This Week’s Prompt: 101. Hideous secret society—widespread—horrible rites in caverns under familiar scenes—one’s own neighbour may belong.
The Resulting Story:My Father’s House
Here we entertain another one of Mr. Lovecraft’s fears or tropes of paranoia—the widespread secret society that spans the globe and conspires against the existing world order. This topic, include it’s particular note that the rites are done underground, comes up in the story of Red Hook among others. We addressed some of Red Hook’s more egregious problems here with our writings on the Yazidi. Beyond that, the nature of secret societies is a difficult one to navigate.
I happen to have purchased a book entirely on secret societies, cults, and conspiracies last year, almost precisely for these sorts of prompts. And in reading a rather extensive catalog of them, the results are often far less fascinating and arguably more horrific than one might expect. Broadly speaking, a secret society tends to only form for a few reasons: it is an extension of a criminal operation, it is a resistant movement among a minority group, it is an exclusive club of wealthy men and women looking to secure their fortunes, or it is an outgrowth of a mystery cult of some sort. These are not exclusive operations, of course, and frequently intermingle. The 1356 reports of what the British would later term the Thugee cult, for instance, are both criminal operation and mystery cult.
Instead of replicating all the secret societies and criminal organizations and cults that dot the world, I’ll focus on a select number of these groups that struck me as interesting. The first of these secret societies is the Knights of the Golden Circle—an organization founded to promote a slave holding empire over Texas, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. This would make a 2400 mile circle with Havana at the center. This society made news all over the North: warning of incoming terrorist attacks on New York, efforts to fund sabotage with Copperheads—Democrats who wanted peace with the Confederacy, and folklore and rumor claimed both John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James. Of course, this society failed at every turn. No terrorist attacks emerged. The two invasions of Mexico the group funded in 1860 failed. The Copperheads did little to dissuade the North. Jesse James and John Wilkes booth did in fact perish, and there is no mysterious golden reserve hidden away for the Southern states. The organization first came to my attention in a comic series, Atomic Robo. As villains, they almost seem like stories of Operation Werewolf, or the Garduna.
The Garduna were a group of bandits in Andalusia who targeted Muslims until the Reconquista was finished and had its origins in the remains of an army that resisted the invading Moors. After completion of the Reconquista, the Garduna took on the role of the Inquisitions hit men, targeting suspected Jews and appropriating their property for the Inquisitors. The Garduna met their end in 1822, with a mass execution in Seville. In addition to the arrests, the police seized records dating back 147 years, that accounted for over two thousand assignments from the Inquisition. These included not only murders, but thefts, abductions, and robberies.
Another group of robbers in Europe were the Chauffeurs. The Chauffeurs lurked in France, and were famed for putting their victim’s feet to the flame in order to locate their valuables. In some stories, they held their own religion and had a unique language for their communications. The reality of the group was that, while France saw an uptick in banditry during the Revolution and while there were mores and language commonalities in the underground, there was no unifying conspiracy spanning the whole of the underground. Their story was told by Francois-Eugene Vidocq, who inspired Edgar Allen Poe and Victor Hugo’s works.
Having covered some criminal groups, I’d like to examine or at least honorably mention one rich men’s club that might work here. Hellfire Clubs were gentlemen’s clubs through out England in the 18th century—young men with money gathered there for all variety of pleasures and discussions. Of these, the one most relevant here is the Order of the Knights of Saint France of Wycombe or the Monks of Medmenham (when they moved to a leased a 12th century abbey). The group had the motto “Do what thou wilt” engraved over the door. Further, they repurposed a nearby chalk mine with Gothic carvings and furniture. Down here, the club held masked revelries and supposedly conducted Black Masses. Some authors asserted pagan revivals, which seems unlikely given the founder’s work on The Common Book of Prayer.
Setting aside these grounded beliefs, lets examine some more fantastic ones. One of my favorites is Synarchy, an alternative to democracy conceived of by one Joseph Alexander Saint-Yves d’Alveydre. This system would be a pan-European government, ruled by three councils (an economic, a judicial, and a spiritual one). After an encounter with a man claiming to be a “the Guru Pandit of the Great Agarthian School”, d’Alveydre became convinced that the real rulers would be a race of supernatural subterranean beings, the Argathians. These beings were refugees of Atlantis and Lemuria, and were ruled by a council of symbolically important individuals. These may be related to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s race of vril users, who used manipulation of atmospheric magnetism to control the weather, to control minds of men and animals with animal magnetism, and to control odic forces. These masters of electricity were compared to the romances of the great mystics.
A more entertaining story comes from the Cult section of the book—specifically, one Koreshanism. This religion was founded by David Cyrus Teed. A former Union Solider, from a “burned over” region of New York, David suffered a severe sunstroke and had to be hospitalized do to nerve damage. Later, when working with his uncle’s practice in Utica, David electrocuted himself during an alchemical experiment. Then he beheld a woman, who revealed a cosmic truth—that we are already inside of an earth! Teed took this notion into a new religion, crafting an internal cosmology and a belief that this knowledge was direct transmission by an intersex God. He even constructed large measuring instruments to determine whether the earth was curving concave or converse. After confirming to himself the truth of his belief, he moved from community to communities. He opened a number of medical practices, he lived with the Shakers. He was accused in a few places of impersonating Jesus Christ and having affairs with women. At last, in 1894, with some four thousand followers he had gathered, he founded New Jerusalem.
This community was a socialist utopia, clean and ecological. They manufactured mattresses, hats, baskets, and bread and put on plays to raise money for the community. There was absolute gender equality, and most of the community were educated women. Sadly, conflict arose when they attempted to incorporate themselves to receive road taxes. In the end, David was injured in a street brawl and died two years later—despite his promises of a return, he was buried after nothing happened. A small core faithful remained there for fifty or so years.
These cults and secret societies I mostly selected because they seem fanciful—I have left off ones responsible for Sarine gas attacks in living memory, mass suicides, and other monstrous activities because during this winter season I am not in the mood for them. That said, this is a horror story of paranoia. The fear mentioned, that even one’s own neighbors could be a part of the secret society, is clear on that. It’s a paranoia that has often gripped the country—that anyone could be a foreign infiltrator or, in the McCarthy era, a communist. They Live plays on the same sort of fear, replacing the fear of secret communist infiltrators with the secret and monstrous forces of greed and consumerism. The book series Animorphs from Australia features terrifying slug creatures that live in underground pools. These creatures, Yeerks, control the bodies of others by worming their way into their brains and mastermind a campaign of infiltration and control over the entire world. The fear that everyone around us is planning against us in someway—that there is a secret club ordering the world, for whatever purpose, is common. And perhaps comforting.
So, what to do with this notion in our story? The answer I think depends on how we approach the society. Is our character someone in a community, who is now learning the terrible secrets the community has and the things it does in the dark? Or are they new arrivals, and thus targets for induction into the cult? Or potential victims of it? We have to tread carefully here. Stories about secrets sometimes get lost in translation.
Goldwag, Arthur. Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illumanati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order, and Many Many More. Penguin Publishing, August 9th 2009.
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