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“Learning to Fly”: A New Short Story by Stephen Parish

Mary Poppins by OlayaValle disneyfemales.deviantart.com

Mary Poppins by OlayaValle
disneyfemales.deviantart.com

I was about four or five when I jumped off the roof of the house.

My family lived in the double-wide trailer on two acres of land my parents purchased in Burgaw, North Carolina. Unexplored wilderness  and an unkept field bordered the far reaches of the property. Snakes and other wildlife lived in these places, and my parents did not want me terrorizing the poor creatures. So, I mainly played in and immediately around the house. To keep me entertained while playing inside, they bought a Fisher Price playhouse that they assembled in my bedroom. I loved this house. I camped out in it many nights, and it served as a lair for action figures and stuffed animals.

During our few years living in Burgaw, my two younger brothers were newly born, so I had to entertain myself. And I had a wild imagination. The bathroom next to my bedroom surely had a monster that lived in the air vent. He hissed and grumbled at night. It’s true! Whenever I had to walk by the bathroom to get to my room, I would hurry passed the door. He surely was waiting for me, ready to leap out and eat me. My parents always wondered why I used their bathroom.

Monsters aside, most of my solitary adventures were inspired from movies I had seen. I watched Peter Pan frequently. And when I say frequently, I mean every day. Every. Day. After every viewing, I would pretend to be Peter Pan and fly around the house, rescuing Wendy and battling the villainous Captain Hook (and his evil monster in my bathroom air vent). Other repeated inspirations came from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I don’t remember any adventures, but I faintly recall a pair of pajamas that I’m sure I insisted I wear every night. Every. Night.

But no adventure was quite as fun as the one after I saw Mary Poppins. As I had a habit of repeatedly watching the same movie to no exhaustive end, I don’t recall if this adventure followed the first or hundredth time I had seen the film. But my little precocious mind had one goal—fly! So, I grabbed an umbrella and headed for my bedroom.

 As a small child, I was good at getting into and atop things I shouldn’t. Risking the ire of my parents didn’t really bother me until corporal punishment was dealt. However, my parents were not at home. They left me in the charge of my great-grandmother whom I called Grandma L—–, for simplicity. She was a gentle but firm old Southern woman known for her stubborn will. And with umbrella in hand, I was about to test that strong will of hers.

 Once in my bedroom, I opened the window of the Fisher Price house and hoisted myself from the ledge. The green plastic roof was slippery, but I balanced myself by squatting down. I opened the umbrella–and jumped. The umbrella acted as a parachute and caught the air underneath. It was like riding the winds! I was Mary Poppins!

 I landed on the floor with absolutely no harm to myself and climbed the house for another try. I was having fun—until she came in.

“What are you doing!” she scolded. “Give me that! That is not a toy!”

Peter Pan Syndrome by emmilinne emmilinne.deviantart.com

Peter Pan Syndrome by emmilinne
emmilinne.deviantart.com

We had an argument, as I explained my reasons for needing the umbrella and why she couldn’t take it away. In the end, she confiscated my umbrella. She went into the living room and delicately wrapped the umbrella with her knobby fingers. I walked up to her and insisted that I have the umbrella back. The discussion was brief. I returned to my room to play with my other toys. The Fisher Price house stood in the corner. Its appeal had diminished now it wasn’t a launching pad for aerial adventures.

Then, an idea sparked in my audacious mind—Peter Pan didn’t need an umbrella to fly.

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Briggs’ Beasties: It

For anyone just joining us, over the course of the month of April, I’ll be looking at several of the most intriguing monsters outlined in Katharine Briggs’ excellent book An Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ll also take a moment or two to explain what about them I find compelling (or not), and what we can learn about creating monsters of our own for use in our fiction.

For our final beastie of the month, It!

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"Slub"--a stranded jellyfish. Is this what It looks like?

“It” certainly sounds like a prosaic and unoriginal name for a monster.  I mean come on!  We’ve talked about “Nuckelavee,” the “Slough,” the “Fachan,” and “Herne the Hunter.”  Maybe at some point in the future I’ll cover the hinky punk, the gwyllion, Jeannie of Biggersdale (who is also more imposing than her name implies), or even Dobby (not the house elf).  To go from that level of creative nomenclature to a simple “It”?! Couldn’t we think of something better?  Don’t write It off yet, though.  It is one of Briggs’ most interesting creatures–and also one of the most mysterious.

According to Briggs, It is a very powerful representative of the sidhe from Shetland, and is uncommonly adept at using something known as “glamour.”  Glamour is the natural ability that fairies have to enchant mortals.  This allows them to manipulate how we view reality.  They can work any number of different effects, from hiding from us to leading us astray (i.e. the “pixie-led” phenomenon) to stealing our energy to playing pranks on us.  In this case, It has such a mastery of glamour that no one has ever seen It’s true form.  No two people looking at It ever see the same thing.  Apparently, It is most commonly encountered around Christmas time, when the power of the trows is at its peak for the year.*

The attempts to describe It are, of course, as diverse as they are futile.  Briggs mentions an account in Jessie Saxby’s Shetland Traditional Lore:

One said, It looked like a large lump of ‘Slub’ (jellyfish).  Next It would seem like a bag of white wool.  Another time it appeared like a beast wanting legs.  Again, like a human form without the head.  Never did It appear in the same guise.  Without legs or wings It could run faster than a dog, and fly faster than an eagle.  It made no sound of any sort yet folk could understand what It meant to say, and repeated what It told one without a word being uttered.

So, not only does It have significant power in terms of glamour, it is sentient and even psychic.  As a creature, then, It is indeed far more than meets the eye!

fleece, wool

Is this really award winning fleece, or did It decide to visit the county fair? Photo by Cgoodwin

While it might seem that It runs afoul of the same points I used to critique Nuckelavee and the fachan, I think It is another good example of a beastie done right.  Nuckelavee and the fachan are limited in that they are obviously compiled once and that is that.  Either they scare you or they don’t.  It has the mystery and subtlety that they sorely miss.

In It we see…quite literally anything we want to see.  That allows It to take on the form of whatever frightens us, our characters, or our readers the most.  The fact that It remains a complete mystery only deepens It’s effect on us.  What is It’s true form?  Does It even have one?  What sort of creature is It, really?  What does It want?  Why did It choose to show me that form in particular?  What might It look like if It appeared now?  If It can project It’s thoughts into my head, can It hear what I’m thinking?

Of course, none of that can be answered.  Nor should most of it be.  Handled properly, that vagueness can be It’s greatest asset.  We see enough of It to know that we’ve something to fear, but not so much that the fear can become tangible to the point that we know what to do about it.  That makes It, in a very real way, “fear itself.”  It is the unknown and unknowable personified.  When one skeptic asked a witness if a sighting of It could have been nothing more than an otter or perhaps a seal, he “was gravely answered with a shake of the head:”

We all ken there’s mony kinds of life that lives in the air, in the earth and water–foby the clouds abune [above].  And we, poor mortals, have no vision to hear or see, or understand the like.  We must just leave all that to the Powers abune.

Perhaps it is that fact that can scare modern humanity the most.  In It, we see something that we cannot control.  It cannot be understood, It must simply be accepted.  To many of us, that idea is indeed terrifying.

blobfish out of water

Maybe THIS is the real face of It. For It's sake, I hope not.

Next week:  Rachel takes over Fridays next month.  Make sure to check out what she has to offer.  I’ll be checking in with my Lewis “Meditations” on Sundays and be back with another regular series in June.  🙂

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*That by itself is somewhat interesting.  I would hazard to guess that most of us would expect that time to come around November 1st and Halloween.  According to Briggs, Christmas makes quite a bit of sense too–that is when the nights are longest.

Other posts in the Briggs’ Beasties series:

Briggs’ Beasties: The Fachan

"Fachan" copyright by K. Francis Schales

For anyone just joining us, over the course of the month of April, I’ll be looking at several of the most intriguing monsters outlined in Katharine Briggs’ excellent book An Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ll also take a moment or two to explain what about them I find compelling (or not), and what we can learn about creating monsters of our own for use in our fiction.

For this week, the Fachan!

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The Fachan (sometimes called “Peg-Leg-Jack”) is another particularly distorted creature, though it lacks the gore or sheer terror of Nuckelavee.  According to the description quoted by Briggs (originally from J. F. Campbell in Popular Tales of the West Highlands), he apparently loathes symmetry:

With one hand out of his chest, one leg out of his haunch, and one eye out of the front of his face….  Ugly was the make of the Fachin; there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest and one tuft out of the top of his head, it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft.

Aside from his supernaturally powerful hair gel, the fachan apparently comes equipped, in at least one version, with a flail dripping with bewitched apples–that’s right, I said apples–and each apple bore a powerful enchantment that could worm its way right to the core of those unlucky enough to bite off more than they can chew in an encounter with it.  In other stories, it carries a spiked club.  Apparently his appearance is his primary weapon:  he can frighten you into a heart attack just by letting you see him.

Quite the sight, I’m sure.  Interestingly, the description given by Briggs’ doesn’t mention an arm–something that some of the artists who’ve attempted to render the fachan obviously decided to remedy.  The idea of a hand just sticking out of the thing’s chest is very creepy, but I have to agree that it is more than a little impractical.  I certainly wouldn’t think that the poor creature could scratch where it itches.

Unlike the possibility of meeting Nuckelavee, I don’t think encountering the fachan is likely to cause any sudden cardiac ailments.  I doubt it would be more than just creepy.  The idea of a hero trying to face down this hopping, tufted cyclops is more likely to bring back memories of the end of the “Black Knight” skit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Fachan always triumphs! Have at you!

In the fachan, I think we see the same elements we discussed in Nuckelavee carried in a similar direction but with different results.  It is clear that we’re seeing someone’s creative effort to be scary and the assumption that more must, by default, be better.

Once again, it is the abnormal proportions that are supposed to scare us.  In this case it isn’t the size; it is the symmetry.  Both the fachan and Nuckelavee are playing on that tendency to feel uncomfortable with abnormal humans.  The best way to bring that to mind is think about some time when you have been near someone who was severely deformed.  People try not to look.  People are frightened and try not to show it.  At the same time, people also want to look–resulting the old “freak shows” of circus fame.

"The Fachan" by Brian Froud

In the end, though the fachan fails to scare me, though this time I tend more towards mockery than the grudging respect I had for the attempt at horror in Nuckelavee.  At least with Nuckelavee, I have to admit that all of those things would indeed be terrifying if I thought they all existed in one creature.  With Peg-Leg-Jack, I just point and laugh.  Not only is it not believable, I don’t think I would find it scary, even if it did!

The key is finding the balance of the strange and the subtle.  I think the Wild Hunt and next week’s offering manage to succeed where the fachan and Nuckleavee fail.

Next week:  An interesting creature with a very plain name–It.

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Briggs’ Beasties: The Wild Hunt

For anyone just joining us, over the course of the month of April, I’ll be looking at several of the most intriguing monsters outlined in Katharine Briggs’ excellent book An Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ll also take a moment or two to explain what about them I find compelling (or not), and what we can learn about creating monsters of our own for use in our fiction.

And now, on to the Wild Hunt!

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This sets the mood, I think...

The “Wild Hunt” is one of the many names given to a whole collection of similar portents that, while we’re looking at it from the perspective of English folklore, is actually present in a wide range of cultures.  Even within our tight focus, it has a variety of labels.  According to Briggs, it is also called the “Gabriel Ratchets,” the “Devil’s Dandy Dogs,” the “Sluagh” (slooa), or the “Host”–to name only a few.  The essential picture is that of a powerful spiritual being (or sometimes beings) tearing through the night with a pack of spectral hounds on the hunt for sinners to devour.  Woe be the unfortunate man, woman, or child who wanders into the path of this demonic cavalcade in the darkness.  In contrast to last week’s Nuckelavee, I think that we can draw some positive lessons from it for our writing.

Interestingly enough, the Hunt is a surprisingly recent bit of folklore.  Briggs mentions that she had heard of a sighting in 1940, and at least one internet source claims that it may have happened as recently as 1976.  So, unlike other stories, this one has not completely died away.

One distinguishing characteristic of the Hunt is the sheer diversity of names and speculated origins. Some of the various titles can be accounted for by the fact that it is dangerous to refer to the sidhe directly and so the cultures who believe in them have created a slew of protective euphemisms to insulate their language from provoking unwanted spiritual consequences.  Others seem to be genuine attempts to explain the hunts by guessing at what they are and who is responsible for them.  A rogues gallery of pagans and demons seem to lead the hunt, including Lucifer himself, Herne the Hunter, Woden, and sometimes the fallen priest Dando of Cornwall.  Less often, historic figures like Charlemagne or Arthur lead the chase.  Perhaps the most common is some demonic form with the horns of a stag growing out of his head–the traditional form of Herne. Whoever it is, he leads a host of Hell, often demons or the unforgiven mortal dead, in a quest to claim human souls.

My own “encounter” with the Hunt took place this winter.  As you can see from the pictures in this article, my family and I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Our house is in a  small saddle between two peaks, one only sightly raised above the ground on which our home is set and the other much higher by hundreds of feet.  We have a gorgeous view of the valley and the mountains that is the trade-off for the money we spend in gas getting here.  The image below was taken from our door:

The view of Tir na Og from our back deck.

One night, I was outside when a cold front was about to plow across the mountain. As I made my way back up to the house, I stopped dead in my tracks.  Ahead of me, up the ridge at the top of the higher peak, I could hear it:  roaring, creaking, snapping, screeching and screaming.  In the dim light our lamppost cast that far up the mountain, I could see the trees whipping and bending as it tore through them, up from the valley, over the top of the peak, and to who knew where on the other side.  The air around me was completely still–not even a gentle breeze ruffled the last leaves lying dead underfoot.

I stood there in awe of what I was seeing and hearing–and then I thought of the Hunt.  Even though I could make out no words and I had seen no hounds, a small chill worked its way up my spine.  I went inside.  Better to be safe than sorry!

Of course, by now you’ve probably figured out that another perk of living where I do is the strange weather phenomena I get to see first hand.  In this case, I have no doubt, some of the stronger wind currents that usually stay higher in the atmosphere had been driven down by the cold front.  They had gotten low enough to touch the top of the mountain, but not far enough down to reach our house in the saddle.  It gave me a taste, though, of what seeing and hearing the Hunt firsthand must have been like.  If the Hunt gets more real than that, I don’t want to be there!

Used properly, I think that the Wild Hunt can be quite effective:

  • The Deepness of Mystery:  While some versions of the Hunt are more thoroughly explained than others (see Dando and his Devil Dogs in Briggs), over all it contains more than enough mystery to impart a sense of imminent foreboding.  It is just strange enough that it sounds entirely plausible to someone walking down a dark country road near a haunted wood (or someone reading about that someone).  At the same time, it is not so strange that it sounds like a person simply made it up.  I, at least, think most people would embellish it far better than the basic essence of what we see in the purer versions of the legend.
  • The Flexibility of Diversity:  One significant advantage to the massive number of different explanations and names for the Hunt is that there is no one single authoritative version out there.  That gives authors the ability to borrow different parts from the stories or modify them without the risk of offending some unofficial sacred cow.  Unlike some stories, we can’t “get it right” because there is no “right” way.
  • The Fear of Judgment:  Much of the terror that the Hunt holds for us gets down to the idea of sin–the Hunt is an embodiment of the idea that we are being “run to ground” and will be punished for the evil we all commit.  The idea of sin is very unpopular today, and that might lead some to suggest that this is an aspect of the Hunt that won’t frighten modern readers.  After all, if no one believes that he or she is a sinner, why should they fear paying the price for sins?  I disagree, and, if you doubt me, just try passing judgment on someone for something they’ve done wrong.*  Chances are, they won’t ignore you or just pass it off.  The reaction–perhaps I should say over reaction–will most likely be to push back with a version of “How dare you judge me!?”  Some will be more polite than others, but I think it points to the same fact:  Our culture is terrified of judgment and the idea that we may one day pay for the sins we know, on some level, we commit.  The more we deny it, the plainer it becomes.  The Wild Hunt can strike squarely on that very raw nerve.

There is a lot to play with in the Wild Hunt.  If you’ve never looked into it, here is a good place to start.  Have a good week!

A storm is coming. The Wild Hunt as well?

Next week:  Another humdinger of a beastie–the Fachan!

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*Perhaps even more effective, we can watch our own reactions when someone passes judgement on us personally.  That sweeping indignation at their cheek…run through with the stabbing fear that they might be right!  The instant temptation to lash out at them and deny not only that we are guilty but that they even have the grounds on which to make the claim is difficult to resist.  Even the best of us fail to keep it in check sometimes.

Briggs’ Beasties: Nuckelavee

For anyone just joining us, over the course of the month of April, I’ll be looking at several of the most intriguing monsters outlined in Katharine Briggs’ excellent book An Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ll also take a moment or two to explain what about them I find compelling (or not), and what we can learn about creating monsters of our own for use in our fiction.

And so, without further ado…Nuckelavee!

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Nuckelavee, by ~Verdego

Nuckelavee, by ~Verdego

Nuckelavee is a monster of Scottish extraction, and, as Briggs observed, “the Scots are experts in horrors.”  She goes on in more detail:

He was an Orcadian sea-monster, a kind of hideous centaur, for like a centaur he rose out of a horse’s back and had no human legs.  He came out of the sea and spread evil wherever he went, blighting crops, destroying livestock, and killing every man whom he could encounter.*

Those who claim to have seen Nuckelavee recount a true horror.  The “horse” part of the Nuckelavee had a giant, gaping mouth that could swallow a man whole.  Strange fins hung about his four legs, testimony to his aquatic origin.  Out of his back rose the distorted, legless torso of a huge man.  Sitting atop the massive shoulders was an equally huge head (about a yard in diameter) on a neck that apparently couldn’t support its weight.  According to the witness Briggs quotes, it lolled back and forth unpredictably, “as if it meant to tumble off.”  The “man’s” arms were abnormally long and hung down almost to the ground.  Horrible as all this was, worse was Nuckelavee’s complete lack of skin.  According the the witness, Tammie,

the whole surface of it show[ed] only red raw flesh, in which Tammie saw blood, black as tar, running through yellow veins, and great white sinews, thick as horse tethers, twisting, stretching and contracting as the monster moved.

Nuckelavee by *Kaaziel

Nuckelavee by *Kaaziel

A monster among monsters, it would seem.  A number of artists on the internet have tried to capture Nuckelavee and so far I haven’t seen the definitive treatment that really imparts what seeing Nuckelavee directly must be like.**  Nuckelavee is an abstract study in human terror.

And that is why, for me personally, Nuckelavee has never been that frightening–it is a compilation and desecration of specific “normal” elements that I would guess someone creatively constructed because they think that all of those things must be more terrifying together than they are apart.  The result lacks, for me, believability.***  I am frightened most by monsters that I worry might exist outside the imagination.  In Nuckelavee, I see someone’s attempt–albeit an able one–to manipulate me with fear by combining the elements they expect will frighten me the most, and I therefore find that I am more likely to resent it more than I am to be afraid of it.  No one likes it when he realizes that someone is trying to fool him.

Still, there are a few points of instruction that I take from Nuckelavee:

  • The corruption of the familiar:  Things that are truly and completely alien frighten us on one level.  The familiar frightens us on quite a different one.  Nuckelavee is constructed of several basic elements that would have been very well known to the Scots who first heard about him–horse, man, and fish.  Their unnatural combination and their explicit corruption are part of what makes this abomination seem so evil.
  • Disproportionate bodies:  It is interesting to me that while the basic size and description of the “horse” part of Nuckelavee is generally proportional to normal horeses, when we look at the “human” parts of him, we see that the various body parts are grossly exaggerated, particularly the head and the arms.  That feeling of complete disproportion is something that makes almost everyone uncomfortable.
  • Inverted biology:  The most frightening part of Nuckelavee is his skin–or complete lack thereof.  By inverting his insides and his outsides (while being completely impractical for any living being) Nuckelavee is playing on the human race’s almost universal fear of blood.  Many people are terrified by the mere sight of it, and especially at the prospect of seeing internal organs or other squishy parts.  Nuckelavee is simply the walking, trotting, embodiment of that basic hemophobia.
  • Subtlety:  Finally, I learn the most from how Nuckelavee fails to scare me.  Everything that should frighten me is there, all piled into a convenient package sent down from central casting.  Where he fails is in subtlety. There comes, I think, a point of diminishing returns with monsters, and Nuckelavee has galloped past it.  His creators took the approach that more is better, but they piled it on so thick that they undid themselves.

One has to wonder exactly how hammered the Scots had to get in order to dream up this particular brand o’ beastie.  It is, without doubt, one of a kind.

Next week:  The Wild Hunt and my own encounter with it!

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*I find myself echoing Captain Jack Sparrow:  “I wonder where the stories come from then?”

**For instance, neither of the pictures I used for this article come close to getting the sense of that huge, lolling head.

***If, God forbid, I meet Nuckelavee in person, I’ll be glad retract that last bit.

Other posts in the Briggs’ Beasties series: