Witches’ Hollow and Devils Den

This Week’s Prompt: 130. N.E. region call’d “Witches’ Hollow”—along course of a river. Rumours of witches’ sabbaths and Indian powwows on a broad mound rising out of the level where some old hemlocks and beeches formed a dark grove or daemon-temple. Legends hard to account for. Holmes—Guardian Angel.

The Resulting Research:

Witchcraft in New England of course has a proud tradition in folklore—particularly after the Salem witch trials. There is a genre of tales about such witch trials, both as very late in the history of witch hunts and the guilt of the times over such an unenlightened beginning. When the cultural push came for American literature separate from the European kind, witch trials became a common subject of discussion. And the colonial connection between the witches sabbath (which we discussed here) and the Indian “powwow” is not surprising—we can find other notions of secret magic possessed by native peoples elsewhere, even if they are not as nefarious.  For instance, the book Pow Wows or the Long Lost Friend by John George Hoffman uses the term ‘pow wow’ for its magical rights, claims secret Roma knowledge in the testimonials, while remaining a definitively Christian work in world view.

Tracking witch craft beliefs in New England itself isn’t hard. There are stories in Rhode Island of witchcraft detecting cakes and charms. There are stories in Marblehead of necromantic merchants who live on old hills. But harder to find are stories of witches sabbaths and gatherings.

We are told that witches in New England attended such gatherings with a special ointment provided by the devil, and they flew there instead of walked. The Devil himself is involved in every aspect of witchcraft—some attributes here, however, are more unique then elsewhere. A witch cannot say the Lord’s prayer (a theme we see in Britain, where acknowledging the power of the Lord undoes witchcraft).

In Salem, the center of the witch craze, we find references to certain neighborhoods as infected with witch craft—a telling line refers to 40 men in Andover who could conjure the devil. The actual location of the Salem witch’s sabbath was supposedly an orchard, where a perverse Eucharist took place. We’ve discussed Salem at length here, and expansion on them isn’t really needed.

One story of interest that is connected is the arrest of Reverend George Bourghs. The officers of the law, when pursuing him, decided to take an unfamiliar route so that they might take him off guard. However, when they settled into the forest to ambush him, a great and terrible storm came in. Convinced now that he was sending forth the powers of hell to overcome them, the officers panicked. After a particularly bad thunder bolt, all fell silent and terror seized the animals. Then the animals turned and fled, as if compelled and lashed by unseen hands. This was taken in as evidence that the Reverend was in fact guilty.

Moving away from Salem, a place of prominence is the Devil’s Den in Pennsylvania. This cavern has two entrances, kept open through winter and summer by the constant passage of wicked spirits. The interior is apparently opalescent above by torch light. Located near Gettysburg, the stones are believed to be haunted by the spirits of traitor and Union dead—sounds of the battle are still reported. Other folklore accounts claim that the sounds of skirmishes with Native Americans can be heard—although the proof of such a battle remains ambiguous. Still, the Devils Den in New Hampshire provide plenty of underworld guests.

There is also Devil’s Den in Massachusetts. This cavern was once a quarry, and has a strange collection of folklore around it. It was, like the above, believed to belong to the devil. It was a common hide out for adventurous and trickster boys, who hid from farmers here. In order to enter safely, however, one had to go to a nearby stone—the Devil’s pulpit—and say some very irreligious things. This stone was the devils own preaching spot for his infernal band (a continuation of the devil conducting inversions of proper Christian practices). The imitation of the blasphemy might spare the boy some of the effects o the cave…but even then it was unwise to travel into the den alone. Written upon the entrance of the den was supposedly a name that killed anyone who dared enter the caverns alone. The den’s rocks sometimes bore the footprints of the devil and his parties might be heard from the cavern.

Now, like a few prior prompts, this one references a specific book—one I admit I did not have the time or patience to read in full. Still, I found an adequate summary and found the scene of most relevance in question—the scene where the Witches Hollow is observed in a feverish state, and the ghosts of the dead and the strange. There is a cross that burns with green fire but is never consumed, a parade of the character’s ancestors—from a number of lines and locations, from India to New England Puritans. The story itself is of little import—it touches on the notion of conflicting ‘natures’ in blood, and resolving this dual-feeling that…well, I think someone could write a good story on the feeling of conflicting identity, I am not going to read an entire 18th century novel on the matter.

The visual, however, touches on another angle I haven’t discussed. The lonely hill that serves as a center of strance activities, with a sort of natural temple emerging from the plant life, reminds me strongly of the Green Chapel where the Green Knight meets Gawain. It is describe such:

And now, from just beyond a jutting hill,

Came hideous sounds, as of a giant mill

That hisses, roars, and sputters, clicks and clacks;–

It was the Green Knight sharpening his axe!

And Gawayne, coming past the corner, found him,

With ghastly mouldering skulls and bones strewn round him,

In joyous fury urging the keen steel

Against the surface of his grinding wheel.

The place was a wild hollow, circled round

With barren hills, and on the bottom ground

Stood the Green Chapel, moss-grown, solitary;–

In sooth, it seemed the devil’s mortuary!

The overgrow of vegetation in place of stone strikes me as one of the recurring tropes of these places. They are covered in sounds and strange fogs, to hide their presence. The Green Chapel is of course far more gruesome—the bones and hisses and skulls paint a grimmer image than the description from Guardian Angel.

For a story, this gives us a scene more than a place. It gives some themes as well—a place with a mystic history, regardless of culture. It is a place where magic can be worked—and in a horror story, such a place is unlikely to be friendly. It is at best a sublime place—a place both wonderful and terrible, where horror and beauty intermingle.  It is at worst a small opening into hell itself, where the world distorts into something darker and more wild, where rot and decay and the smell of ruined stone are rampant.

Either way, it is by many accounts, a place that attracts travelers. Whether they be miscreant boys, or travelers lured close by lights and sound, or a place where an eavesdropper hides from pursuit, and learns the secret schemes of devils. Many of them are located near hills or in the depths of the earth—places far from ‘civilized’ society, in places that would be haunted by fairies in earlier times.  Our story must involve this place, and no doubt a trip there—but what beyond that? Do we follow it like the character in a Hawthorne story, lured here by promises or by some internal need to escape the bounds of society? Does Dionysus call us to revelry, or to the ruins of a haunted hill?

Francisco Goya – Aquelarre (Basque/Spanish Witches’ Sabbath) a.k.a. The Great He-Goat

A monster could be added of course, or a witch. If we are dealing with a witch gathering however, I think…hm. I think the notion of just eavesdropping has been done too often. I think instead seeking out such a place intentionally is more interesting. Making deals with outside forces for one’s own benefit—and in bad faith, as is common the case—can make for a more poignant story.

I don’t think there is much to gain by connecting the location to Native American shamanistic traditions, but the meaning of that connection to Lovecraft is at least worth touching on. Native Americans occupy not only the role of perceived devil worshippers—taking the place in colonial imagination of pagans from times before Christianity—but also share the role of communal guilt.

I consider the ghost stories of Rhode Island an example of this feeling of guilt in the folklore—the number of places haunted by Native Americans, the pines that are living reminders of innocent souls killed. There is this lingering…feeling in the folklore that I would compare to the Salem Witch Trials literary roll—a guilt, to a degree, without action. A recognition of wrongness, although not always a redress of the source of the wrongness.

While this hill then is on the one hand a place of demonic and anti-social activity, it is also a place of guilt. It is a place defined as the temple of those who once lived on the land, and rightfully should, and was then taken up by those in society who dared reach beyond it. It is a place of murder. Where the past of land died, and where the future was strangled in its crib.

I don’t have a full story formed from these themes, but I think there is something to be mined here—more tragic perhaps than horrific.

I should now say, as I once did for Marblehead and other stories, that I have been beaten to the punch regarding this prompt. Luckily, this time it was by a man over a hundred years old, August Derelth. I lacked time to read the entire story but found a good review of it here.

Bibliography

Drake, Samuel Adams. A Book of New England Legends and Folklore in Prose and Poetry.Boston, Little Brown and company, 1901.

Orians, G. Harrison. “New England Witchcraft in Fiction.” American Literature, vol. 2, no. 1, 1930, pp. 54–71. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2919930. Accessed 21 July 2021.

The Valley and the Modern Men

This Week’s Prompt:  129. Marble Faun p. 346—strange and prehistorick Italian city of stone.

The Prior Research: Between Man and Beast

Oak trees and chestnut branches ran overhead, as the band of four hunters entered the forest.  Careful to step over the roots, they pushed through the underbrush—off the barren beaten path, deeper into the forest than any of them were familiar with. Well, than three of them were familiar with. The fourth, a local boy—Antonio? Americo? They hadn’t cared to keep his name straight—was of this place. His features were, to these modern men, the same as many rustics—dark hair, an almost innocent youth that seemed yet unaware of the mysteries of the world.

The three of them had debated even bothering with such a guide.

“Ah, see here sir, you can have a wonderous view of the rivers!” He said, pointing down at the nestled cataracts that ran through the base of the river—each splitting off from its mother, down and down through the place. Canals of clear water, the snow having just melted, swelled them beyond their normal shores.

“Ah, yes, we’ve seen much of it.” Marcelle, the youngest of the three guests said. He looked over and smiled at the rivers. “There is a simple charm to it, no?”

“It is simply beautiful.” The guide said.  Alessandro, the eldest member of the train sighed as he caught up. He was batting away perceived insects, and scratching at sores that weren’t there.

“It is. Simple.” He panted, looking over everything. “I suppose even such…wastes are prone to a sort of beauty. From a…particular perspective.”

Alessandro had been the most outspokenly opposed to the guide. They had maps of the region—fairly reliable ones, from aerial photographs and other sources. They had no need to waste money on some illiterate peasant boy.

“Oh, come now Alessandro.” The final member of the triumvirate, Luca, said with a laugh. “You can’t simply look at the Valley of Painters and wave off all of its wonder.”

“A painter’s eye renders even the battlefield beautiful.” Alessandro said. “We would not call such things the case anymore, except with regards the most decadent and degraded of art forms.”

For his part, the local boy had lost interest in the conversation and begun the descent deeper into the wood. The modern men were not here for beauty, and while the boy was always in wonder of the woods, he found their talk tiresome. He did not quite understand their purpose on this expedition—it was some matter of state that brought them here, and the boy cared little of affairs of state.

Still, they had good coin and he was fond of wondering in the woods when he had the chance, away from chores and lessons. He could tolerate bickering for that. And of course, he led them through paths in the woods that were…well, no difficulty for him. But for these tired men, the river seemed far less friendly. The ivy more worrisome. The moss and stones slippery. They grumbled and shook, and Alessandro himself swore a few times.

Were their easier paths to the old stones? Perhaps. But the boy saw no reason to use them. They were less fun.

The stones themselves rose from the trees and undergrowth like huge marble teeth. Marcelle took a moment to circle the first set of these stones—laid one next to another, each twice his height. Ivy had scaled them, and small moss grew from the cracks between the cyclopean bricks.

“Well. Perhaps not so precisely laid as we were told.” Luca said, walking in front of the wall segment. “Impressive, but not…well, they aren’t the pyramids, no?”

“The pyramids…” Alessandro grumbled as he ran his hand along the stone…and walked over to the other side. “Have the notable advantage of being in a desert, where neither man nor god would seek to wear them down.”[1]

“And they are plainer than this.” Alessandro continued from across the side, gesturing at the images carved into the stone. There, in the marble, where the lines to mark a scene—separating an upper portion of the wall that displayed trees rising through. There were legs of horses along the bottom, and scant lines that Alessandro insisted marked a procession. Here, Marcelle pointed, where cracks that meant torches. Surely, they agreed, this was not a mere happenstance. And of course, then they turned to see the rest of the stones.

The city, as they had called it in the library, extended over a portion of the valley. Part of the dispute, from the powers that be, was whether it was a city or simply the caste off stones, worn down into strange shapes. An ancient and primeval city was a matter of historical and national interest—the noble ancient past of Italy, the Powers That Be made clear, could not be simply allowed to decay. Such a place would no doubt serve as the gathering site for all manner of undesirable parts of the populace.

So the men had been set out to ascertain the nature of the city, and further to tell if some community had hidden away there yet. For this endeavor, and to satisfy their own curiousity, they endured the train rides and hikes and even the young boy who seemed uninterested in the stones. The boy had seen the stones before, a hundred times. They were another wonder of the wood, a mystery that one day he may solve.

Nevertheless, the three older men insisted they go in deeper—they had daylight yet, and more than enough time to make it back to the village if need be. Marcelle even pointed back to what he thought was a quicker route, advising the boy that next time, they need not spend so long dallying about. The boy pretend to care, and marveled politely at the insights into the forest he knew better than his prayers.

The three went down then, following what they took for an old avenue—Alessandro took the lead now, methodically searching for signs of habitation that had tarnished the nobility of the marble. Here a stone was taken for the base of a great statue, worn down by the years. There, more walls and stately homes. Could these regular lines mark an orchird?

There was little sign of habitation, the men found, at least of the outer portions of the city. It was a serene place—there was no bird song to bother their thoughts, and no serepents lying in wait beneath their feet. There was once, they thought, the sound of something in the bushes—but an investigation found nothing, save a few tracks. A deer or the like had no doubt found the city a safe haven—for there was no sign of predation in this place.

“Strange.” Alessandro said, as they surveyed. “The growth here, it is bare enough to discern the noble marble underneath…we can still see the outlines of this great city rendered out of the chaos.”

“Well, are we surprised marble and stone has prevailed where memory and words have not?” Luca said, looking around. “The sculptures art out lasts painting and posey, that’s no surprise. That the city planner outlast even him is only logical.”

“Yes, yes, but that is not the issue.” Alessandro said, looking deeper into the wood. “The strangeness is rather that…ought the interior be more free of such growths? Why, here…come here, gentleman—and boy, get here.” He said, beckoning to where he stood.

Before them was a large mass of moss over a boulder—and beyond it, the trees grew thick, casting shadows off the depths. The four watchers gathered round, and frowned at the rock.

“What of it? A cast off stone isn’t so strange.” Marcelle said, raising an eyebrow, and leaning down.

“Right, boy. Tell me, what do you imagine this to be.” Alessandro said, pointing an accusing figure at the mass.

“That’s moss, sir. It grows on rocks that don’t move.” The boy said innocently.

“And beneath it?” Alessandro continued as Marcelle examined the rock and moss, moving some aside.

“I figure a rock.” The boy said.

“One that doesn’t move.” He added after a brief pause.

Alessandro nodded, and gestured again at the rock.

“Ah, how the mystery thickens. See, this is how such wonders hide—this is not a mere rock. First, let us examine it’s shape. Look here.” He pointed at the base—and taking a small knife, revealed a flat bottom. “Here we see the touch of the mason—a perfectly flat bottom.”

“Rivers make flat stones, Alessandro, this is hardly an innovation.” Luca said, walking around the rock, and casting a gaze on the vast field of others leading deeper into the wood, where sunlight barely played on the shifting shadows.

“Rivers do, they do. Now let us consider the second point.” Alessandro said, continuing to cut the green away with a knife—and placing his finger on a thin, worn groove running down, and then cutting across. “Here, this is not the work of water—water does not make right turns, does it?”

And this was assented to.

“And the third—let us look over there. See, the walls we observed earlier—do you see any mark of disturbance in their foundations? Surely, a stone of this size could not be lifted into position by rivers—it must have rolled down, if it came here in the age of man. Yet, it was not removed by those who laid the outer ring!” Alessandro said ecstatically.

“Hm…all good points.” Marcelle said, nodding, and turning back to the rock. “Still…if that is the case…why is it more covered then the rest?”

“My question precisely! Ought not the forum and city center, where laid and sterile stone is the most prevalent, rot last? The fields are already barely contained, barely pulled from the grip of nature.” Alessandro pointed a finger at the darkening woods. “So why is it that where once the great palaces and temples would by all logic stand, nature has taken her greatest revenge?”

The three men stared into the forest of cast stones, some with tree roots splintering them, others bent with the weight of ivy, bushes grown rampant. The epicenter of this growth could not quite be seen from where they stood—only that the hill buckled at the top somewhat, a small crater. Still, the inference was clear. The might spears of nature, shooting out of the ground provided unexpected shade as they went deeper in to the depths.

“Of course, here we would expect such things to take their shelter.” Alessandro said, tilting his head to hear closely. “Listen, here that? Some goats lost by a shepherd boy. Do they beat such lazy boys still, boy?”

The boy nodded quickly at the remark.

“If a shepherd loses much of his flock, it’d be best for him to flee home than face his master,” He said, walking up a broken pillar to stare deeper into the woods. “Though, I’m not so sure sheep would like it here. They are not fond of the woods, and would probably be prey for wolves.”

“Ah yes, I suppose sheep should not wander far without a shepherd to guide them. The wolves are always waiting.” Marcelle nodded. “Such simple wisdom. Still, what harm is there if a goat follows us in?”

The three agreed that such a creature wasn’t a threat in the slightest, and move in deeper—although the boy lingered some, savoring the sights before moving. He also listened—and heard the gait of a goat, yes. But a strange one, which moved with some swiftness. His brothers had told him, the goats of the wood were not to be trusted—for they often made wolves their prey.

They arrived where the trees were as thick as storm clouds. No, thicker still—for as they came to the crude center of the crater, where only the faint slivers of light shone through. Here was the greatest of trees—a broken oak, smote by lighting long ago.

“Look how the roots grow—their impression is all that remains of the stones.” Alessandro said, pacing about.

“An echo of an echo…” Luca said, squinting to see anything in the darkness. “Look, is this a root or a stone…” He traced the roots, and felt the dead wood give way to the petrified remains of wood, long fused with the rubble and stone work.

“Struck by Zeus’s own thunder.” Marcelle said, marveling at it’s bent hollow and twisted shape, warped around where the bolt left a heavy gashing wound.

“Tell me boy, have you seen such—” Alessandro began…and realized the boy was gone. Perhaps lost, perhaps bored, perhaps afraid. Either way, the three stared off into the dark of the wood—the light hidden by the hill on all sides.

“Hm. Well, if the punishment for the loss of mere sheep is such a beating that a man would flee town than suffer it, we shall see what the penalty for abandoning officials is.” Alessandro said. His threat seemed all the more fearsome in darkness, when only his fellows could witness it. Yet it was almost ludicrous. Here in the hall of wood, where there was no one to see—what power could such a slight threat hold?

It was then they heard them again—the clicking of goat feet on the stones long buried. The tapping of wood on dead rock.

And there, the strange modern men who thought themselves in a dead land, found themselves surrounded by horns and beards that reached  down to the stones. Hundreds of eyes stared upon them, the three of them against the tree. And the old sages of the city set upon them.

*

The peasant boy heard pan flutes through the wood, the sweetest music he had heard—no doubt the wind playing on the hollows of the wood. He wondered as he went home if the three men he’d met today appreciated the music of the forests and valleys.


Playing with modernism, and the arrogance that comes with it, was the root of this idea. I couldn’t quite figure out how to transistion between the ruins and the inhabitants still there—the ending is rushed as a result, as I had to eventually give up on linking the two together. If I come back to this, I think that would be the part to adjust—a more solid conculsion would help give the entire piece more direction.

Next time, we discuss witch gatherings and spells in forgotten hills!


[1] This is of course patently false—the pyramids were looted, both within and without, many times.