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?
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.
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.