C.M. Saunders has reviewed my novel Red Menace for Morpheus Tales! Give it a read, yes? Thank you.
C.M. Saunders has reviewed my novel Red Menace for Morpheus Tales! Give it a read, yes? Thank you.
Some scholars assert that the mass hysteria in Massachusetts in the 17th century could have been triggered by a common fungus.
The events are familiar to most Americans and have been dramatized dozens of times on stage, page and film. The tragic episode was set into motion in 1692 by the strange behavior of two young girls, and snowballed into a panic of almost unbelievable proportions. The Salem Witch Trials, as they came to be known, lacked the staggering body count of many of the European witch hunts; nonetheless the series of events was sufficiently dire to cause many people then and now to question how such a thing could have happened.
An Overview of the Salem Witch Panic
It was February 1692. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams suddenly began displaying bizarre behavior akin to epileptic fits. They screamed and raved, twisted their bodies into strange positions, and complained that an unseen assailant was pinching and pricking them. Doctors were called to examine the girls, but no physical cause could be found for their distress, and what was worse, when word of the girls’ mysterious ailment spread through Salem village, other girls began behaving in a similar fashion.
At this point, authorities had raised suspicions of witchcraft, and Betty and Abigail obligingly pointed accusing fingers at a slave girl named Tituba, who they claimed had taught them spells for seeing into the future. Other accusations followed, and more “victims” came forward, accusing still others. When all was said and done, the hysteria had spread across three counties and resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people, twenty of whom were eventually executed for witchcraft. What possible reason could there have been for such a terrible tragedy to unfold? Many theories have been put forth, but Professor Linda Caporael, in 1976, suggested we need look no further than the Salem villagers’ breadboxes.
Ergot a Poisonous Fungus, Catalyst for Accusations
In a 1976 article inScience, Caporael theorized that the initial catalyst for the witch craze — the seemingly “possessed” behavior of Betty, Abigail, and the other girls — could have been caused by a reaction to ergot. There are about fifty known species of the ergot fungus, but the one Caporael implicated in the witch panic was Claviceps pupurea, which grows on rye plants and can cause poisoning when consumed by humans or other mammals. If indeed the girls had eaten bread contaminated with ergot, they could have experienced symptoms that were perceived as possession: Seizures, a sensation of itching or crawling on the skin, muscular contractions, nausea, and even hallucinations, triggered by an alkaloid called ergotamine, which is similar in structure to LSD.
Caporael argued that not only were the symptoms of ergotism consistent with those noted in the victims of the “bewitchment,” but that the area around Salem grew a great deal of rye, and that climatic conditions were favorable to the growth of the ergot fungus. It would not even have been necessary for all of the “victims” to have been afflicted with ergotism; a few cases might have started the ball rolling, and psychological and sociological factors could have accomplished the rest.
Arguments Against the Ergot Theory
Many scholars have disputed the claims that ergotism played a major role in the witch panic. Historians Jack Gottlieb and Nicholas Spanos, for example, contend that had ergotism been responsible for the accusers’ symptoms, we should have expected to see members of entire households afflicted, rather than just a few individuals here and there. They also argue that ergotism has other symptoms that do not correspond with the recorded behavior of the “bewitched” persons. Finally, they and other scholars have pointed out that ergotism had been a recognized malady at least since the Middle Ages; it even had a name, St. Anthony’s Fire. Anthropologist H. Sidley in particular doubted whether authorities in Salem in the 17th century would have mistaken the supposedly familiar symptoms of ergot poisoning with signs of supernatural possession.
Despite the voluminous research on the subject, the exact causes of the Salem witch panic are still murky. It is not controversial to speculate that the episode was probably triggered by an unfortunate cascade of converging factors—social, political, psychological, and perhaps pharmacological.
Macinnis, Peter (2004). Poisons: A History From Hemlock To Botox. MJF Books. ISBN 1-56731-814-2.
In my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me, I mentioned how influential horror stories were on me as a kid, and how much I adored seeking them out and reading them, whether they were intended for children or not (my parents were pretty chill that way). Sure, I delved into the very disturbing adult worlds created by Poe and Lovecraft, King and Barker, Matheson and Bradbury. But I was still a kid, and as such, I enjoyed kids’ stories too.
I can’t remember who gave it to me (it could have been my parents or another close relative), but when I was a darkling little sprog I received a delightful black box set containing five slim paperbacks with different colored spines. I recently searched for the entire box set online, but to no avail; it appears that the books are only sold individually now, and used, at that. But it was the more freewheeling 1970s, and I had more scary bang for the buck, yo. While only one of the books was straight-up horror, the others had enough of a dark fantasy or funny fairy-tale vibe to keep me enchanted, and I read those five books until they literally fell to pieces.
The largest and scariest book in the collection was Maria Leach’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was an illustrated compendium of traditional ghost stories, urban legends, and poems, with some handy ghost tips thrown in at the end (for example, I distinctly remember the book warning me not to touch a hat that had been left in the road with a stick lying across it, since it belonged to a spirit who was presumably coming back to fetch it at some point. Stay away from haunts’ hats, kids; the dead are really touchy about their headwear). It contained many, many well-known tales, such as “The Golden Arm,” “Sweet William’s Ghost,” and that one about the kid who goes into a cemetery on a dare and plunges his knife into a grave and then ends up dying of fright like a dumbass because he thinks the corpse has reached up and grabbed him. I also recall a few funny ones, like the story about the guy with the super long teeth (which is actually kind of creepy now that I think about it), or the one about an old man shooting a bunch of holes in a nightshirt hanging from the line because he thought it was a ghost.
The two stories I remember the best, though, were naturally the ones I thought were the scariest. The first of these was “Sop, Doll,” an unsettling tale about a guy who is eating some sort of gruel in his shack and is inexplicably visited by a series of larger and larger cats. Did I mention that the cats could talk, and they kept saying they were waiting for someone? And also that the guy was so freaked out by this situation that he ended up slicing off one of the bigger cats’ paws? Oh, and also that the next day, his wife was MISSING HER HAND and thus was probably, you know, a shapeshifting witch? Seems like something you should sort out before the wedding bells ring, guy, but who am I to judge, right?
I can’t remember the name of my other favorite story (was it in Spanish?), but I still recall the details fairly vividly because it featured beheading, and beheadings have always been one of my morbid fascinations. A dude was ambling back from the butcher with a calf’s head in a bag. He was going to eat it for dinner, which probably horrified child-me more than the outcome of the actual story did. But as he walked, the bag was dripping blood everywhere, and eventually someone called him on it and asked him to show the calf’s head, because your dinner shouldn’t be bleeding that much when you just bought it from the butcher, right? Hell, everyone knows that. (Note: I did not know that.) So the dude pulls the thing out of the bag, cavalier as you please, and it turns out (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN) it isn’t a calf’s head at all, but the severed head of a friend of his. Dude was taken into custody and promptly hanged for murder. Even when I was a kid, though, something about this tale didn’t sit right. I mean, I seem to remember that the story mentioned, “Oh yeah, that dude totally cut off his friend’s head,” but if that were so, why in hell would he be carrying the bloody head-bag through the streets where everyone could see him? And why would he whip out the head for the first rando who asked? I guess I just don’t understand crime.
The second book in the set, The Witch’s Egg by Madeleine Edmondson, didn’t make quite as large an impression as the others, though it did feature a crabby old witch, always a plus in any story (take my novel about a couple of crabby old witches, Red Menace, for instance). It was a sort of Grinch-like story, as I recall, about the aforementioned cranky hag having her black, black heart softened when she raises a baby bird that hatches from an egg she finds. Was she planning on eating the egg at first? Did she kill the mama bird? Probably, she was an asshole like that. I really can’t remember. But still, super fucking heartwarming.
Miss Clafooty and the Demon by J. David Townsend will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was this book (along with John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls) that initiated me into the wonderfully grotesque world of Edward Gorey, who did the illustrations. I absolutely loved his fanciful drawings for this book, and I loved the story itself just as much. The prim and miserly Miss Clafooty is simply rolling in loot, but her mansion is all ramshackle and busted up, she wears layers of old, out-of-style duds like a bag lady, she only eats stale bread crusts and expired peas, and she never invites anyone over because that means she’d have to spend some of the oodles of gold and silver coins she keeps stored in an old stocking. Rather like Smaug if he were a doddering middle-aged Victorian hausfrau, Miss Clafooty loves nothing more than sitting in her broken-down house and running her fingers through her coins and congratulating herself on how much money she didn’t have to spend that day. But this douchey one-percenter is soon put in her place by the appearance of a small purple demon (because why not?) with “a mouth like an oven” who shames the woman so much that she finally pulls the greed-plug out of her butthole and buys some actual food and some nice clothes and fixes her house up and invites everyone over for a big-ass shindig. Occupy Clafooty!
By far my favorite book of the set was Margaret Storey’s Timothy and Two Witches. I was absolutely enthralled by its darkly fantastical atmosphere and its charming British setting and tone. Timothy is sent to live with his aunt, I believe, after his parents die (probably). His aunt is a white witch, and she’s young and pretty, and all sorts of cool shit happens in her house, like the soap just jumps into your hand when you need it, and stuff cleans up after itself. I also have a clear memory (because even as a child I was a total dessert whore) of the little cakes the aunt would give to Timothy. She didn’t bake them or anything, she just made them magically, but they had his name written on them in icing, and I thought that was pretty fab. Come to think of it, I want to go live with this chick right now. Anyway, there was also a little girl, who was either the aunt’s daughter or a neighbor kid or something, and she befriends Timothy, as well as has cakes with her name written on them. And because it was a dark fantasy with a white witch in it, there also had to be an eeeeeeevil witch. I think Timothy fell under her spell somehow, but the white witch was more powerful and everything worked out okay in the end. I remember being particularly taken with the descriptions of the magical woods where the good witch lived, where the trees and grass all glittered with gold and silver. Damn, I’ve been to England, why can’t I find this woman’s place? I want magical maid service and personalized magic cakes and glittery trees. Goddammit.
The final book in the set was a wacky fairy tale entitled The Strange Story of the Frog Who Became a Prince, by Elinor L. Horwitz. It was a sort of send-up of the old Frog Prince story, wherein a witch (another one! There were a lot of witches in this box set, dang) who is out doing some freelance witching one day comes across a happy frog and turns him into a prince. Who knew that witches would just do this kind of stuff for free? I learned a lot about witches from these books. Anyway, the twist is that the prince the frog gets turned into looks more like Prince Charles than The Artist Formerly Known As, with big ol’ jug ears and knock knees and buck teeth and so forth. The witch gets points for accuracy, of course, but the frog isn’t too thrilled with the whole transformation jazz and starts telling the witch how much more handsome and kick-ass he was as a frog. Finally he convinces the witch to change him back, but she can’t remember how. So maybe she’s a trainee witch; that’s why she’s going around transforming amphibians into inbred royals willy-nilly. Much zaniness ensues as she tries to remember the spell to return him to his former state. Lots of words said backwards, as I recall. I think the one that ended up doing it was “peanut butter sandwich” said backwards. Which makes total sense.
I want a peanut butter sandwich now. *heads for pantry*
Until next time (burp), Goddess out.
Hey kids, it’s me again, reminding you that my book Red Menace is available for your reading pleasure, both in ebook and print formats from Amazon, and ebook format directly from Damnation Books. Read the excerpt below! Buy the book! Read it, love it, write a review. Thank you, my lovelies.
Paige’s eyes snapped open in the darkness. She didn’t know what time it was, only that there was no faint sign of dawn yet showing through the windows—and that Daniel was sleeping deeply beside her, his body heavily still.
Just before she had awakened, she was having a horrible dream where she was sitting in the balcony of a dimmed concert hall, looking expectantly at the stage below, which was bathed in the glow from the red footlights. An orchestra was arrayed on the stage, though Paige couldn’t see any of their faces because they all wore red hoods. The effect of the crimson light on the similarly colored hoods was unsettling, making the movement of the fabric seem turgid, liquid, like slowly draining blood.
At last, the orchestra raised their instruments as one body. The music stilled Paige’s heart for several beats. It was an infernal music, and in the dream, Paige thought of a story she had once read about a violinist who had sold his soul to the devil to be able to play like a virtuoso, only to send everyone who heard him spiraling into madness. Surely this orchestra was just as miraculous in their command of tone and timbre, in their deft manipulation of the snaking harmonies, but the miracle, if it was one, was of a satanic nature, just like in the violinist story, welling up from the darkest recesses of the soul. Paige wanted to scream but could not, wanted to cover her ears but could not move her arms. She was rendered motionless by the music, a stone carving from which a trapped consciousness peered out helplessly.
At the crescendo of the piece, just when Paige felt that she could not listen anymore, all the musicians upon the stage turned toward her in unison, the movement causing their hoods to fall back with soft and somehow obscene whispers that could still be clearly heard, though the din of the music carried on uninterrupted. Their faces were all white, grinning skulls, the black of their multitudinous eye sockets made even blacker by the wavering scarlet light, their expressions seeming to mock her.
She suddenly did scream then, feeling the stretch of her lips, the vibration of the sound in her dream-throat just as she would in waking life, though nothing emerged but silence. She just had time to glance down at the audience and see that they had all turned toward her too, accusing her with their skeleton eyes, and then she woke, her breath catching in her throat, making her cough. Daniel stirred a little but then turned onto his side and resumed snoring. Paige’s eyes struggled to identify familiar shapes in the darkness, a curtain rod or light fixture she could focus on so that she wasn’t seeing the endless parade of red-tinted skull faces peering at her with their empty yet somehow malevolent gazes.
As her heart rate calmed, she reflected on the sound that had surely wakened her. Even in the bare, few seconds after launching out of sleep, she heard a telltale echo throughout the house, the remnants of a solid sound that had not issued from her mind, however rattled. The sound could not have been very loud, or it would have woken Daniel also. Paige lay very still, feeling sweat pooling in the hollow of her stomach, straining her ears for the slightest noise.
An interminable stretch of time passed, and Paige began to think the sound had been a product of her fervid imagination after all. She closed her eyes, reluctantly settling back into sleep mode, but then she heard it—a tiny, slight wheeze, like the breath of a mouse behind the walls. Paige wondered what it could be, and as she frowned out at the surrounding darkness, the other sound came—the devilish music of the skeleton orchestra. She leaped out of bed and was halfway to the door of the bedroom before her brain even registered the movement of her body. Daniel was awake now too, his voice thick with sleep, calling her name, but Paige was already out the door and climbing the stairs to the attic room, two at a time. Some part of her must have instinctively known that the horrible sound was coming from the clock in the black room, but it was only now, as she reached the landing, that she became consciously aware of it. Just as she did, the chime came again—a deafening and doom-laden gong seemingly accompanied by the combined screams of all the tormented souls in hell.
The thought of that coffin-tall clock singing its malevolent song to the gleeful audience of that one red-windowed eye in the otherwise abandoned black room filled Paige with a horror that compelled her quickly down the hall and through the door of Helena’s attic aerie, not caring if the old woman thought she’d gone right off her rocker. She just wanted that fucking clock to stop.
Paige tore into the attic room, intending to march straight into the Red Death suite and smash the clock’s smug face with her bare hands; however, she stopped dead in her tracks at the strange sight of Helena, sitting upright and cross-legged on her narrow bed in a small circle of lamp light, her eyes closed, her ogre face bearing the serene expression of a stone Buddha. She was dimly aware of Daniel’s presence behind her, and she felt his breath upon her neck. As she stared at Helena, the echoes of the horrible chimes danced all around them, like whispering little caper-demons scurrying for the corners and concealing their evil laughter behind tiny, clawed red hands. Then, the chime came once again, full and resonant, seeming to shake the house to its foundations. Paige clapped her hands over her ears the way she had been unable to do in her dream, even though this had the awful effect of making the sound closer, more intimate, as if it was coming from inside her own head.
When the last of the chimes had finally died away, Paige cautiously drew her hands away from her ears, listening to the silence that now seemed like the world’s sweetest music. After a moment, she realized her cheeks were wet; the tears had spilled without her knowledge. She stared at Helena’s blissful figure, feeling exhausted, empty, and suddenly afraid.
The old woman’s eyes opened, and the fishy, white one twirled in its socket while the normal eye fixed on Paige, a shimmering jade-green jewel in the lamp light. Helena smiled her sunken smile. “I was afraid it wouldn’t work anymore,” she said.
It’s the scariest day of the year, and if you’d like to spend some of this glorious holiday indulging in a bit of creepy reading, please take a few moments to read my 2009 short story, “William’s Pond.” It also appears in my book Hopeful Monsters, so if you like what you read, then why not go all out and purchase a copy today? Thank you, and I hope your Halloween is a haunting, howling scream!
The pond looked dark, even now, even in broad daylight. Muriel remembered it had always looked dark. She had always been afraid of it.
She waded through layers of dead leaves in her worn black flats, keeping her eyes fixed on the still water. The grass around the pond had grown long and wild; Muriel wondered if there were snakes. Her parents had always kept the house and grounds immaculate, and it saddened her to see the neglect, the desolation. Times had been hard for them, since she’d left home. And now they were gone.
A cloud passed over the sun, and in the ensuing grayness Muriel thought she saw a shadow flickering just below the surface of the pond. She stopped and looked harder, but there was nothing. Her parents had always warned her to stay away from the pond, and unspoken but understood in their stern, pale warnings was the knowledge that Muriel’s brother had drowned there, many years ago, when he was no more than a baby. But even if that hadn’t happened, Muriel would have stayed away.
Because when she was a little girl, she thought she’d seen things in the pond.
She scoffed at herself now, standing ankle deep in leaves, wearing a shabby black funeral dress whose cheap fabric stretched taut over her swollen belly. She was a grown woman, with a thirteen-year-old daughter and a second child on the way, a woman who had once been beautiful but now bore the marks of two failed marriages, abandonment, single motherhood. She was no longer the terrified little girl who had peered out her bedroom window under the maple trees and sworn she’d seen shadows moving beneath the water, shadows that looked like people with long, flowing hair. She had left that little girl far behind, perhaps still in this house with its memories.
So why was she still afraid?
“I’m not afraid.” She said it out loud, then reddened and turned to see if her daughter had heard her talking to herself. The house and yard were silent, but her words seemed to echo through the open stillness, coming back to her as oddly warped singsong, a children’s chant repeated like a mantra: Not afraid, not afraid, not afraid…
And she wasn’t, she told herself. She could walk right up to the edge of the pond now if she wanted to, just to show those shadows (those long-haired people who weren’t there) that she was brave.
With every step closer, the shadows seemed to move faster, more erratically. Muriel told herself that she didn’t see them. Instead she thought of her brother’s tiny white body, floating and lifeless, a shock of white against the night-black water. She hadn’t actually seen him drown all those years ago, but her parents had told her what had happened, and after that, she’d seen it every night, in her dreams. The baby’s bluish limbs splayed on the surface of the water, the blacker shadows milling below it, as though making a nest for the egg like little corpse. Muriel had seen it many times, among her many dreams.
She was at the edge of the pond now. The water chuckled and gurgled, then seemed to lunge at her feet with its icy black fingers. Muriel jumped back, then turned around and made her way quickly back to the house.
“Do me a favor and stay away from that pond, Angel.” Muriel found herself using the same tone of voice her mother had always used. She smiled, but it was a sad smile, edged with bitterness.
“I know, I know, my almost-uncle died in there.” Angel was only half listening, her head poking into the refrigerator, her tight jeans riding so low on her hips that the waistband of her underwear showed. Muriel had a sudden urge to smack the girl, but she restrained it.
“That’s right.” The fetus in her belly stirred, then kicked, and Muriel winced. Only another week or two, she told herself. She didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl; she’d decided to let it be a surprise. Not that it really mattered anyway; its father was long gone, just as Angel’s was. Her luck with men had been little short of catastrophic for as long as she cared to remember.
Angel was smearing jelly on a piece of bread already thickly spread with peanut butter. She sat at the kitchen table across from Muriel, squashing another slice of bread on top of the mess and then bringing the dripping sandwich to her mouth and taking a noisy bite. “Mom, how come you never brought me here?” she asked around a slobbering mouthful.
Muriel didn’t answer at first. What could she say? It wasn’t because she hadn’t gotten along with her parents; she had, even though she’d kept her distance since Angel was born. Was it the house itself that had kept her away, the stately but fading Colonial that had suddenly become a showplace after her brother’s death, the barren fields that had suddenly and copiously borne fruit, the pond with its lapping black life-taking waters? She wasn’t sure. “I suppose I just kind of lost touch with your grandma and grandpa over the years, sweetie,” she finally said. “You know how it is. They had their life, we had ours.”
Angel snorted. “Yeah. Some life.” Despite a face that was still pink and plump with childhood, the girl looked hard, and cynical far beyond her years. Muriel knew that the words were meant to make her feel guilty, and they did, although they made her angry too. She had struggled to give Angel the best life possible under the circumstances, and even though there were times when fate seemed against her, she felt she’d done a decent job. She couldn’t help but resent Angel a little for throwing her failings back into her face.
“I’m sorry.” Muriel wasn’t sure if that was entirely true, but she was too tired to argue. “I should have brought you to meet them. I should have done better.”
Angel shrugged, still chewing, then looked away, out the kitchen window toward the pond. “I wonder how deep it is,” she mused, almost to herself.
The baby, a boy, was born less than a week later. Muriel drove herself to the hospital, Angel silent in the seat beside her.
She named the boy William, after her drowned brother, and she brought him home to her parents’ old house and put him in the same room that the first William had slept in before he died. She didn’t know exactly why she did it, although she told herself that it didn’t matter, that her brother’s old room was as good as any other.
William the second was a very good baby, and slept most of the time; nonetheless, Muriel spent hours in the nursery with him, watching him sleep. Sometimes she would sit in the rocking chair by the nursery window and stare out at the pond, which now seemed darker and deeper than ever. Sometimes she thought she saw choppy little waves, disturbances in the middle of the pond, as if as school of piranha were attacking its prey just beneath the surface of the water. She saw this on several successive days, and on each day the disturbance seemed ever so slightly closer to the shore. She wondered if there was a large fish living there, or maybe an alligator.
Muriel moved her bed into the nursery, and slept directly beneath the window.
When William was nearly a month old, there came a night when Angel came to the nursery door, her eyes very white and shiny in the darkness. She was clutching a stuffed rabbit in her arms, just as she had done when she was very small. Muriel beckoned, and the girl came and curled up in the narrow bed next to her mother, deliberately keeping her back to the window. “I thought I saw something,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut tight, so the tears popped out through the cracks in the lids. “There was something out there, in the pond.” Muriel stroked the girl’s hair until she fell into a fitful sleep. Then she looked out the window.
There were so many of them—more than she remembered. And as she stared out at them, into their greenish eyes that glowed like fish scales in the night, she realized that she did remember what, all those years ago, had really happened to the first William, her baby brother. The memory was so clear that she didn’t understand how she could have ever forgotten it, how she could have ever believed that the boy had drowned, how she could have believed it so wholeheartedly that she’d had nightmares about it for many years afterwards. She remembered her parents’ chalk-white faces, fearful, horrified—yet was there also resignation behind those expressions, perhaps even acceptance?
The women had come out of the water and ringed the house, just as they were doing now. Their skin was white like fish bellies, and patchy with algae and what looked like barnacles. Their hair hung long and wet and ropy, framing their hideous faces, covering their sagging naked breasts. They were not smiling, but they gave the distinct impression of glee, and Muriel remembered thinking then that if the women opened their mouths, several rows of razor teeth would glimmer in the moonlight.
In a moment, Muriel knew, one of the women would step forward, only this single action marking her as the leader. As a girl, Muriel had watched from her second-story window as her parents stepped forward also, meeting the soaking hag halfway. Muriel could not hear what was said, if indeed any words had been spoken. The moon had been nearly full that night, its pregnant yellow form like a spotlight against the purple drape of sky, a stage setting for the horror unfolding by the pond. The fetid smell from the water was so powerful that it seemed to be oozing through the window glass.
Down below, in the yard, her parents were stretching their arms out to the woman, and at the end of their arms lay William, pink and writhing, his little face squinched up in consternation. Muriel thought she could almost hear him wailing, although it might have
been the wind in the eaves.
The woman took the infant from his parents’ grasp, and cradled it, tenderly, staring down at it with her iridescent eyes. The other women gathered around, craning their necks to get a better look. The leader, the one holding the baby, nodded once to Muriel’s parents, as if to indicate that everything was satisfactory, and then she turned her back to them, holding the baby tight against her slick white body. Muriel’s parents turned away also, and headed back
toward the house.
Muriel had kept watching from her window. And watching from the window now, a grown woman, in her old house with her own two children sleeping beside her, she shivered to think what she had seen then, after her parents had turned away. She glanced over at William the second, snoring in his crib, his tiny hands balled into fists on either side of his nearly hairless head. She could not bear it now, seeing both him and the memory of what had happened to her brother, superimposed in her mind like paintings on translucent paper. It was so horrible. And yet…
Muriel had seen those women in the moonlight, their scaly backs like eelskins. She had seen them all set upon her brother, the first little William, and even though she couldn’t hear anything, she could see their muscles working as they tore him limb from limb, see their jaws ratcheting up and down as they masticated the tender flesh, see the splashes of blood on their clawlike hands, rendered black by the light of the moon. And she could imagine the sounds of meat rending, of the women grunting with satisfaction and smacking their lips. Muriel saw all these things, and she never told anyone.
The next morning her parents told her that William had fallen in the pond and drowned, and they said no more about it. Muriel had simply nodded and kept silent. Perhaps he had drowned, after all. Perhaps what she had seen from her window had been a dream, nothing more.
The day after that, her parents received word that a distant relative had died and left them a substantial sum of money, enough to pay off all their debts and to make the farm prosperous once again. They were overjoyed, but their eyes were still haunted, and would
stay that way until Muriel left home years later. She could not remember a time when their faces were not hollow and furtive, when their glances did not quickly shift back and forth, constantly searching for something that Muriel could never see.
Angel stirred in the bed beside her, and Muriel held her until she stilled. Then she looked out the window again. The women were still there, a phalanx of corpse-white statues, their sopping hair unmoved by the breeze, their peacock-feather eyes raised to meet hers.
Muriel understood. They didn’t want the baby, not yet.
They wanted to bargain with her.
She tiptoed quietly down the stairs, wincing every time the wood creaked beneath her weight. She was afraid, but under the circumstances, quite calm. It’s almost as if I’ve been expecting this, she thought. In a way, she supposed part of her had been.
The moonlight looked almost like chalk where it fell upon the floorboards, and the moldy smell of the pond was like a thick fog. Muriel covered her nose and mouth with her hand. Through the downstairs windows she could see some of the women, silhouetted against the darkness, the moonlight giving them pale glowing auras.
Her stomach clenching, Muriel opened the front door and stepped outside. It was a warm night, but her skin was icy, and daubed with beads of freezing sweat. The leader of these horrible women, these water witches, was still standing slightly outside of the ring, closer to the house, and when Muriel emerged, the hag shuffled even closer through the long grass. Muriel noticed that the woman’s fingers and toes bore bluish membranes of skin between them, like frog’s feet. The sight made her gorge rise.
“You know us.” When the woman spoke, her carp-like lips barely moved. Her voice seemed deep and green and coated with slime.
Muriel opened her mouth to respond, but for a moment no sound came out; her throat had gone completely dry. She coughed, nervously. “I…I remember you,” she finally managed.
“Then you know what we want.” The hag’s eyes glittered like sapphires.
Muriel hadn’t known what she was going to say to the woman, but before she knew it, she was sobbing, begging. “Please,” she said, her vision blurred by the unbidden tears, her voice cracking. “Please don’t take my baby.”
The hag looked at her, the monstrous white face expressionless. “We would of course make it worth your while,” she purred. “Just as we did with your parents.”
Muriel recalled the sudden wealth, the farm’s startling prosperity after that horrific night, and for the briefest moment, she was tempted. Even though she also remembered those empty, haunted looks that had thereafter never left their faces, she couldn’t deny it. She was disgusted with herself.
The woman was still staring at her, and the others remained in their moveless ring, infinitely patient, as though the dawn would never come. And perhaps it wouldn’t, through some of their witchery; perhaps the yellow moon would hang there in the velvet sky until doomsday, until Muriel had finally consented to their desires.
“And what if I don’t…” Her voice hitched, her throat threatened to close, but she forced herself to go on. “What if I don’t give him to you?”
The lead hag’s expression didn’t change, but Muriel got the feeling that the air around her had grown thicker, heavier—it pressed into her nose and mouth, smelling like stagnant water and algae, creeping into her lungs and growing there like fungus. She gasped for breath.
“We will take the boy regardless,” the crone hissed through her white, grouper lips. “Had you given him to us willingly, we would have shown you our gratitude. Since you resist, you will incur our wrath, and the boy will die anyway.”
Muriel was shaking all over, but she tried to sound defiant. “All we have to do is l…leave.” She cursed herself for sounding as frightened as she was. It occurred to her that Angel might have awakened and could be watching the entire scene from the nursery window. She didn’t dare turn to look.
The hag’s lips pulled apart in what might have been a smile on a less inhuman face. Her teeth were small and triangular and close together. A piranha’s teeth. “Our curse will find you wherever you go,” she said softly.
Muriel shook her head, seeing the unending row of white witches’ forms as an indistinct blur in the silvery moonlight. “I don’t believe you,” she said, and the minute the words had come out of her mouth, the suffocating pond fog seemed to lift, and she could breathe again. A moment later she realized she was standing in the yard alone in the middle of the night in her bare feet, and that it was cold, far colder than she remembered it being. The grass was wet between her toes.
A moment after that, she was blinking awake, clear sunlight pouring in through the nursery windows, Angel snoring quietly beside her. Muriel lay very still, relishing the morning and the sensation of rebirth it brought, and then William began fussing and she got out of bed to tend to him.
When Angel awoke and came down to breakfast a little over an hour later, she seemed to have no recollection of the night before, or if she did, she was choosing to hide it. She gave her mother a cursory glance before sitting down at the table and tucking into a bagel and an overflowing bowl of cornflakes, all the while scanning the pages of a fashion magazine she held in her free hand.
Muriel watched the girl for a few minutes, William perched in the crook of her arm. “Angel,” she said at last, “it’s time for us to be getting back home. School will be starting in a few weeks, and I’d like to get this house put up for sale before too long.”
Angel barely looked up from her magazine. “Mm hmm. When are we going?”
“Today. There’s really no reason for us to stay around here, is there?”
“Nope.” Angel took a long swig of her orange juice.
William began to squirm, and Muriel moved him to her other arm. “We can stay in a hotel tonight, then tomorrow when we get back to the city we can start looking for another apartment.”
“Okay, whatever.” Angel drank the last of the milk out of her bowl, then left the dishes where they lay and stomped back up the stairs to her room. A few seconds later Muriel heard a door close up there, and then the muffled beat from her daughter’s old stereo.
Did she remember anything? Muriel wondered as she picked up the dishes, maneuvering William’s tiny body to accomplish the task. Perhaps the girl had rationalized the events away as simply a bad dream that seemed ridiculous in the sunlight’s cruel glare. Or perhaps
she had done what Muriel herself had done, all those years ago—completely blocked out everything she had seen.
After the dishes were washed, Muriel put William in his carrier where she could keep an eye on him, then proceeded to pack all of their things into her two battered suitcases. She hadn’t brought much; she hadn’t even intended to stay here as long as they had, though she knew there would be practical matters to be sorted out. She felt guilty that she hadn’t even contacted a realtor or the lawyers about the sale of the property, but then she mollified herself with the thought that William had come along early, and caring for him had been taking up nearly all of her time. This was true as far as it went, but she still couldn’t completely excuse herself. She sighed, resenting William’s father—and Angel’s, for that matter—for leaving her to carry the entire burden alone.
As she packed, she tried desperately not to think of the real reason for their swift departure. She didn’t want to think of it, of what would happen if what the hag said had been true—that the curse would follow Muriel wherever she went. But that was silly, wasn’t it? The women lived in the pond, and surely their influence couldn’t extend far beyond its parameters, could it? Besides, how would they even know where Muriel had gone?
As she folded her clothes and laid them in the suitcase, she noticed that her hands were trembling. She glanced over at William, who had dozed off in his carrier. His black eyelashes fluttered against his cherub cheeks, and his lips pouted outward from his sweet, fat little face. Muriel couldn’t imagine handing him over to those horrible women with their blue-metallic eyes and their dripping piranha teeth. She felt a wave of revulsion and hatred toward her parents for their cowardice, for giving the first baby William to the hags without even a single look back, for accepting the rewards the women bestowed upon them—guiltily, perhaps, but definitively. Why hadn’t her parents fought to keep their son? Was it simply fear, or were they also blinded by their greed, their desire for a better life? Muriel couldn’t remember despising her parents as much as she did in that moment, as she watched her own son sleeping in the early afternoon sunshine slanting through the windows, his tiny fists curled at his sides, his expression slack and peaceful. Yes, I’m afraid of them too, Muriel thought. Maybe even more afraid of them than my parents were. But they’re not getting William. Not this time.
By six that evening, they were all settled in a shabby but fairly clean motel room a few miles out of town, almost seventy miles from the farm they’d left behind. If Angel wondered about the abruptness of their departure, she didn’t mention it; the second she set foot in the motel room, she tossed her bags on the floor, kicked off her shoes, and flopped onto one of the two double beds, clicking on the TV with a remote that was bolted to the bedside table.
Muriel wanted to ask Angel if she remembered what had happened the night before, but she didn’t quite dare. The house and its black pond were still too close; she could feel the swampy, rancid tang of them still clinging to her skin. She could ask her about it once they were far, far away, once the place had been sold and hopefully razed to the ground, the pond drained and filled and forgotten. For a moment Muriel almost laughed, thinking of those fearsome water witches choking under tons of bulldozed earth, but then she envisioned the shifting pearly eyes of the hags, the sight of their algae-coated fingers reaching for the first baby William, the animal sounds of them tearing the child into bloodied scraps of meat. Muriel’s laugh dried up in her throat.
She fed the baby, then put him in his carrier and propped him up next to her in the second double bed. He’d been fidgeting and crying for most of the drive here, but now he seemed calmer, and stared at the flickering television screen with rapt attention for a little while, until his lids slowly closed. Angel likewise dozed off, fully clothed and still lying on her stomach on top of the covers. Muriel carefully leaned over and turned off the light above Angel’s bed, then pushed the off button on the remote. In the ensuing darkness and silence, she could hear the steady, comforting stream of traffic rushing by outside, as well as the rhythmic snores of her two children. Orange shafts of light from the streetlamps ringing the parking lot etched lines of fire across the walls.
Muriel was so tense that she thought she’d never be able to fall asleep, but she must have at some point, for some unknown span of time later, she snapped out of an amorphous nightmare to find the room in total blackness—the streetlights appeared to have gone out, and even the sounds of the traffic outside had utterly ceased.
Struggling to fend off the creeping panic, Muriel groped in the dark on the bed beside her, searching for William’s carrier. Her frantic hands met nothing but air, and with mounting horror she realized that the bed she lay on felt cold and strange, as if it were covered with slime.
She tried to cry out, to call to Angel, but her tongue seemed to have swollen, filling her mouth, and all she could manage was a strangled gasp. She turned over on her stomach, reaching up toward the light switch that she knew must be there, only inches from her fingers, but in the darkness she could get no bearings, and her hands simply waved blindly, futile, finding no solid purchase.
Panic had set in fully now—Muriel could feel it immobilizing her limbs, sending her rational thoughts swirling and screaming into the abyss. She was no longer in the motel room anymore, she didn’t know where she was, and William and Angel were gone. The smell of the cursed pond assaulted her nostrils and she gagged, rolling to escape it and falling, landing with a thump on one elbow, which made an upsetting crunch before sending shards of jagged-glass pain into the space behind her eyes.
Moaning, she reached out with her good arm and grasped something that felt like wet fabric—the bottom of a bedspread? She almost cried with relief. She was still in the motel room after all—maybe there had been a blackout, and she had awakened in the middle of it. She hadn’t been able to find William on the bed next to her, but it was very dark—she’d been half-asleep, disoriented.
Regaining her senses somewhat, Muriel used the bedspread to help haul herself into a sitting position. Her elbow was throbbing, possibly broken, but her relief was like a soothing tide, blotting out the pain almost entirely. It was still so dark that Muriel may as well have been staring at thick black velvet drapes hanging inches from her on all sides; not a speck of light penetrated anywhere, and the smell of the pond was still as heavy as syrup.
Sweating and cursing, Muriel pulled herself to her feet, and almost immediately went sprawling, unable to orient herself in a world with no visual cues. She finally stood upright, shakily, not daring to move a step. “Angel?” she called. Her voice seemed swallowed by the immensity of the darkness, but the sound was still so startling that Muriel’s heart skipped several beats.
“Angel!” Louder this time. The girl was a deep sleeper, Muriel knew that, but she was disturbed when she got no answer. She held her breath and listened hard in the blackness, craning her head toward where she thought Angel’s sleeping form should be, but there was nothing. She may as well have been the last human alive, floating in the vast nothingness of space.
And then, for a moment, she thought she did hear something—a rush, a sigh. Muriel flapped her arms desperately around in the blackness, nearly losing her balance again. The sound could have been her imagination, or it could have been Angel or the baby. Somehow she knew, though, in the depth of her gut, that it was neither of these things. She knew that something was wrong.
As she stood frozen in her dreadful certainty, there was another sound that could have been a laugh, and then a blast of frigid air rushed past her face—air that stank of the pond, a thick green rotten stench that brought the water-hags’ countless army clearly into her mind’s eye. She flailed again, almost falling, her elbow protesting with every movement. And her hands finally met something solid, slamming up against it with such force that she nearly screamed.
It was a wall, and Muriel leaned against it, pressing her palms flat against the textured wallpaper, silently thanking gods she had stopped believing in on that night when her baby brother had been taken away. Moving slowly, her heart thudding like a jackhammer in her chest, she felt her way along the wall until her fingers met what could only be a light switch. Crowing with triumph, she flipped it, then had to close her eyes for a few seconds at the sudden brightness.
Before she opened her eyes, she realized that the blackout theory was obviously incorrect. Her body felt as though it were filled with lead.
She opened her eyes, reluctantly. The wallpaper was just as she remembered, beige and speckled with tiny shards like diamond chips. It looked blurry this close up. Feeling as though she were in a slow-motion nightmare, she turned and surveyed the room.
The bedspreads and carpet, both an undistinguished shade of orangish-tan, were now spattered with an olive green, mucus-like slime, a stinking layer of algae-covered seaweed coating the surfaces like rancid frosting. The smell of stagnant water hung so thickly in the air that Muriel almost thought she could see the droplets.
Both Angel and William had completely disappeared.
Muriel could barely see through foggy tears of loss and rage. She drove as fast as she dared, barreling down the near-empty highway under a bowl of stars that seemed to shine down on her with mocking indifference.
She cursed herself with every filthy word she could imagine, banging her hands on the steering wheel until the skin on her palms split, until her fingers were slick with blood. Why hadn’t she believed them when they said they’d find her anywhere? Would it have made any difference if she had? And why had she felt as though she were being so brave when it was really her children’s lives she was toying with?
She had no ready answers to these questions, and it felt as though her whole body might explode in her frustration and self-disgust. What else could she have done? Stayed at the house and just let them take William, like her cowardly parents? She could never have forgiven herself if she did that. But she grimly realized as she drove that perhaps her parents had understood something that she had not—sometimes you simply had no choice.
Even though it had only been seventy miles to the motel, it seemed to take forever to get back to the house. Time seemed to be warping and bending in bizarre ways, making her entire perception skewed and dreamlike. She had no idea what time it was when she finally turned down the dirt road toward the farm. It was still dark, but at this point that didn’t mean anything to her—she remembered how the women could make it seem as though the night would never end.
The car tires crunched noisily as she steered toward the driveway, her body performing the function of driving with no input from her brain at all. She made no attempt to conceal her approach; the witches would be expecting her, of that she was certain. She was just as sure
of the fact that she would get William back, or die in the attempt.
There were no lights on in or around the house, and its rambling white structure hunkered in the darkness like a massive ghostly reptile tensing to spring. Just beyond the house, Muriel could see the edge of the pond, the moonlight peppering its gentle ripples. There was no sound at all except for the car’s engine, and when Muriel turned the key, the silence fell like a shroud.
She took a cursory glance around to see if there was anything that could be used as a weapon, but she quickly abandoned the search and got out of the car. Even if she’d had a machine gun, she doubted it would be much use.
Muriel had left the headlights on to guide her way, and as soon as she was clear of the car, she broke into a run, her sneakers crashing through dead leaves and shallow mud puddles. Her elbow felt huge, swollen inside her sleeve, but she tried to ignore the pain. As she stumbled through the yard, she thought she heard a splash, and the smell of the pond came into her nostrils like an intruder, a nearly solid wall of stench. She fought back her revulsion and pressed forward.
Muriel rounded the corner of the house at full clip, and now the pond in its entirety came into her view, huge and seemingly bottomless, its surface flat as black glass. The weeds and grasses at its perimeter stirred in the light wind, and their whispers soon resolved themselves into what sounded like words. Muriel skidded to a halt. She swore she heard a baby crying, very far away. “William!” she called, and her voice volleyed back to her with a sinister, watery tinge.
They came out of the pond like bubbles of acid, their reptilian heads emerging slowly and in perfect synchrony. Muriel watched, horrified but transfixed, feeling as though she was under a spell. Perhaps she even was. The hags’ dripping faces were now clear of the pond’s surface, and al of their eyes opened in unison, the moonlight catching the orbs so that they appeared to be a sea of fireflies or will-o-the-wisps. Muriel wanted to run away but couldn’t, wanted to plunge into the filthy water and tear the hags to pieces, but couldn’t. She could do nothing but stare as they rose from the pond, their scaly flesh sparkling wet, their long hair hanging in straight, shimmering ropes.
And then Muriel’s gaze focused at the middle of the pond. Her legs collapsed beneath her.
Angel was hovering there, her lithe naked body already beginning to bloat and go pale, her brown eyes turning coppery, glimmering in the dark like cat’s eyes.
William was squalling in her arms, his lungs gurgling with pond water.
Muriel tried to speak, but found she had no voice. Her knees dug into the ground, cold mud seeping through the fibers of her clothes. She reached out with arms that seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.
The woman approached the shore, their feet skimming lightly over the water, and soon stood in a well-organized knot in the reeds at the pond’s edge. Angel was afforded pride of place, directly in the center of the group. The other women backed away a respectful distance, giving her room. She held the baby and stared down at her mother.
Muriel shook her head, her lips flopping in futile rhythm. No, Angel, she wanted to say. How could they have done this to you? You can’t do this, not you. Not my Angel.
The girl seemed to have understood her mother’s thoughts, for her eyes flickered briefly, and she glanced down at William with what appeared to be uncertainty. But when she met Muriel’s gaze again, all semblance of the old Angel had disappeared. “They’ve given me power,” she said, and her voice, though seemingly choked with the filth and gravel and slime that coated the pond and everything in it, was as clear as a dagger sunk deep into Muriel’s heart. “They would have rewarded you. This is all that they asked for. Just this.” Angel held the baby out slightly—he wriggled and whimpered, and the women looked down at him with plain lust and hunger in their twinkling eyes.
“We could have been rich and powerful together,” Angel went on, her face a mask of mock regret. “You could have had other babies. Other girl babies. They only want the males.”
Muriel clenched her fists in the mud, trying to will away the vision of impossible reality before her, trying to convince herself that she was still asleep, back in the motel room or back in her old room in this house or even back in their old apartment in the city—anywhere
but crouching on the banks of the black pond that had stolen her childhood from her.
“I’m one of them now,” Angel said, clasping the baby closer to her chest. “William is going to make it official.”
“No…” Muriel managed to croak past the paralysis that stilled her throat.
The women were getting impatient now, eager to partake of the sacrifice of the living infant flesh seductively wriggling before them like a worm on a hook. From among the seething crowd came another voice, and Muriel recognized it as belonging to the leader, the woman she’d spoken to a million years ago, or maybe it was the night before. “It has come to this,” she said in her rattling frog-song. “It is your last chance. Join us now and you will be with Angel forever. Refuse us, and you will die like William, and like your brother before him.”
With the last scrap of willpower she possessed, Muriel raised her head and met the eyes of the hag with her own. A wordless look passed between them.
“The choice is made,” the leader said.
The van’s tires crunched up the dirt driveway, sending dozing bugs and lizards scurrying for cover. It was a hot day, midsummer, and the sun beat down like a punishment. Thin tendrils of steam rose from the surface of the pond behind the house.
A young man climbed down from the driver’s side, his hair shining like polished copper. A moment later he lifted a little girl—who looked no more than five, and shared her father’s new-penny hair color and soft, kindly features—down to the ground, where she immediately darted around to the passenger side to meet her mother, who was stepping out of the van with a wistful smile on her face. She scooped up her daughter and looked at the house’s crumbling but still grand façade. There was love in her face, and hope, glowing there like a beacon.
Muriel raised her head a little more above the surface of the pond. Her long algae hair dripped water into her opalescent eyes, but she barely noticed it.
The family had gone inside the house. Muriel gazed up to the second floor, to the nursery window where both Williams had once spent the whole of their short lives. For a second, she was sure she saw a little girl’s face behind the glass, staring back at her in pale, silent terror.
Muriel smiled and submerged her head again, clacking her sharp piranha teeth.
IT’S OFFICIAL! My novel Red Menace is out today! And best of all, there is a SALE! If you buy the ebook version today (PDF, ePub, MS Reader, Mobi Pocket, or Palm formats) directly from Damnation Books, it is absolutely FREE!!! You heard me, FREE. Can’t get any cheaper than that, can ya? If you need the Kindle version, it’s available from Amazon right here, for the low, low price of $5.95. If you’re an old fashioned girl like me, the print version will be available shortly.
If you have a horror mag/blog and would like a review copy or to set up an interview with the Goddess herself, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you read the book and enjoy it, would you please be so kind as to write a glowing review on the website of your choice? Thanks ever so much. If you need further incentive, there is a short excerpt from the novel below the pic. As always, thank you for your support! Goddess out.
Excerpt from Red Menace
©2014 Jenny Ashford and Damnation Books
As Paige pulled the lid up to close it, she noticed a slight shift in weight that she hadn’t noticed before. There was a large elastic-topped pocket on the inside of the lid, and there was something inside it.
By this point, Paige’s earlier trepidation had nearly vanished. She didn’t know what she had expected to find when she came barging into the attic, but a suitcase of moldy old jars was certainly anticlimactic and had largely put her at ease, even though she remained dimly aware of the clock and the window holding her in the beams of their disapproving glances. She hardly hesitated in pulling aside the worn elastic and sticking her hand into the lid pocket, drawing out what her questing fingers found there.
It was a canvas bag, about the size of a pillowcase, and very dirty, with a thin rope drawstring. It emitted an earthy smell from between its fibers, and in a flash of insight from somewhere seemingly outside herself, Paige knew what was in the bag, knew it as surely as she knew her own name. Once this realization had dawned, Paige pictured herself placing the unopened bag gently back into its pouch, then closing the suitcase, fleeing the suite and locking its door behind her. In reality, she watched in helpless horror as her hands, acting on orders other than her own, parted the mouth of the canvas bag wide, exposing its contents to the shadowy, crimson light of the Black Room.
Bones. A whole skeleton, it looked like, jumbled in the bottom of the bag like grisly puzzle pieces, marred with clumps of soil that released a pungent odor into Paige’s nostrils, putting her reluctantly in mind of burials, of the smell of freshly turned earth at Daniel’s mother’s funeral.
The skull was staring up at her with a half-jawed grin. It was a small skull, surely that of a child. It looked yellow and brittle with age, though a sudden shift in sunlight outside the scarlet window made it blaze momentarily with life, as though the red light had animated the face, furnished it with muscle and flesh.
Witches are badass, let’s just agree on that right out of the gate. Especially the old, scary, haggy ones that mix potions by moonlight and smooch the devil’s butt and turn people into toads and shit. They are the ultimate expression of unlimited female power, a fantasy representation of the point at which a woman no longer gives a fuck, refuses to put up with anyone’s crap, and decides to just plague her enemies with suppurating boils. Despite witches’ obvious excellence, however, I feel as though they’re a sort of under-utilized baddie in recent horror movies. I briefly survey the horror landscape and see it littered with countless shambling zombies, vampires both sparkly and otherwise, and big bad werewolves, but witches…not so much, especially if you’re discounting “sexy” witches and Wiccans, which I am because they aren’t scary. I was actually so distraught by the lack of old-school witchy shenanigans in recent horror that I decided to make a small, insignificant contribution toward their little image problem by writing a novel called Red Menace (out October 1st) that features some of that wicked witchcraft that I love so much and never see enough of. There are withered old crones! Spells! Glamours! Also, some serial murder, if you’re into that! Okay, plug over, let’s get on with today’s scene!
Let’s talk about Dario “Italian Hitchcock” Argento, shall we? Specifically, let’s talk about him when he was still collaborating with Daria Nicolodi and making beautiful, surreal, violent, and kick-ass horror and giallo films, and let’s not talk about his more recent output because it just makes me sad (do not think of The Card Player, repeat, DO NOT THINK OF THE CARD PLAYER). Back in that mythical time known as “the day,” Argento couldn’t put a foot wrong: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Opera, Tenebrae…all fantastic shit. But because I opened with witches, you guys know what movie I’m gonna be talking about, right? Of course you do.
Suspiria (1977) was the first film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, loosely based upon Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis. The other two films were the excellent Inferno (1980) and the massively disappointing Mother of Tears (2007). Basically, the mythology behind the trilogy is that of three dreadful witches (Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum) who get up to all sorts of worldwide evil from their bases in Rome, Freiburg, and New York; the films sort of take the mythos in three different directions, though, so they actually stand very well as individual movies. Suspiria is the nightmarish tale of an American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who travels to an elite dance school in Freiburg, Germany and slowly discovers that it’s a front for an evil coven of witches, headed by the terrifying Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs.
First off, I have to say that Suspiria is probably one of the world’s most beautiful films to look at. Argento not only shot the spectacular set in super-saturated hues and utilized special lenses and light filters, but he also used the same unusual Technicolor process that was used for The Wizard of Oz. Every frame of the film is like a strikingly composed light painting of a particularly gruesome fairy tale, with stark shadows and garish shafts of red, blue, green, and yellow light falling across the baroque and hyper-violent murder tableaus. I mean, just check out some of these stills:
I mean, that is so splendid that it’s almost ridiculous. Fun personal fact: in the house I used to live in, I took great care in decorating the whole space in a Suspiria theme. Every room was painted a different, dark, saturated color, and all the doors were painted black with red art-nouveau-style insets, just like in the movie. It looked wicked cool, and even though I had to leave the house behind, I still have fond memories of my one and only attempt at free-reign interior design.
Anyway, on to the scene. There are actually two scenes from Suspiria that are usually called out on various “scariest scene” lists, both of which are suitably amazing. The first is that tense, dynamite opener where Suzy is first arriving at the school in a torrential downpour, intercut with the grisly murder of expelled student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén). The other scene, fittingly, is the closing one, where Suzy finally confronts the ghastly figure of Helena Markos (as well as the reanimated corpse of murdered student Sarah, played by Stefania Casini) and kills her with a beautiful, glass peacock-feather spike. Italian killings are clearly far more elegant and aesthetically pleasing than other kinds of killings, you see.
But true to the spirit of this blog series, I’d like to discuss a lesser-recognized scene that had that subtle, unsettling vibe that I’m so fond of, particularly as it appears in a film as over-the-top operatic as this one. In the scene, the catty ballet students have just been subjected to a literal rain of maggots in their respective quarters, which is probably like the last thing you’d expect to happen at one of the most snooty and elitist ballet schools on the planet. The teachers and staff (read: witches, you guys, they’re all witches) are all like, NBD, there was just some rotten food stored in boxes up in the attic or something, that’s all, and the maggots just squirmed out through the cracks in the ceiling and kinda ruined everyone’s day. It’s all cool, tho.
While the students’ rooms are being de-grubbed, the staff set up an impromptu dorm in the practice hall, with rows and rows of fold-out beds, and the girls and boys separated by high white curtains. All the women are getting into their beds and trying to make the best of things, saying it’ll be just like camp. One of the heads of the academy, the sternly efficient Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), walks through the dorm to make sure everyone is comfortable. One of the students asks if the teachers will all be sleeping in the dorm too, to which Madame Blanc replies that all of them certainly will be, except for the directress, of course. Then Madame asks if it’s all right if she turns the lights out. She disappears behind one of the curtained walls, and immediately the whole space is plunged into a saturated, blood-red dimness, like a photographic darkroom.
There is some banter and chicanery, as one of the male students climbs up to say hello from the other side of the curtain, and then the students settle into bed and begin gossiping and arguing until one of the girls tells them to put a sock in it so they can all get some sleep. Then there’s a creepy panning shot across the dark red dorm, and on the soundtrack are the eerie sounds of sighs and wails and screams, threaded through an ominous prog-rock beat (provided by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin). We can see shadowed silhouettes of presumed staff members sleeping on the other side of the curtain, filtered through that intense red light. Then we close in on a silhouette of one empty bed. A weird shadow approaches the bed and sits down on it. It appears to be a woman, but something about her is…off. She almost looks bald, for one thing, and as she lies back on the bed, the silhouette of her body through her nightgown looks like a skeleton, almost like an x-ray. The background music gets louder and weirder (and I have to say that I absolutely love Goblin’s score for this film, which actually doesn’t seem as though it would work, but does, beautifully). We see Suzy and Sarah lying in their beds side by side, and behind them is that creepy-ass silhouette on the other side of the curtain. Then we start to hear this weird, rattling wheeze.
Sarah sits up in bed, listening, then whips her head around to look at the silhouette behind them. There’s a shot of Sarah from the other side, as though someone is peeking through the curtain at her. She shakes Suzy and asks if she’s awake. “Do you hear that snoring?” Sarah asks. “It’s weird.” And indeed, it is very weird and intensely unnerving. The chest of the silhouette rises and falls in time with the rasping horror-noise. Sarah gets out of bed and kneels next to Suzy’s bed so she can whisper to her. “They lied to us,” Sarah says. “The directress is here. That’s her, the one who’s snoring.” She points back toward the sheet. “How do you know?” Suzy whispers. “Last year, for a while,” Sarah explains, “I lived in one of the guest rooms. The ones at the top of the stairs. One night, I heard someone come in very late, and get into bed in the room next to mine.” As she’s saying this, in a creepy whisper, she’s looking around the room and Suzy is just staring ahead, wide-eyed and obviously frightened. “And then…I heard this weird…kind of snoring. I tell you it was so weird I never forgot it. Listen! Do you hear that whistle? It’s…exactly…the…same.” Then she says, “The next morning, Madame Blanc told me that the directress had spent a few hours at the school, and had checked in the room next to mine. So you see, I know that’s the directress. She’s here. She’s theeeeeeere,” Sarah hisses, peering over her shoulder at the silhouette. “Right…behind…that…sheet.” And then there is a closeup of the head of the silhouette, and then another creepy wheeze, and then fade to black.
At this point in the film, we only know the directress by reputation, and are not yet really aware that she is indeed the powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum. Even so, you know something is going on with that scary-ass woman behind the sheet, and the scene is perhaps even more affecting, given what we don’t yet know about her. Coming about halfway through the film, it’s a fantastic tension-building scene, laden with mystery and foreboding. Had Argento continued to make movies in this particular and distinctive style, instead of losing his mojo somewhere around 1996, just think of the further masterpieces he could have produced as he grew as an artist. Alas, that’s not how the cauldron bubbled, but at least we’ll always have Suspiria.
Once again, Goddess out.
Children are often frightened by inexplicable things. When I was but a wee goddess, for example, I was sent into paroxysms of terror by the bubbling cauldron sound effect at the beginning of the song “The Monster Mash,” and to this day I still have no idea why. Without fail, whenever the song came on the radio around Halloween, I would bolt from the room, trembling, with my hands clamped over my ears. Similarly, I have very vivid memories of a large, papier-mâché dragon mask made by my uncle sometime in the late 1970s. He kept it in his bedroom at my grandfather’s old house (which was a huge, dark, mysterious pile whose corridors and overgrown gardens still feature in many of my dreams), and I absolutely refused to go upstairs the entire time the mask was there. After all, It might have been watching me with those horribly blank eyeholes, and planning to gobble me up. The mask made such an impression, in fact, that many years later I used it as the basis for a short story called “Heartworms” (which can be found in my 2011 book The Associated Villainies, if you’d care to read it).
On the other hand, a great deal of ostensibly “children’s” entertainment is purposely made to be straight-up nightmare fuel, from the days of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the more modern frights dished out by the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and the Harry Potter series. Most kids absolutely love to be scared, or at least I did when I was that age, as I rented age-inappropriate slasher flicks from our local video store and checked out every Alfred Hitchcock horror anthology from the library that I could get my sticky little fingers on. Often, when you see or read your childhood terrors again as an adult, you’re sort of shocked that kids turn out as relatively normal as they do, having processed images like that when their brains were still not fully formed (there’s also that corollary of “Why the hell did my parents let me watch/read that, for fuck’s sake?”). Think of the witch’s transformation scene from Disney’s Snow White, for instance, or the Heffalumps and Woozles from Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day, or the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia. Think of Augra and the creepy Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, or the “Wembley and the Terrible Tunnel” episode of “Fraggle Rock.” When you really stop to think about it, a startling amount of children’s entertainment from my era is chock full of horrors, from the poor little cartoon shoe getting slowly lowered into the Dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the nightmare scene in The Brave Little Toaster to the boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to pretty much the entirety of Watership Down. I don’t really have any definitive theories as to why writers and filmmakers often go so dark with material that is supposedly meant for children. It may be because, as creative people, they remember all too well how new and real everything feels when you’re a kid; scary things are ten times scarier and tend to stick with you for years in a way they fail to do as you get older. Adult filmmakers know very well that they’re terrifying the pants off the rugrats, but I don’t think they’re doing it out of sadistic glee. Quite the contrary, I feel that it’s a tremendous gesture of respect toward children, a way to say, “I know what I’m putting on the screen in front of you is scary, much scarier than it would be if you were a grown-up. But I also know that you’re strong enough to handle it.”
There were many, many cartoons that left an indelible imprint on my young and fragile psyche, but I’d like to discuss this particular one, simply because for many years I thought I had maybe imagined it. I remember seeing it several times on HBO or Cinemax somewhere around 1978 or 1979, but then not seeing it again for many, many years. Every now and then, a memory of a scene would drift through my consciousness, and I would ask whoever I happened to be with at the time if they knew what cartoon I was talking about. None of them did, and I began to feel as though the whole thing had been a fever dream. But then came the advent of the internet, and at last I was able to confirm that yes, it was a real animated movie, and yes, of course you can now watch the entire thing on YouTube. Big high five to the 21st century.
Jakku to Mame no Ki, better known by its English-language title, Jack and the Beanstalk, was a 1974 Japanese attempt at replicating a more Western, Disney-style musical animated film. It was directed by Gisaburö Sugii, and was of course based on the well-known fairy tale, though because it was Japanese, it seemed like it couldn’t help but go off in some fairly strange directions.
There’s the standard fairy-tale opener of Jack buying some magic beans and climbing up the subsequent stalk, and there is a giant involved, but here’s where things get sort of weird. The first person Jack meets when he gets to the castle in the clouds at the top of the beanstalk is Princess Margaret, a big-eyed, pointy-haired beauty who seems ever-so-slightly out of it. She’s very wispy and serene, floating around on little cloud puffs and humming contentedly to herself. She takes Jack into the seemingly deserted castle and shows him a glowering portrait of a giant, hulking brute named Tulip, who she is going to be marrying the next day. She is clearly blissfully happy about this development, swirling around the empty castle rooms like a super mellow hippie chick on a massive dose of E, but Jack just seems wigged out by the whole situation. His unease only grows when he is introduced to the giant’s mother, an Evil Queen/Maleficent/Cruella DeVil simulacrum named Madame Hecuba, who has a scrawny, terrifying face, huge evil eyes, and a creepy-as-fuck old-hag voice. She can also move things around just by waving her hands, so you know she’s no one to trifle with, although at first she seems rather hospitable, if a tad menacing. Madame Hecuba sends Margaret to her room to “fix her makeup” (we find out later that the witch is using a drug that comes out of a powder compact to control Margaret and get her to marry Tulip so that Madame Hecuba can be queen and run the Land of the Clouds after she offs the princess) and then takes Jack up to the dining hall. They walk through the darkened, cavernous hallways with the weirdly patterned floors, and then they get into an elevator that takes them up to the long, eerie dining room. There, the witch feeds Jack a soup that knocks him out, and then she greedily stashes him in a pot for later eating, gloating the whole time that it’s been twenty long years since she was last able to feast on human flesh.
The scene I’d like to focus on is the wedding scene between Tulip and Margaret, because it’s sort of trippily disturbing in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate when I was seeing it as a child. We see the stupid, apelike Tulip getting spiffy in his wedding clothes, and then we see Madame Hecuba industriously cutting something or other out of sheets of white paper. There’s a shot of Margaret in her wedding dress, sitting in front of the mirror in her room, totally spaced out and not moving. In the next shot, we see that Madame Hecuba has actually been cutting out life-sized and square-headed paper people, with only slits for eyes and no other facial features, and now she’s draping them lovingly over the pews in the wedding chapel. Did I mention that Hecuba is singing a totally weird song while all this is going on, complete with witchy cackling and lyrics about how she can’t stop laughing because she knows her terrible scheme is coming to fruition? Yeah. Japan. Anyway, Tulip lumbers in in his ridiculous suit, and then Hecuba raises her arms, and all the paper people stand up like reverse dominoes. She spreads her arms again and all the paper people dutifully sit down.
The witch then goes to Margaret’s quarters. Margaret stands up when she enters, as if on cue, but doesn’t look at her or speak. Hecuba tells Margaret that her bridegroom is waiting, and that all the guests are assembled in the chapel, and that Margaret mustn’t keep everyone waiting. The drugged Margaret follows the witch out of the open-air room without saying a word. Then, there is the sound of wedding bells from the tower, and a slow pan down the exterior walls of the castle. Meanwhile, Jack and his dog have found the treasure room, where there are a group of mice in fancy dress crying about the impending wedding (these are the people who rightfully lived in the castle until Hecuba turned them into rodents, you see). Jack threatens a talking harp with an axe to get info about how to break the spell that Margaret is under so he can save her. The harp finally caves and gives the standard answer that the spell can be broken by a kiss from a “brave” man.
Next, we hear those dissonant wedding bells, sounding more like grim funeral tolls, and there’s a green-tinted shot of Tulip walking down the aisle with a very tiny and clearly benumbed Margaret sitting on his arm (the implications of which weirded me out even as a child). Then the priest, who is also a paper person but actually has a freaky-looking mouth that looks like a pulsating butthole in addition to the triangular slit-eyes, begins singing a really unsettling wedding song (that has some bizarre Klaus Nomi moments) as the bride and groom approach. Madame Hecuba is standing at the back of the chapel, her hands clenched in front of her in gleeful anticipation, an evil grin on her face. Margaret slides off the giant’s arm and stands in front of him, only coming up to his enormous crotch (ewwwww). Everything is still colored a sickly looking green, and the paper priest is still singing. The paper people in the pews stand up, and there’s a panning shot of their empty, triangular eyeholes. There’s Tulip again, looking adoringly down at his bride, and there’s Margaret, looking totally slack and unreactive, and then there’s Madame Hecuba’s hungry visage. The screen goes red, and we see Hecuba’s fantasy, where she is dressed in queenly raiment and uses her wand to turn Tulip into a rat. A moment later, the screen goes yellow and we see what is presumably Tulip’s fantasy, he and Margaret swinging on an enormous wedding bell. Then everything’s green again. “He loves her,” Hecuba hisses over a shot of Tulip gazing lovingly down at Margaret. “She loves him,” Hecuba says over another shot of Margaret looking like a zombie. “The perfect match!” she cackles, and then the paper priest, still singing, starts kinda rising in the air, with his little paper bible held in one paper-strip hand. Then all the paper people in the pews are waving around in time with the music, and then everything in the chapel starts lurching and waving, and everything’s green and sort of seasick-looking, and Hecuba keeps insisting in her horrible voice, speaking telepathically to Margaret, “Say that you love him! Say that you love him!” And it’s all very psychedelic and unsettling, and it was kinda freaking me out again as I watched it for this recap, but then the whole wedding comes to a screeching halt when Jack comes crashing in through a stained-glass window to kiss the bride and break the spell. After a harrowing chase around the castle during which Tulip causes easily one hundred million dollars worth of damage, the day is saved.
Oh, and did I also mention that suddenly Hecuba has fangs, Tulip can Hulk out to like ten times his size and wears boxer shorts with hearts on them, and that when Tulip finally gets sick of Hecuba’s shit and steps on her, it turns out that she’s mechanical? Yeah. Japan.
I have to say that even as an adult, I still adore this cartoon. The animation is somewhat shoddy, even for the time, and some of the dubbing work (particularly the voice of Jack) is a bit goofball, as happens with a lot of Japanese imports. But there’s just something about the whole eerie atmosphere of it that still gives me a pleasant little shiver. When I originally saw it, I had no idea that it was a dubbed Japanese film, so perhaps that contributed to the otherworldly vibe it gave off that kid-me found so off-putting and appealing at the same time. The music is also weirdly great, and there’s just such an early-70s acid-trip patina coating the whole experience that I can’t help but be captivated all over again anytime I watch it.
Until next time, Goddess out.