The Department of Dead Ends

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I adore Columbo; I got addicted to reruns of the original Seventies-era series when I was in graduate school, and it’s still one of my favorite TV shows. Columbo’s sharp eye for apparently trivial incongruities, his deceptively bumbling manner, his mythical wife who’s a fan of everything and everyone, his equally mythical Captain who just hates loose ends — I love it all.

Columbo‘s format is the so-called inverted mystery, where the viewer (or reader) knows whodunit, how, and even why. The real mystery is how the murderer will be caught. You could make an argument that inverted mysteries existed in literature at least as far back as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ; I read somewhere that the creators of Columbo cite this novel as on influence on the Columbo format. That, and the “cozy English mystery” tradition of elaborately complicated murder amongst the upper classes (investigated by the not so upper class police). But the official original inverted mystery is R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski” (1911).  The story was popular enough that Freeman wrote four more and collected them with “Brodski” into The Singing Bone (1912).

Beyond the twist of presenting the crime before the investigation, Freeman’s stories are classic ratiocination stories. His protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, is basically Sherlock Holmes, complete with a (portable) laboratory and a Dr. Watson (Dr. Jervis, in this case). Thorndyke notices things the police don’t, and awes them with his deductive prowess. As with most stories in the ratiocination genre, the detective and his extraordinary abilities are the center of the tales.

The stories in Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends (1949) are inverted mysteries of a different style. The Department of Dead Ends is a group within Scotland Yard whose sole purpose is to take “everything the other departments rejected:” clues that led nowhere, cases that can’t be closed (or that no one is interested in closing), puzzling but seemingly irrelevant information, lost items. The department solves cases (often cold cases) via this massive collection of minutia mostly by serendipity: someone happens to notice that a puzzling fact from one case, when put together with some irrelevant trivia from an apparently unrelated situation, becomes an observation neither puzzling nor irrelevant to either circumstance.

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Another Tale of the Weaver Goddess

The second of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu, the daughter of the master of Heaven, (the Jade Emperor). As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).

This is the story of Zhinu and her other mortal husband, Niulang.

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The Weaver Maiden and the Cowherd

Niulang was a poor cowherd, with nothing in the world but an old, worndown Ox. Unbeknownst to Niulang, the Ox was a Celestial being, whom the gods exiled to Earth as punishment for… well, I don’t know what. On a day like any other day, as Niulang led his Ox to the fields, to his great surprise, the Ox turned and spoke to him!

“Let’s go down by the river,” the Ox said.

“Why?” said the Niulang — as soon as he got over his surprise at owning a talking Ox.

“You’ve been a good master. I want to repay you. Trust me,” the Ox said.

So down to the river they went. What the Ox knew — and Niulang didn’t — was that this particular bend of the river was a favorite bathing spot for the Jade Emperor’s seven daughters. As Niulang approached, he saw the sisters splashing in the water. He especially noticed the youngest one — Zhinu. The Ox noticed Niulang’s infatuated expression, and he helpfully pointed out the seven piles of clothing neatly stacked on shore.

“The robe the color of the sunset is Zhinu’s,” the Ox said.

So Niulang snuck to the shore as the sisters swam and splashed, and stole the robe that was the color of the setting sun. Eventually, the sisters finished their baths, scrambled to shore, put on their robes, and flew back up to the heavens. All except poor Zhinu.

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A Tale of the Weaver Goddess

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The first of two tales about the Chinese Weaver Goddess, Zhinu. Zhinu is the daughter of the master of Heaven, the Jade Emperor. As the Weaver Goddess, she either weaves her father’s royal robes out of the clouds, or else weaves the clouds and the rainbows themselves (it seems to vary, depending on what you read). Her mother, the Celestial Queen Mother, created the Silver River (the Milky Way).

The Tale of Dong Yong

In the time of the Han dynasty, there lived a young man name Dong Yong. His mother had died when he was just a baby, and he lived with his father, a poor farmer who spent every penny he had to care for and educate his son. When Dong Yong was nineteen, his father died, leaving Dong Yong so penniless that he could not afford to pay for his father’s burial rites, or for his tombstone.

Well, this wouldn’t do. Dong Yong gave up his studies and sold himself into indentured servitude, at a price high enough to give his father a proper funeral and a fine tombstone. Dong Yong knew that he would have to serve his master many long years to repay the debt, but he regretted it not at all. It was the least he could do for his father.

After the funeral, Dong Yong packed up his meagre belongings and made his way to his master’s house. On the way, he met a beautiful young woman. She told him that her mother had died, and her father had remarried. Her new stepmother wanted to marry her off against her will, and so she ran away. Dong Yong suggested she marry him instead — since neither had family, they could care for each other in a world full of strangers. The girl agreed. Continue reading

The Most Famous Book Set in Your State?

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Jim Booth at the blog The New Southern Gentlemen recently took issue with a Business Insider called “The most famous book that takes place in every state”. Mostly, he takes issue with BI‘s nomination for his own state of North Carolina.

I have no opinion one way or the other about Nicholas Sparks, and given that my reading tastes runs to both genre and short stories, I’m probably not the most qualified person to weigh in on which full-length book should represent which state. But of course I couldn’t resist checking what they picked for California. I don’t know what I was expecting to see — but it wasn’t what they chose:

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

Hmmmmmmm…….

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The King’s Son-in-Law

Antonio Trueba

Antonio de Trueba (1819-1889) was a Spanish reteller of folklore in the tradition of Gustavo Bécquer and Fernán Caballero (the pen name of Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber) — both of whom I’ve posted on before. Trueba combined the traditional stories of the Spanish campesinos with sophisticated literary style and humorous political and social commentary. I found this delightful tale in a back issue of the fairy tale studies journal Marvels & Tales, and it hooked me at the first paragraph:

There once was a king so avaricious that instead of spending his life making his subjects happy, he passed it running throughout his kingdom searching for mines of gold and silver, and leaving the devil in charge of the ship of State. A pox on such kings!

I have a feeling this one will speak to a lot of people.

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The Pishtaco: New article on #FolkloreThursday Blog

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I have an article up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! I write about the Pishtaco, a fat-stealing ghoul whose legend circulates among indigenous communities in the Andean highlands. I first heard about this legend on a visit to Peru — and it hit the news internationally as recently as 2009 (as you’ll read in the article)!

Known by many names, this legendary fat-stealer stalks indigenous communities in the rural Andean highlands.

In the Peruvian Andes, they say he wanders the roads at night. He may look like a gringo (someone not Hispanic or Latino): hairy and bearded, wearing boots, a hat, and leather jacket. He may be on horseback, or in more modern times, in a car. He may look like a priest, walking along the side of the road. With his long knife, he attacks solitary travelers and dismembers them for food and for their fat.

In the Bolivian Andes, he might be the stranger next to you on the bus; don’t fall asleep! And don’t walk alone on the roads, either. If you meet him on the path, he will put you into a deep sleep with his prayers, or with powdered human bones. As you sleep he extracts the brown, hard fat around your organs (cebo: tallow or suet) with his knife, or with a special machine. You awaken, feeling weak. You fall sick. In a few days, you die.

Read the rest of the article here.

Hope you enjoy it.


Image: The Andes, Ayacucho Region, Peru. Source: Wikimedia

A Little Link Updating on the Blog

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As my readers know, I sometimes share public domain ghost stories and other interesting reading here on Multo, in particular my yearly series on winter tales. Mostly these files are hosted from WordPress, but for larger files and epubs I have been hosting them from Dropbox. Dropbox has just dropped support for their Public folders, and so a few of the links on my pages have gone dead.

I have regenerated appropriate links and updated all the appropriate posts, but it’s always possible that I’ve missed one. So if you come across a dead Dropbox link, please do let me know.

As always, I hope you enjoy the stories I share, and I plan to keep sharing more!


Men at work sign — Source: Wikimedia

Man-Wolf, Snake-Woman: on Clinical Lycanthropy

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There hath indeed been an old opinion of such like things; For by the Greeks they were called λυκανθρωποι which signifieth men-wolves. But to tell you simply my opinion in this, if any such thing hath been, I take it to have proceeded but of a natural superabundance of Melancholy, which as we read, that it hath made some think themselves Pitchers, and some horses, and some one kind of beast or other: So suppose I that it hath so viciat [damaged, tampered with] the imagination and memory of some, as per lucida interualla, it hath so highly occupied them, that they have thought themselves very Wolves indeed at these times: and so have counterfeited their actions in going on their hands and feet, preassing [attacking] to devour women and barnes [children], fighting and snatching with all the town dogs, and in using such like other brutish actions, and so to become beasts by a strong apprehension, as Nebuchadnezzar was seven years: but as to their having and hiding of their hard and schellie sloughes [scaly skins, like snakeskin], I take that to be but eiked [fabricated?], by uncertain report, the author of all lies.

Daemonologie of King James, 1597 (I modernized the spelling)

Medical descriptions of clinical lycanthropy — the delusion that one has turned into a wolf or other animal, along with corresponding animal-like behavior — date back to classical antiquity. As far back as the second century AD, the Greek physician Marcellus of Side described lycanthropy sufferers as melancholics who “roam out at night and mimic the ways of the wolves or dogs and mostly loiter by the grave monuments until daybreak.” Marcellus considered them harmless, both to themselves and others.

Arab physicians expanded on the Greek concept of lykanthropoi, splitting it into two. The harmless kind they called qutrub, after a type of jinn or ghoul who haunted graveyards and ate corpses. They also described another condition, mania lupina, a more violent malady whose sufferers behaved wildly and wolfishly, and often could only be restrained with shackles.

Volkodlak znamka 0Stories of humans transformed into various animals, including wolves, appear in Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, but the werewolf as we understand it today probably had its origins in Nordic mythology. From Scandinavia the motif spread, showing up widely in the rest of Europe by about the 14th century, not just as folktale or legend, but as superstition. In Western Europe werewolves were associated with witchcraft; in Eastern Europe, with vampires (according to Baring-Gould the Serbian term vlkoslak denotes a creature both werewolf and vampire).

Given the association with sorcery, werewolf trials did occur during Europe’s witch hunt period (roughly the 15th through 18th centuries), but the view of lycanthropy as a mental illness also overlapped the superstition, as shown in the quote from Daemonologie that began this post — and James was pretty credulous about the existence of demons and witches. Even during the witch trials, the courts sometimes recognized self-confessed werewolves as mentally ill, rather than demonic beings [1].

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A Budget of Book Reviews, February 2017

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Time for another budget of (mostly ebook this time) reviews, featuring ghosts and scholars, mythological creatures and occult detectives. Really, the only thematic commonality here is that I’ve read all these books (and one magazine) recently.

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In Search of: Robin Hoods of the World

Every country has its Robin Hood… — Lawrence G. Green

Ah, but is that really true? My husband called me from work the other day; the question had somehow come up with his colleagues, and he turned to me, as the closest thing to a “folklore expert” he knows. It sounds like a statement, that ought to be true, doesn’t it? So far, I’ve only come up with a few, but this seems like a great question to throw out there into Bloglandia….

Robin Hood shoots with Sir Guy

Source: Wikimedia

By Robin Hood I mean primarily someone who is alleged to have robbed the rich to give to the poor, or at least defended the poor in some extralegal way. A folk hero is preferable: someone who was supposed to be a historical person (or maybe more than one; Wikipedia lists several people who might have been the “real” Robin Hood). For this list, I’ll accept fictional characters, especially if they are based on historical persons. In either case, I’d like someone who has in some way entered his country’s popular “folk” culture, in the way that Superman or Davy Crockett have entered the folk culture of the United States.

So here’s my list, so far, of international Robin Hoods. I’m hoping my readers can contribute more.

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