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.
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’.
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
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.
Whatever difficulties Norfolk Island had in its early years, Macklin (whose ancestors came from Bandon, Co Cork, during the Famine) writes that: “Nothing had prepared them for their first taste of the empire’s colonial sadists, the execrable Joseph Foveaux.”
Edward Henry Butler’s remains lie in a very isolated rural cemetery at Joyces Creek in Central Victoria. This cemetery dates back to 1854.
The amount of information on the stone on his grave is extraordinary. It takes little researching to flesh out the story of Edward Henry Butler and to gain insight into what this man endured in his lifetime.
Apart from being transported to Sydney on the Neptune 3, Butler spent seven years on Norfolk Island.
Much has been written about this 18th Century hell. If convicts were perceived to ’cause trouble’, they were sent to remote places such as Norfolk Island, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay. At these places, discipline could be very severe. Prisoners were forced to work from dawn to dusk at backbreaking tasks. If they disobeyed or tried to escape, they were whipped, chained in irons or sometimes executed. At Norfolk Island, the ‘harshest possible discipline short of death’ was imposed. So unpleasant were the conditions, that rebellions and uprisings were a regular occurrence.
In her book, ‘The Signature of All Things’, Elizabeth Gilbert documents the hardships endured by Alma Whittiker’s father on voyages with Captain Cook. This would have been luxury compared to the life Butler had on board the Neptune 3.
Norfolk Island is a popular tourist destination now but it cannot shake off its dark history. Norfolk Island has been rated as one of the world’s most haunted spots.
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
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.
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
Art and art therapy is part of the technique of visualization, a technique which is actually a form of meditation. When undertaking visualization you may simply make something up. However, another form of visualization is to spend an extended period of time simply looking at an image, taking in all the detail and seeing what you want or need to see within.
Viewing any and all expressive art can have an amazing effect on your health. Consider how you felt the last time you walked through a gallery and perused the art. Reflect on how different pieces gave you different feelings? Did some of the dark and macabre art actually seem most appropriate at the time?
Everyone feels something different when they view a piece of expressive art, and it’s likely that your feelings are different than those of the person that made the art as well. It’s not really what the artist believed to be the point of the piece, but rather it is about what it does for you.
The fridge magnet shown here appeared on Etsy. This expressive face may, like the famous ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch depicts feelings we are not always encouraged to feel. Perhaps it sums up how you have felt at times, or how a character you are working with feels.
Take yourself to a gallery or check out some macabre art online and meditate upon the emotions depicted. Who knows! A character you are working with may gain depth as a result of this simple exercise.
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!