunt was comprised of fairies (as we saw with the Sluagh): enchanting and magical, but also kidnap- and murder-y. Later, when Christianity came in to condemn the old, “heathen” ways, the hunt became not a party of gods and souls but a procession of the damned and demons, led by Cain or even Lucifer himself.

cordeswildejagd
All images in this post are going to be large and in charge, because the details are awesome (looking at you, lower right corner). Johann Wilhelm Cordes, Wikimedia Commons

The legend spread, and things got crazier. King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and even Sir Francis Drake started to lead the Hunt.  One tale tells of King Herla, who paid a visit to his neighbor Fairy King. The fairy warned Herla as he was leaving not to step down from his horse until his dog did; centuries later, Herla and his men are still riding, waiting for the dog to step down. Another tells of Hans von Hackelnburg, a semi-historical figure who loved the chase, on his deathbed due to a boar tusk injury somewhere between 1521 and 1581. “God,” he said, “Instead of going to heaven, just let me hunt.” Cursed or blessed, his wish was granted, and another Wild Hunt leader was born.

Versions of the Wild Hunt have appeared in Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Wales, Canada, and across Scandinavia and the Netherlands. That’s a conservative list, but a long one. Non-supernaturally-inclined people might ask: why is this so prevalent? Is it a human tendency to see things in the clouds? A leftover memory from when bands of (human) troublemakers really did ride barrel out of the woods and wreak havoc?

Hard to say. But when a legend becomes as popular as this one, you have to wonder if there might be something to it.

Who is your favorite Wild Hunt leader? Who might make a good one next? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Houseguests from hell: the Kallikantzaroi

Happy holidays, everyone! December’s darkness is upon us: the nights lengthen while the days grow stunted and gray, the air is so cold that it hurts, and the lines at every store are long enough to make you ready to sell your soul just to reach the cashier. Regardless of what traditions you do (or do not) practice, you’ve got to admit that there is something both magical and frightening about this time of year.

As the northern hemisphere prepares to enter into the long winter, all the old traditions of families banding together for survival come blazing back to life. But, as we all know, even the most dire circumstances cannot entire drive away intra-family squabbles. This year, in the spirit of the season, I’d like to put all those annoyances in perspective.

fire-917411_1280
Gather around, everyone.

Let’s talk about the Kallikantzaroi, Greek goblins who will make you yearn for Aunt Purse-Gin and Uncle B.O.. Unlucky witnesses often describe them as short creatures: half-man, half-devil, and mean-looking, with long tails and an abundance of black body hair. They are mostly blind, speak with a lisp, and (outside of what they steal) eat only worms, snails, and frogs. 353 days of the year, the Kallikantzaroi lurk deep underground, sawing away at the World Tree (that plant that holds the whole earth together) with the intent of bringing it down. But when Christmas comes around, they forget their task and scramble into the world of mortals.

kallikatzaroi
Kallikantzaroi going to town on the World Tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Slipping between carolers and strings of colorful lights, the Kallikantzaroi dart through the night and try to ferret into your home through whatever opening they can–doors, windows, chimneys, cracks in the walls and floors. Once inside, they drink all your liquor, eat all your food, break everything breakable, piss in your flowerbeds, and generally make your life miserable. Think of your worst possible houseguest, and then times that by a magnitude of 12: the Kallikantzaroi go all in on their destruction, and will keep at it night after night until the 12 days of Christmas (December 25th through the Epiphany on January 6th) are over.

Then, at last, after the the sun starts to shift and the days grow longer and the priest comes by to bless your home, the Kallikantzaroi scurry back under the earth. There, grumbling and bickering, they’ll resume their quest to cut down the World Tree, only to find that in their absence, the trunk has healed. They’ll have to start all over, only to be thwarted again at the last moment next year, when the call of the winter-wrapped mortal world comes anew.

kallikatzaros
Charming portrait of this month’s subject courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While not actively evil (at least, according to some), the Kallikantzaroi are frightening and irritating enough that it’s worth a little effort to avoid them. The simplest method is to burn a Yule log–traditionally one of prickly pear or wild cherry–heartily in the fireplace for the entire holiday, so that nothing can come down the chimney. You can even throw a little salt on the fire so that the crackling and popping will scare them away. You can also hang up a pig jaw, paint a black cross on your door, or set a colander on your doorstep (this latter item will trip the Kallikantzaroi up, as they cannot count past 2 [since 3 is a holy number] and will stay up until dawn trying and failing to count the holes in the bowl).  None of these are as fun as my favorite method, though, which is to take the oldest, foulest shoe you can find, and burn it in the fireplace. The smell will drive any Kallikantzaroi far away, with the added benefit of driving everyone else–landlords, bill collectors, loud neighbors, irritating family members–far away, as well.

Where did the Kallikantzaroi come from? Greece is not the only place with a legend like this one, and there are a number of tales about how the creatures came to be. One interesting origin story is that children born during the holidays have morphed into the monsters because their birthdays threatened to upstage Christ. (Pro tip: to avoid your December child becoming a Kallikantzaros, bind them in garlic cloves.) More prosaically, the masked revelers in the ancient Roman Bacchanalia festival might have had drunken shenanigans so legendary that they scarred generations. Your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother might have told stories of the Kallikantzaroi simply as a way to illustrate how annoying drunkards can be and advise on ways to keep them at bay (are you picturing a drunk person trying to count the holes in a colander yet? Now you are.).

Any way you cut it, the prospect of a goblin visitor makes the holiday season a little more colorful. Though the Kallikantzaroi were more of a real concern before the dawn of electric lights, some people in Greece (at least according to the Internet) still carry out the traditions of protecting against them. I might too, this year, just to be safe. I’ve got a few old shoes I need to get rid of, anyway.

What is your worst holiday guest experience? How do you think “Kallikantzaroi” is pronounced? Share your story in the comments below.

It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Fishmen: The Finfolk

Growing up, my bedtime stories were the works of H.P. Lovecraft (as well as Edgar Allen Poe, and Doctor Seuss. This may explain a bit about me). The Shadow Over Innsmouth particularly came to life for me; it left such an impression that I enjoy ocean-centered nightmares to this day. Imagine my delight, then, on discovering a blog post about the Orkney Finfolk, a group of gloomy fish-people who like to steal humans and live in an ancient city at the bottom of the sea (*ahem* Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. I should mention that I’m not the first one to make a connection to the Cthulhu mythos, either). These Finfolk have a lot in common with the fishy villagers of Innsmouth, but are–perhaps literally–several centuries older.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; A Mermaid
Something like a Finwife, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Superficially, the Finfolk seem kin to mermaids or selkies, but you’d be a fool to mistake them as such. They come in two genders. Finmen at first appear like any other man, but a closer look reveals that their “clothes” are actually artfully folded fins arranged specifically to fool humans. Their faces are dark and gloomy, their eyes black. Finwives, on the other hand, look more or less like mermaids (unless they look like old hags, but we’ll get to that in the moment). Topless in the freezing North Sea waves, they dust themselves with crushed pearls and cry out at fisherman. These are the Finfolks’ natural forms, but really they might appear in any form, as they are accomplished sorcerers and shapeshifters. They might show up as driftwood, as a tree, as someone close to you…

Nothing stops the Finfolk from crossing from sea to land: unlike selkies, they come and go as they please (several sites describe them as “amphibious”). Their motivations for venturing into human territory are two-fold: 1) to cheat or otherwise obtain silver, which they are obsessed with, and 2) to steal humans, whom they will drag away screaming and then force into permanent matrimonial servitude.

Obviously, this latter threat is what the people of the Orkney islands were most concerned with. They told stories all the way up through the 19th century of women disappearing off beaches and men out of boats; spouses abducted onto crafts that flew across the waves with unnatural speed; floating plants bursting to life to snatch a passerby into the cold, grey water. Depending on the season, the kidnapped’s destination was either the magical, vanishing island of Hildaland or the fearful Finfolkaheem, an opulent kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Both are described as Finfolk utopias, though for the human captives, they would be more like hell.

ilya_repin_-_sadko_-_google_art_project_levels_adjustment_2
Underwater Kingdom painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First there is the particular torture of the places themselves. Hildaland is guarded by monstrous whales and hideous tusked Finmen, so good luck getting rescued out of there, never mind escaping it. It’s surrounded by mist; mortal boats might pass straight through it without realizing that it’s there (if they’re lucky). Finfolkaheem is even worse, though it would certainly be interesting to see. Full of massive crystal halls, multicolored seaweed, tiny phosphorescent creatures, and curtains fashioned after the aurora borealis, the Finfolk raise sea-cattle, ride sea-horses, herd whales, and train sea lions within the city’s borders. For humans, it’s a prison of the worst sort: there’s no escaping from the bottom of the ocean alive (no word on how the Finfolk keep them there to begin with. Sorcery?). That deep, the pressure and darkness alone would be enough to drive you insane.

Worse than the supernatural prisons are the Finfolk spouses themselves. Finmen are notoriously cruel and territorial, even to people they’re not married to (for example, they’ll stab secret holes in the fishing boats that cross them, enjoying the panic of fishermen that realize, too late, that the ocean is swallowing them alive). One of the reasons Finfolk prefer to marry humans (as opposed to each other) is because Finwives age much faster when coupled with their own species; I can only guess that this is because Finmen are moody pains in the a** and beat them mercilessly if they don’t bring home enough silver. The ladies aren’t blameless, though…Finwives pummel their human spouses just as cruelly, and for the same reason. Human spouses of either gender are worked to death, helpless in the face of monsters as old as the ocean itself.

eynhallow_in_1980
Eynhallow in 1980, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It does look kind of decimated, doesn’t it?

But some people fought back, and that’s why we don’t see much of the Finfolk today. You see, the Finfolk greed for silver can be turned against them: throw a handful of coins away from yourself, and you might outrun your fishy pursuer. The Finfolk also hate pure salt, which one man in particular took advantage of. After a Finman stole his wife, the Goodman of Thorodale  laboriously figured out where Hildaland was, boated out there, out-bluffed the terrifying creatures in the water, landed on the island, took out a bag, and rained salt everywhere. The Finfolk fled screaming into the sea, taking their livestock and prisoners with them. Their fields dried up, and Hildaland ceased to be a magical place. Now it is called Eynhallow; you can visit it today.

The final nail in the coffin for the Finfolk seems to have been the arrival of Christianity. Accounts claim that the Finfolk abhor crosses, and the more that appeared on the islands, the deeper they dove. After the 19th century, there ceased to be much mention of them at all.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still be out there, though. Deep beneath the North Sea waves. Dreaming.

How long can you hold your breath underwater? How about in the face of nameless horror? Share your story in the comments below.

Better hope for a bird, or a plane: The Sluagh

sort_sol_pdfnet
Thanks to Tommy Hansen (at Wikimedia Commons), for this lovely mood-setting image.

Happy 2016, everyone! Welcome to a new year, one full of possibility both bright and dark. I’m currently reading John Crowley’s famous Little, Big, and enjoying it so much that I decided to theme this month’s post similarly (though, as always, with a bit more horror). So, here we are. Let’s talk about fairies.

Even if they aren’t versed in old Fae mythology,  most people know that not all pixies acted like Tinkerbell. Characters like Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream remind us that there were more frightening imps than she; yet most depictions barely scratch the surface of just how bad those counterparts could be. Our monster this month will help us dig deeper.

As early as three thousand years ago, Irish and Scottish peasants looked up with fright as the sun went down. Retreating from the open sky, they hid in their houses–barred them shut–, and if they heard a gentle knocking at their door or scratching at their window, closed their eyes and prayed they would survive the night. The feared creatures flew in from the west on leathery wings, huge flocks (or murders) on the Great Hunt. They were the darkest and most terrible of the fairies, and then, after the advent of Christianity, sinners too vile even for hell. They were the Sluagh, (pronounced SLOO-AH), and if you just experimented with that word aloud, congratulations! You’ve called them to you.

Cursed never to walk the earth, they’ll swarm, screaming,  through the sky. Once they were human. Now they are little more than winged skeletons, with loose, flapping skin; a few wisps of hair; long, claw-like hands; and a mouth described variously as beak-like, with gnarled protruding teeth or a gasping, toothless, sucking pit.  If you never go outside after dark for the rest of your life, maybe you’ll make it. But if they find you, the only way to save yourself is to put someone else in their path. Who would take your place? They Sluagh will loom over you, shadow stretching over your heart, obscuring your eyes. You’ll hear a soft whispering, and then feel a terrible pull as your immortal soul is torn from your body. Once they have you, you are doomed to fly with them for the rest of eternity, just as anguished, and just as feared.

Does that thought depress you? Be careful not to give yourself too much to despair, because that will call them, too.

Even on nights when they weren’t hunting some idiot, the Sluagh would fly out in search of souls, blotting out the stars and appearing, from afar, like an enormous, pulsing flock of birds. They targeted people on the brink of death, victims who had yet to be given their last rites who would find their soul stolen before the priest could deliver the words. The dying were far easier targets than those still healthy, but if some errant soul were out for a night walk, he would do as well. Dark copper birds followed the flock, ruining crops and killing animals with their poisonous breath. Hell hounds, too, stayed at their heels, replacing sleeping babies with monsters and wreaking havoc.

If you listened closely, you might sometimes hear the Sluagh advancing and retreating as they fought their battles in the sky. Afterwards, in the cold light of morning, you might find their dark bloodstains on rocky meadow floors. If you saw the flock itself, some said, death would visit within a year. Others warned that the Sluagh could control men’s minds, using them as puppets and making them fight like dogs.

It was best, people decided, to just stay inside after dark. To bar the windows, especially on the west side of the house.

Still, some casualties could not be avoided. Sometimes the Sluagh would victimize people dear to their communities, such as the case where a child was taken, soul extracted, and body dropped to slam into his parent’s back yard. More often, however, the Sluagh were blamed for the disappearances of just the sort of people you might expect to be out at night: petty criminals, drunkards, outcasts. People of the sort that even if their neighbors noticed their absence, they would simply shrug, careful not to look at the sky. Some historians point to this selective disappearance as oddly convenient for those who wanted to clean up the town. Equally convenient was the fact that the most ostensibly malicious nights of the Sluagh hunt coincided perfectly with the nights Christian leaders wanted to discourage people from participating in pagan rituals. Were the Sluagh a mindless menace, or a political tool? If they originated before Christianity (and by all accounts, they did), what experience birthed that first, terrible story?

Regardless of whether the Sluagh existed or who they worked for, the fear they generated has spanned generations. Some view murders of crows with suspicion even today, and that small, quiet fear of the dark that we all enjoy remains etched in our DNA. It wouldn’t hurt, probably, to shut your window tight tonight.

Especially if reading their name has the same effect as speaking it.

auklet_flock_shumagins_1986
Most definitely hopefully not the Sluagh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Do you have an unreasonable distrust of birds? How many saggy-skinned monsters have you found hanging around outside your window? Dementors? Nazgul? Share your story in the comments below.