Fantastic Skulduggery

Fantastic skulls and where to see them no longer.


Giant inflatable unicorn skull photographed outside of the High Court of Australia, Parkes Place, ACT 2600. The skull was not seeking redress through the High Court after being called ‘mythological’ by representatives of the Australian Government. In fact it was simply pining for the fjords as part of the annual Enlighten Festival several years ago. I doubt unicorns seek legal redress if they feel they have been slighted. They have a horn for a reason you know.


Timbered Walls a Sanctuary Makes

Ghosts, not as omnipotent as we thought apparently.

Lee Brown Coye
                           A Haunted House by Lee Brown Coye

A while back I was listening to Amanda Vickery’s BBC Radio series, A History Of Private Life when in the second episode she delivered a rather interesting aside. (I’d offer you a link but the series is no longer available on the BBC iPlayer.) While talking about the tradition of houses being a barrier against witches, wizards, demons, and other terrors of the night she mentioned that the ability of ghosts to walk through walls is a modern conceit. According to Amanda Vickery traditionally the denizens of the supernatural world could no more ignore the barrier of a stout wall than the those of us living in the physical.

Not surprisingly my ears perked right up at this claim. My assumption was that the ability to pass through solid objects has always been a basic supernatural right. Any talk to the contrary interested me greatly as it suggested I had been operating on a false assumption all these years.

Given my impression that Amanda Vickery is somebody who does her homework and that A History Of Private Life is a well researched series I don’t want to dismiss this claim out of hand. Still, I’m not willing to accept her claim without giving it some thought. However, something to keep in mind before I go any further is that Amanda Vickery was talking specifically about England, or at most the UK so folktales from elsewhere can’t be taken into account as that wouldn’t be fair to her claim.

The the first point to make then is that ghosts are a quite different category of the supernatural to witches, wizards, demons and frequently operate under different rules. This definitely muddies the waters of debate quite a bit. For example many traditional tales of haunting involve the ghost being located within the walls of a building which at first glance would seem to knock Vickery’s claim right on the head. Not necessarily though if we assume (for the sake of argument) that a ghost comes into being in whatever place had greatest significance for the individual when they breathed their last. By that logic a ghost might first appear either inside or out but is trapped on the side of the wall it finds itself on. Since uncertain memory suggests to me that in traditional ghost stories it was not entirely clear whether ghosts did pass through walls or simply approach some physical barrier and disappear right before it (often in order to indicate a hidden object that needed to be found before the ghost could rest) rather than actually pass through the wall this seems a distinct possibility.

On the other hand uncertain memory also suggests that traditional tales usually imply that ghosts are limited in their ability to roam anyway which makes the entire question of stout walls being a barrier rather irrelevant. Witches wizards, and demons being alive (arguable in the case of demons I know, but at least they’re something other than dead) are free agents who can travel the countryside. That being so folklore requires some means to limit their ability otherwise they become invincible which wouldn’t do at all. So tradition dictates witches wizards, and demons can’t just kick in your nice stout door and have their way with you at will. This same logic explains why in folktales vampires have to be invited inside before they can enter your house for a biting good time. If vampires could simply flutter through any open window on whim it would be fangs for the memories as far as the human race was concerned. A haunted house on the other hand is a limited threat because the majority of traditional ghost stories do imply the ghost is more or less fixed in one place. I’ve encountered more than one such tale in the protagonist is told not to go to a certain place at a certain time because the ghost is a danger and of course they can’t resist going to that place at that time only to be found dead the next morning. By this logic then the only way a ghost becomes a serious threat is putting yourself in harms way. Ghosts should not be a serious threat unless a rich relative demands in their will that you spend the night in a haunted house before inheriting their fortune.

Anyway, what the above suggests to me is that if ghosts traditionally could not pass through solid objects it was because they had no need to. This in turn means that on one hand Amanda Vickery is very likely correct in her claim but on the other hand she’s probably only correct because there was no reason for them to do so rather than because ghosts were specifically barred from passing through walls.

However, this is not necessarily the end of the matter because while the majority of ghosts don’t appear to be free-range there are some which are allowed surprisingly large territories. The Wild Hunt for example is sometimes depicted as being composed of the dead and as far as I know the Hunt can pretty much go where it likes. This only counts in folktales where the Wild Hunt is described as spectral rather than Fey Folk as fairies are entirely different piece of folklore with an entirely different set of rules (and Amanda Vickery never defined their house entering status, mostly I suspect because I don’t recall a folktale in which one of the Fey Folk wanted to enter a human abode).

Another example would be the many tales of headless horsemen and other vengeful ghosts haunting ancient roads. In these stories the ghost is always difficult to escape because they aren’t confined to a specific area once they materialise (though their initial appearance does seem to be limited to a specific place). In which case it would make sense for folklore to balance this ability for such ghosts to roam widely by placing the same limitation upon them as stopped witches, wizards, and demons from forcing their way into the family home.

So I’m inclined to agree with Amanda Vickery but with the qualifier that her comment is only relevant to a minority of ghosts.

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

A parody of the poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore.

Probably not Yngvi…

It was in the May 1940 issue of Unknown that a novelette written by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt was first published. The novelette was called The Roaring Trumpet, and marked the first appearance of their hero, Harold Shea, who went on to feature in a series of other stories by de Camp and Pratt It also marked the non-appearance of an equally famous character. At one point Harold Shea and the Norse god Heimdall are imprisoned by Frost Giants after losing a fight with them. While there they encountered a fellow prisoner who comes to the front of his cell every hour on the hour to yell, “Yngvi is a LOUSE!”

Thus began a debate which fascinated science fiction fandom for decades. Was this Yngvi indeed a louse or had his good name been falsely besmirched? At the Denvention, the 1941 worldcon, Milton Rothman (who went on to become a nuclear physicist and science fiction author) put forward a motion at the business meeting to the effect that Yngvi was not a louse only for it to be defeated. A subsequent motion was then passed stating that Rothman himself was a louse.

What the truth of this matter is I suppose we’ll never know for certain. Certainly, at least to the best of my knowledge, neither L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt ever broke down and revealed the truth about their throw-away non-appearing character.

If Yngvi was indeed a louse then I like to think that he was probably a trickster figure, a junior Loki if you will. Yes, just let that idea sink in before you read any further. It’s to that proposition that the following poem is dedicated…

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, the end of year slump
And nobody’s posting, not even to grump

That they’re sitting at home, so bored with their day
That to pixel-stained technopeasants they’re liable to stray

My monitor bathed me in a soft festive glow
As I sprawled in my chair, too lazy to go

And tuck myself snug into bed for the night
To dream of the past and putting it right

When from out from the chimney arose a loud clatter
Of scratching and curses and similar matter

I was up in a flash and gasped in surprise
As a chimney indeed met my wondering eyes

What madness was this I thought to myself
Seconds before there was not even a shelf

The wall had been blank, nothing but bricks
To add such a feature was the wildest of tricks

So when his black boots first slid into view
I took it most calmly because that I knew

That whoever made chimneys down them to drop
Would not in my power be easy to stop

So I sat back in my chair to wait for my guest
To reveal himself fully and the why of his quest

It took a few moments of squirming and kicking
Before he appeared rather than sticking

It was Yngvi of course, I could tell by his dress
An amazingly scrofulous, glorious mess

He spoke a few words with a wink and a leer
Making it plain why he’d travelled to here

According to Yngvi come each Solstice Eve
It was his regular duty, a gift he must leave

To one random member of the science fiction crew
A wish they could have, for the new year come true

I raised up my eyebrows and exclaimed in surprise
To trust someone like me was a mad enterprise

Yngvi laughed at my claim and explained in a trice
This was never a contest between naughty and nice

The decision was random and made to bring life
For Yngvi’s a louse and quite fond of such strife

Having decided the why I then started to think
About what sort of change might tickle me pink

I shuffled my thoughts, from noble to lowly
Before announcing success by nodding most slowly

To Yngvi I smiled and announced my grand plan
Most outrageous it was, a perverse little scam

He nodded quite gravely but picked not a bone
Yes, he accepted my choice, it was written in stone

The change that I’d ask for soon would become clear
With the arrival too soon of another New Year

Then with a bow of farewell and a tap of his nose
He departed at once, up the chimney he rose

My wall reappeared right after his leap
So then I did wonder if I’d just been asleep

But I thought my dear reader as I blundered to bed
That I’d be able to tell if you soon asked for my head

So to one and to all my good wishes I send
And the hope my choice doesn’t mean chaos my friends

Far Beneath, the Abysmal Sea

The reality of unnatural phenomena.

Forlorn we wait the lashing of the waves,
As they hunt with empty formless hate,
Striking our wooden walls until the boat it staves,
And draws us down to our dreadful roiling fate.

Flying Dutchman.jpg

The principle of mass conservation is one of the fundamental laws used in physics to explain the way the universe works. It states that the mass of a system must remain constant over time, thus mass can neither be created nor destroyed, although it may be rearranged in space or changed in form. The law implies that during any chemical reaction, nuclear reaction, or radioactive decay in an isolated system, the total mass of the reactants or starting materials must be equal to the mass of the products.

It’s a law that I have decided can be equally applied to fiction.

Consider this plot then. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Drama occurs. That’s reality and it’s all around us so the creation of fictional drama is really a process not unlike photosynthesis. In other words the creativity is in rearranging in space or changing in form that which already exists.

Okay, so lets consider another example. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Girl is werewolf. Drama occurs. So does this violate the principle of mass conservation? Werewolves don’t actually exist so does this count as actual creation, an addition to reality rather than photosynthesis? At first glance something like this does seem to be violating the principle due to it’s fantastical nature. But no, like all fantasy the idea of a werewolf is simply a misinterpretation of reality. Werewolves do not exist in real life but every part of their legend is based on some aspect of reality not properly understood by the creators of said legend.

What makes the idea that the principle of reality conservation in fiction so interesting is the game it allows in regards to myth and legend. If such stories are based upon the misinterpretation of reality then the fun is in narrowing down the possible sources of said misinterpretation and disproving the red herrings. One of the best (and most readable) examples of this process is a book called The Legend of Sawney Bean by old-time British Science Fiction Association member Ronald Holmes. In the book Holmes dissects the legend of Sawney Bean, a cannibal who along with his family supposedly lived in a cave and preyed upon travelers in the Galloway region of Scotland. Usually there is not nearly as much useful detail as Ron Holmes had to work with so legend doesn’t always lend itself to easy interpretation. Sometimes though you can be sitting there quietly, just minding your own business, when a fact comes along to pierce the murky depths of legend. Take the story of the Flying Dutchman for example.

The first reference in print to the ship appeared in 1795, when George Barrington mentioned the matter in his book, Voyage to Botany Bay. According to Barrington sailors had told him of a story about a Dutch ship that was lost at sea during a horrendous storm. This it was claimed was due to Captain Bernard Fokke for he was known for the speed on his trips from Holland to Java. The story went that Fokke was aided by the Devil and that he and his crew eventually paid the price for dealing with Old Nick and so were consequently doomed to sail the seas forever more despite their demise. Sighting the Flying Dutchman was said to be very bad luck.

Now what strikes me most about all this is how late in the piece this legend comes. The general agreement seems to be that the Flying Dutchman legend originated in the eighteenth century and that my friends is passing strange. If the Flying Dutchman obeys the principle of reality conservation in fiction then what changed to make such a story suddenly possible? Clearly some new phenomena was needed because mysteriously abandoned boats drifting with the currents is a scene as old as sailing itself. If it was simply a matter of sailors wanting to explain boats apparently travelling by themselves then I can’t imagine they would wait till the eighteenth century to invent the Flying Dutchman story.

It’s for this reason I’m not convinced by the popularity of the fata morgana as an explanation. The fata morgana is a mirage that occurs when warm air rests right above the cold air near the surface of the ocean. The air between the two masses acts as a refracting lens, which will produce an upside-down, distorted image of an object. Even though a ship may be beyond the horizon observers may see an inverted, blurry image of a ghostly ship that will suddenly vanish as the relative position of the observers to the real ship changes.

However given that the Strait of Messina, the body of water between Sicily and mainland Italy, is a famous location for sailors to encounter the fata morgana it seems a tad unlikely this is the inspiration. If it was, then again, why wait till the eighteenth century to concoct a legend of explanation for something known about by the Greeks and Romans? No, what we need to satisfy the principle of reality conservation in fiction is the appearance of some new phenomena that sailors did not encounter, and thus were not moved to explain, until the eighteenth century.

It was while listening to the radio one day that such a possibility presented itself to me. The presenter was interviewing a couple of professional treasure hunters who had been working off the coast of New Zealand. The conversation turned to certain sailing ships laden with valuable cargo that had sunk in those waters and how hard it was to find the remains of these ships.

Now you would think this was simply a case of there being no reliable information as to where the ships in question had gone down. This is fact was rarely the case due to survivors and sometimes even sailors from other ships being able to identify when and where a particular vessel had foundered and under what conditions. And of course once you know details like that the area a treasure hunter needs to search is narrowed considerably. So no, a lack of reportage was not the main problem, instead the major difficulty in locating many of these older wrecks has to do with sheep.

I have to admit that it seems reasonable to assume that once a ship has taken on so much water that the tipping point is reached there isn’t any direction for it to travel but straight down. At best logic dictates a sinking ship might head towards the sea floor at a steep angle due to losing buoyancy unevenly. Even so it should come to rest in a location easy enough to find so long as the location of the tipping point in known. All that reasonable assuming however is based upon steel hulled ships which are too heavy to behave in any other way.

To be fair that’s usually the case with wooden ships too. The average wooden ship might be a whole lot lighter than anything made of steel but the timber it’s constructed of doesn’t have unlimited buoyancy so once the tipping point has been reached that ship is going down. At best the buoyancy of the wood might slow the rate of descent but even that’s a moot point if the ship is laden with cargo, the dead weight of which is going to minimise drift. That, however, is where the sheep come in you see.

The fact was that much of the cargo being exported from New Zealand was relatively buoyant. Bales of wool were not only light in relation to their mass but also contained considerable quantities of trapped air. So while it’s true that a wooden ship carrying a cargo of wool wasn’t unsinkable, such ships would go to the bottom eventually, it’s equally true that depending on how many bales the ship was carrying the descent might take days or even weeks to be completed. So in effect a wooden ship that had been driven onto a rocky outcrop and taken on so much water that its decks were awash and the crew forced to abandon might still be riding high enough for the brave or the foolhardy to stand on the submerged deck once the storm has passed.

What really captured my imagine however was one of the treasure hunters pointing out that even a submerged ship is subject to tides and currents. Which means that after a ship has reached the point of being all or mostly below the waves it’s still being carried along by whichever current has a hold of it. Not only that but according to this treasure hunter such wool laden wooden ships often sank slowly enough to allow currents at different depths to push the ship in different directions. Not surprisingly this process introduces so many variables into calculating the final resting place that a sufficiently small search area can’t be defined. In other words there are sunken wrecks off the coast of New Zealand which are simply unfindable because it’s impossible to know how far they traveled during the process of sinking.

Now, it’s not impossible that something like this happened before the eighteenth century or thereabouts but it does seem unlikely. Early ships mostly carried their cargo unenclosed so I assume they went straight down as they sank because any buoyant cargo could break free and drift away. Even after ships became large enough to store cargo beneath deck the storage space was probably too small for even the most buoyant cargo to overcome the dead weight of the ship itself.

At some point however shipbuilders crossed a line in their quest for cargo capacity that would match the ever increasing demands of international trade. Most sinking ships still went down in the traditional manner but at last a small percentage with the right sort of cargo began taking the scenic route to the sea floor.

Imagine that your ship has just survived a storm and as you sweep the deck what do you see coming towards you but the tip of a mast. Eventually an entirely submerged schooner hoves into view, trailing ropes and scraps of sail silently undulating like the primitive fins of some prehistoric sea-creature. Slowly, but with seeming purpose, it continues on to who knows where. You don’t know what ship this is or why it’s doing something that to the best of your knowledge is totally unnatural. It needs an explanation though because something, anything, is better than the unknown, especially when you sail so far from man and all his works.

How easy would it be to imagine the mystery ship still crewed. Could those wavering shapes be more than a trick of the light in unsettled water? Who could that be but a forlorn figure of a captain standing in silent command beneath the shimmering waves?

And thus, perhaps, the legend of the Flying Dutchman and his search for release from Earth bound limbo is born.