There really are so many places to begin when you want to create a piece of fiction. Why not try conjuring some characters by using Svetlana Bahchevanova’s photographic collection or visiting a cemetery and gathering some photographs of your own.
Category: Macabre Prompts
Explore a Dark Passage
Accept a flashlight from this long-defunct site that can still be found, intact, in the Way Back Machine and you will find yourself ‘Dansing with the Macabre’.
Will You Visit The House of Usher?
Are you brave enough to enter the world of Edgar Allen Poe and visit ‘The House of Usher’? How will you capture your experience of visiting this famous house?
Extract from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Edgar Allen Poe
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, a sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain— upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows— upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.
There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom, I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks.
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway.
Perhaps you will begin by making artistic impressions of what you see as you approach the House of Usher.
Consider using visioning and visualization to approach and enter this place. What doorways will you pass through? Which parts of the house will you explore? Who will meet you in this gothic house? What truths will emerge?
The Spooky House
by Joseph Gagaridis Grade 5/6
When I walked into the house something didn’t feel right. I went to pick up the phone. There was no electricity. I saw stairs so I went up the stairs into a room. Suddenly the door closed behind me. There was no way out. I went to jump out of the window but there were spikes and swords sticking up. When I looked out of the window, a long distance away from here, I could see a truck had crushed my Ferrari into bits.
I realized that I shouldn’t have come to this house. I heard the door upstairs open. I hid in a closet waiting for someone to leave the house. After I heard the door open and the person leaves the house I tried to get out of the closet but the door was stuck. I looked behind me and saw two people hanging on the hooks in the closet. Dead! I screamed! I pushed the closet door hard. It opened.
I ran to another room. It was too dark to see anything. But then I turned around and saw two red eyeballs. I couldn’t see the body so I ran away from it. It was throwing heads covered in blood. One of them hit my eye. I couldn’t see. I fell on the floor and something bit me on the neck.
After a couple of hours, I woke up and I said to myself. “It was all just a dream.” I looked around me and I saw dead people who had been bitten on their necks. Spider webs were all over them. I tried to get out but it was all a maze. “I would need a book of mazes to get out of here,” I thought.
Then I heard footsteps coming closer and closer. I looked behind me but I didn’t see anyone. I could still hear footsteps. I ran from the noise, but I lost more and more energy because of the bite on my neck.
I looked behind me and I bumped into a dead person with spider webs on him and holes in his body. When I bumped into him I got very dizzy and I didn’t know where I was going. Suddenly I bumped into an invisible person and he said, “Go away and don’t touch me.”
Then he ran away. Then I saw the two red eyeball again.
“What do you want from me,” I said to the red eyeballed person. The red-eyed person told me that he wanted my brain but I told him he would have to come and get it and ran away. I turned my back to see if he was behind me but I didn’t see anyone. I stopped running.
Suddenly the two red eyeballed people said “BOO!” I almost had a heart attack and I had nearly lost all my energy. I couldn’t run any further and thought that this was the end of me. So I hid. In my hiding place, I found a book of mazes. I followed the pictures o the book and I walked until I saw a light. I walked towards the light and then I noticed that the red eyeballed person was going away from the light. Two zombies were guarding the way out. I picked up a sword and slew them and ran outside.
Unfortunately, all my energy had run out. I smelled the air and dropped dead on a big rock.
More Edgar Allen Poe Stimuli
Dug up to Inform, Honor and Stimulate Ideas
The Macabre Life of a Grave Digger
Mahmoud Ahmed, Arab News Staff
Dug up from the Way Back Machine
MAKKAH, 25 February 2003 — Grave digging is a job about which there are many stories and not a few mysteries. But many of us think listening to grave diggers’ tales macabre and would prefer not to know the nitty-gritty when it comes to their daily work.
Gravedigging is not like most other work in that it is not done at a specific time, Al-Madinah newspaper commented in a recent article on the subject.
It is definitely not a 9-5 kind of job. It has its own special rules and tools.
Many of the men working as grave diggers are different from other men. After all, they bury our loved ones. So what about the strange stories we hear about this profession? People use it as an excuse to spread false or malicious rumours. Is it because most grave diggers are silent about what they do? Or is it because they work in places nobody else ever visits?
“I learned the job from my father when I was young,” Muhammad Abbadi, who has been a gravedigger for 40 years, told Al-Madinah. “I used to go down in graves with my father to gather bones and bury them somewhere else.”
The custom is for gravediggers to check a grave about two years after burial. If the body has not decayed, it is covered and left. If it has decayed, the bones are then moved to another place. This frees the grave for reuse.
“I was a professional by the time I was 15. Gravedigging is a noble job but only a few people realize its worth. We grave diggers lay to rest those whom we love as well as those whom everybody else loves.”
He went on to explain how he learned what he needed to know by watching everything his father did — “from the smallest to the biggest details.”
“We place the body in the grave and then put a large rock or stone inside to close the grave. But some families ask for grass and wet soil to be put into the grave and then for it to be closed with a rock,” he explained.
Speaking of the time it takes for bodies to decay, he said it took longer now than in the past and felt this was because of the depth of the grave. In the past, graves were nearer the surface. Now they are deeper, and so the contents take longer to decay.
“We work silently, as everything around us encourages us to be quiet,” he said. “My friends and I believe that talking too much may undermine our courage.”
Abbadi said the tales of genies and demons living in graves are nonsense.
“In 40 years of digging graves, I have never encountered such things. Those stories are the products of overactive imaginations. What we do find in graves, however, are reptiles and scorpions. I have been stung many times by scorpions but, thank God, without being seriously harmed.”
He went on to explain how bodies are buried.
“We put the head into the grave first and then turn it on the right side to face the Qibla (the direction of Makkah). When the time comes to open the grave, the first problem is the unpleasant smell. If the body has not decayed, we close the grave again and leave it. It’s a simple job, but difficult to do. When we see the body and the bones, we feel the sadness of the deceased’s family.”
Muhammad Mukhtar, another gravedigger, told Al-Madinah that he has been working in the job for 14 years. It needs strong men with nerves of steel, he said, and men who believe in the work they do.
He talked about the process of reburying bones.
“We bury many bones in one grave. We organize the bones in a way that only professional grave diggers know. When we open the grave to make sure the bones have decayed, we let fresh air in for at least 15 minutes. Otherwise, no one could stand the heat from inside.”
He explained that more than one man is needed to put a dead person into the grave. He said that scorpions were indeed a problem, but “they do not keep us from doing our jobs.”
“We have to make sure that there are at least 25 graves available for use every day. It’s not necessary that all the empty graves be used in one day, but if there is a shortage, it will take about 30 minutes to dig a new one.”
He admitted that the grave diggers did not like to bury people at night, but they have had to get used to doing so. “Standing on a grave makes a person think about his own life,” he reflected. “Sometimes, I wonder why young people are deciding not to work in this profession. It’s honest work and a noble job.”
In the past, he said, Saudis worked as grave diggers, but these days only non-Saudis do the job because “only they seem to have what it takes.”
Tapping At Our Chamber Door – Begin A Raven Project
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door— Only this, and nothing more.”
Edgar Allen Poe
Raven has come tapping at the chamber door, urging everyone to include her in some writing or art.
When I work with young children I always introduce myself as a word magician who has the power to draw writing from each of them. One of my favourite activities is to produce some Animal Oracle Cards and Edgar Allen’s famous poem, particularly emphasising the idea of a raven having come tapping at our chamber door.
As I chat with them, as we listen to a reading of Poe’s ‘The Raven’ I suggest that everyone begin to draw, to write down words, identify feelings and consider sketching a raven.
My students at LaTrobe Secondary College really loved it when we gathered up our workbooks and went outside to observe the raven colony that called the school grounds home, watching, looking for leftovers from lunch.
While they were outside I told them to set up a vocabulary page in their workbook,
metallic black feathers
Suspicious and confident beasts
Steadily on jagged wings
Feathers black against a burning sky
Spread your wings and ride the wind
Feathers spread wide, leaning into the wind, beak raised to the sky.
to draw an abandoned site and to imagine that it is inhabited by a murder of ravens.
At the completion of all of this activity, I ask students to share some of the words that have appeared on what were blank pages. Then I ask them what the magic trick was. They invariably say that the secret was that they were given an idea to work with.
We discuss how we might build upon a base idea.
- gather pictures and taking photographs
- keep sketching and build-up material before trying to write anything substantial.
- browse through the internet, research and find out about the symbolism of birds and the symbolism of the raven in particular.
- read about the Raven in mythology. For example, in the ‘Seven Ravens’ the little girl is prepared to endure a challenging pilgrimage to find her brothers.
- read the landmark gothic tale, The Birds, by Daphne du Maurier or watch the movie version. In this chilling tale the bird’s revolt against humankind. The story later became a Hitchcock movie – dated maybe, but still a good movie.
- keep adding to a vocabulary page.
- play with magnetic poetry to form some more ideas.
Having done all of this we write freely for twenty minutes making sure not to worry if the initial piece is incoherent or full of grammatical errors for this is only the beginning of the process. There are many more decisions to be made!
Perhaps you will, like me, be happy to find expression and make a statement by drawing. Or you might choose to take a series of photographs.
Maybe you will end up creating a graphic novel, write a play, make a video of reading a poem or whatever. The possibilities are endless.
Fracturing Fairy Stories and Nursery Rhymes
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays
“The fairy tale journey may look like an outward trek across plains and mountains, through castles and forests, but the actual movement is inward, into the lands of the soul. The dark path of the fairy tale forest lies in the shadows of our imagination, the depths of our unconscious. To travel to the wood, to face its dangers, is to emerge transformed by this experience. Particularly for children whose world does not resemble the simplified world of television sit-coms … this ability to travel inward, to face fear and transform it, is a skill they will use all their lives. We do children–and ourselves–a grave disservice by censoring the old tales, glossing over the darker passages and ambiguities…” — Terri Windling, “White as Snow: Fairy Tales and Fantasy,” in Snow White, Blood Red
Students love fractured fairy tales because the stories are familiar. When teaching children how to write a fractured fairy story I invariably begin by reading favourite fairy stories such as The Three Little Pigs and then present classic fractured versions to ensure that they understand the genre.
Following steps such as those outlined in T. P. Jaggers site, we work with a story such as Little Red Riding Hood or a Nursery Rhyme such as Humpty Dumpty. The results are a lot of fun and everyone enjoys reading and sharing their responses.
On the premise that there is no reason for the children to have all the fun I also work with Fractured Fairy Stories in Writing for Wellness courses. Participants spend time recalling and writing as much as they can remember about their favourite childhood fairy story and consider how this tale has actually impacted on their lives. Then we work to ‘adjust’ the narrative.
Another activity is to spend some time remembering the infamous scenes with the evil stepmother asking the famed “mirror mirror on the wall, who is the most beautiful of all?” Then we use this ancient image to consider other things characters may see in the mirror and what truths the demonic mirror might reveal.
Cinderella’s Life after the Wedding by Megan Warren
Goldilocks Was A Punk by Lisa Phoenix
The Invitation by A.M. Moscoso
Standing on a Literary Legend’s Shoulders
The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal–the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour…
Edgar Allen Poe Masque of the Red Death
In her book ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves’, Clarissa Pinkola Estes recalls a numinous dream in which she found herself standing on the shoulders of an old woman. When she suggested that she was young and that she should carry the older woman on her shoulders the woman quite firmly told her that “this is the way it is meant to be”.
All writers stand on the shoulders of those who have walked before them. The art of story writing is a very old medium and so new young storytellers are entering a medium that has been going on for millennia! When working with the start of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ young storytellers are not only learning from a master story writer. They are also learning to stand on the shoulders of others and to reference those who have influenced their writing.
Children love the ‘Masque of the Red Death’ and they know, from the outset, that this is not going to end well, that the Prince is not going to defeat the Red Death.
For this task, we listened to the beginning of the story and then
- Spent time drawing the castle and what we thought Red Death looked like.
- Brainstormed and thought about how Red Death would enter Prince Prospero’s fortress.
- Projected a week ahead and arrived on the scene as investigative news reporters.
- Wrote a headline!
- Submitted a news report!
- Considered other ways that we could use this information. Suggestions included writing a ballad or a poem, creating a graphic novel, producing a television script and preparing a feature article exploring ways in which Red Death was finally contained.
- Designed costumes for the ball.
More Edgar Allen Poe Stimuli
Visiting the Isla de la Munecas
IT LOOKS like the stuff of nightmares: a grotesque playground of mutilated dolls, many hanging limp from nooses, others with heads attached to spikes, all with soulless eyes staring blankly ahead. Personally, while I couldn’t wait to visit the bone church at Kutna Hora and wasn’t the least disturbed by all the human bones, I am not sure I would be up to visiting this place. Having said this I vividly recall assembling a ‘Who Killed Barbie’ cake on one beach holiday. We were with a large group who set up camp on a clifftop overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the cake featuring a mutilated Barbie was a huge hit at the time.
Mexico’s Isla de las Munecas, or “Island of the Dolls”, became an unlikely tourist attraction drawing thousands of tourists and photographers morbidly fascinated by the strange spectacle (check out the photos on the linked site). But it’s the tragic story behind the island that is perhaps more disturbing, and according to legend, it begins with the tragic death of an anonymous young girl more than 50 years ago.
According to reports, a man named Don Julian Santana left his wife and child one day and moved to an island on Teshuilo Lake in the famous Xochimilco canals to live out his years as a recluse. Upon arriving at the island, reportedly sometime in the 1950s, Santana discovered the body of a young girl who had drowned in a canal. He later found her toy doll floating nearby. Moved by the discovery of the girl’s body, and perhaps to appease her spirit, Santana set about transforming the whole island into a shrine dedicated to the lost soul. For decades he collected dolls by their hundreds, including baby dolls and even some Barbies, and decorated the island with their lifeless bodies.
Santana salvaged the dolls from the canals and garbage. He lived in a small cabin, where his photo and a few possessions are still on display, surrounded by trees and some 1500 of his decaying dolls. As word of the island spread Santana began accepting a small fee to show visitors around his peculiar home. Ghost stories are a part of local lore in the region, which gave way to spooky tales of the dolls coming alive at night, apparently consumed by the dead girl’s spirit.
But in a dark twist, in 2001, Santana’s nephew found him dead in a canal — in the same spot where Santana had decades earlier discovered the corpse of the girl that inspired his life’s work. As popular interest in the island and its dark legend grew, relatives of Santana questioned whether the dead girl really existed and suggested it was a figment of Santana’s imagination. But the strangeness of the legend behind Santana’s bizarre island has continued to fascinate the public. Isla de las Munecas is about 28km south of the centre of Mexico City. Visitors can catch a ferry there from the Embarcedero Cuemanco or Embarcadero Fernando Celada, and it’s about a four-hour round trip.
No matter what genre you choose to write in, be it crime or science fiction or even an autobiography you need to build a world for your story. Every writer needs to build a strong sense of place so that your readers can have a placeholder to flesh out the context in which a story is set. For example, the television series, Hinterland, so brilliantly depicts a part of Wales that you feel that you have been transported to this wild, wind swept, harsh part of the world.
If you’re writing a current-day story, you should know where it is set and what’s happening in the world around your main characters. Consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For these stories to come alive, the main characters’ experiences had to be set in rich and textured worlds.
Surely the Isle of Dolls provides a rich back drop for a macabre story, perhaps involving hapless tourist taking photographs.
Make Descansos to Mark the Macabre
I first learned about the concept of Descansos when I read Clarissa Pinkola Estes ‘Women Who Run With Wolves’.
Estes describes how when you travel in Old Mexico, New Mexico, southern Colorado, Arizona, or parts of the South, you will see little white crosses by the roadside. These are descansos, resting places. The concept of marking resting places is not confined to the United States or Mexico. They may be found in Greece, Italy and many other countries, including Australia.
Recently I photographed this small cross that so clearly marks a spot for someone. It is not in a cemetery but in a reserve which memorializes the gold rush in this region. As I took the photograph I was actually thinking about the very dark side of the Victorian Goldfields that have been so well documented by Goldfields Guide – Exploring the Victorian Goldfields. I considered ways to mark, document and lay to rest some of the important moments in the history of this region in Victoria that so many choose to forget.
It may sound macabre but it can be cathartic to mark, with crosses, events that have impacted your life or, for that matter, macabre world events which have changed the course of history.
Metaphorically perch yourself high in a pine tree, in a place where you can see the whole picture. Mark things which still need to be mourned and consider spending time noting what has seemingly been forgotten, but which like the spirit of Joan of Arc lives on. For example, indigenous Australians are well aware of the trauma of colonisation but those of us whose ancestors were forcibly bought to this country in chains can forget what they were forced to endure and how those events changed the course of history for everyone involved.
Working with Descansos
Descansos and the Lunar Eclipse
Internet Homicide – A Prompt
A recent crime study has shown a sharp and drastic rise in strange and mystifying homicides around the world. Dozens of unsolved murders occurring monthly for the last several years have eerily similar statistics. Most occurred while the victims were surfing the internet on computers, or smart devices when they were murdered. According to the new study, thirty per cent of victims had their heart removed, while forty-two per cent of the victims were found dismembered using an undisclosed method. The other victims had met their horrible deaths in equally strange circumstances like broken necks, and loss of blood due to deep lacerations all over their bodies.
In almost every one of the cases specified by the study, the victims were found murdered in locked rooms or domiciles. In thirty per cent of these cases the alarm system was found to be active and on when their bodies were discovered. Various law enforcement agencies have simply no explanation for the murders, while many feel unofficially they could be the work of a serial killer cult.
What a back story! This is surely something for a creative mind to work with!