Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft: 1

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Painting on the wall of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Photo: Nenko Lazarov, adjusted by Martha Forsyth. Wikipedia

The more numerous part of mankind cannot form in their mind the idea of the spirit of the deceased existing, without possessing or having the power to assume the appearance which their acquaintance bore during his life, and do not push their researches beyond this point.

— Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Letter 1

I started Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft the other day. The book was originally published in 1830, as one of the volumes in a series called “Murray’s Family Library”. It’s in the form of letters to Sir Walter’s son-in-law, J.G. Lockhart, who convinced his father-in-law to write a piece on witchcraft for the Family Library. Sir Walter was recovering from a stroke at the time, and his son-in-law wanted to distract him from work that was too strenuous. Also, apparently, Sir Walter needed the money.

The first letter takes a skeptical tone towards supernatural phenomena. Sir Walter lists off a number of naturalistic explanations for ghostly appearances, omens, and the like. He backs up his list of phenomena and explanations for them with anecdotes and stories that he’s heard from friends and colleagues. It’s a bit like reading a nineteenth century Snopes.

It may be remarked also, that Dr. Johnson retained a deep impression that, while he was opening the door of his college chambers, he heard the voice of his mother, then at many miles’ distance, call him by his name; and it appears he was rather disappointed that no event of consequence followed a summons sounding so decidedly supernatural.

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The Soul that Swam

I almost didn’t post this one. It’s a classic near-death story, so classic it verges on stereotypical. It does have a few unusual details, though, so I just decided to go ahead.

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Photo: John Mount

“This happened to my father, your lolo, when he was a young man, doing missionary work,” Dad said. “He had been assigned to a parish in Mindanao — Cagayan de Oro.”

I’m a bit hazy as to what “missionary work” means in this context. My grandfather was a priest who belonged to the Philippine Independent, or Aglipayan, Church. The church was founded as a reaction to the Spanish-dominated Catholic hierarchy, which slighted native Filipino clergy and churchgoers. Its nationalistic position attracted a lot of converts.

So I would imagine that my grandfather’s missionary work entailed ministering to an Aglipayan parish, one similar to the Roman Catholic parish that his parishioners had abandoned. Mindanao has a relatively large Muslim population as well; it’s possible that he also proselytized.

At any rate, from what my father describes, his father had many of the duties of a parish priest: saying Mass, visiting members of his congregation, managing the day to day activities of the church.

“One night, he came home quite late in the evening, after visiting with a sick parishioner. As he entered his house, a large black moth flew at him. He killed it. Then he finished up for the day, and went to bed.”

“When he fell asleep, he dreamt that he died.”

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Footsteps from Empty Rooms

It was my mother’s turn. She sat at the kitchen table, eating tangerines. Dad leaned over the kitchen counter with a banana. I sat at the kitchen counter, so I could listen to both of them.

“The thing to look out for is a house where someone died,” Mom said. “You know, in California, when you sell your house, you have to disclose whether or not someone died there, or if there was a tragedy in the house.”

“Really? I never heard anything like that,” I said.

My husband and I bought our house from our landlord, after renting it for eight years. Our landlord had been the second owner, and I would not be at all surprised if the first owner had passed away in the house.

“Well, did you ask about it?” Mom asked.

“Um. No.” I said.

“Well, there you go. But the people who bought our house in Pinole, they asked. They had a whole list of questions we had to answer for them! No one wants to move into a house with a multo. Maybe you have one in your house, and you don’t even know it.”

“If we don’t know we have a multo, then it doesn’t make any difference, right, Mom?” She made a tsk noise.

“Okay, okay. Did you have a multo at your house when you were a kid?”

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My Great-Grandparents’ house, about 1929

“Well, the house that you remember was built in the fifties, especially for your lolo and lola, so it was brand new when we lived in it. Before that, when I was little, we lived in the big house, my lola’s house, which is next door to where your lolo and lola’s eventually built their house. My lola had moved out by then, to live with her daughter, but my uncle, Tio Pedro, still lived there, with us. The big house was old, and lots of people died there: my grandfather, and some of my great-uncles and great-aunts…”

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Empty Houses

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Photo: Nina Zumel

“When a house is empty for a long time, the enkanto — the fairies — come to live there.”

Dad was warming to our ghost story conversation.

“I know this is true, because it happened to our house in Saraat, during the War.”

He meant World War II. The Philippines was not a happy place, during that war, but my father’s memories of that time are surprisingly pleasant. He was only about eight or nine years old when the Japanese occupation began, the youngest of his siblings, by far — what they call an “afterthought child”. When the Japanese came, I think some of my uncles ran to the mountains, to join the resistance, and much of the town evacuated as well. My grandfather chose to stay.

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A Christmas Tale

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“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”

— Jeffery Peterson, Telling ghost stories is a lost tradition on Christmas Eve

M. R. James did it every year, and Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol”. It’s a Victorian tradition apparently, and I’ve always thought it was a bit odd, but hey — it’s fun, too.

So to celebrate this Christmas Eve, here’s Hume Nisbet’s 1890 contribution to the tradition, The Old Portrait. Enjoy.

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy Holiday Season.

Ghosts, History, Tradition

Jackiedsessions lgArrived at my parents’ house for the Christmas holiday; there’s nothing to do here except eat, which might be good for the blog. I brought an iPad full of ebooks, and two physical books, both short story collections: The Jack Daniels Sessions, by Elwin Cotman, and Ghosts of Yesterday, by Jack Cady.

I mentioned Ghosts of Yesterday before; I picked it up around Thanksgiving, and I’ve been sort of sipping at it on and off since then. I picked up The Jack Daniels Sessions a while back on a recommendation by Jesus Angel Garcia, the author of badbadbad. I started Jack Daniels Sessions yesterday. If you read like I do, multiple short story collections simultaneously, Cotman and Cady make a good pairing.

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On Paper and Electrons

Kwaidan Stories and Studies of Strange Things

Been catching up on my email, blogs, and whatnot, since I got back. I came across this post from AcidFreePulp, one of the blogs that I follow. It’s on the question on “real books” versus ebooks. I’ve been hearing this argument from several of my friends, a lot, lately. Friends who are writers tend to fall on the “paper forever!” side of the argument. Friends who are voracious readers (especially readers of genre fiction) tend to fall on the “how did I live without my Kindle?” side.

Me? I tend to fall in the middle. Since AcidFreePulp took the position for physical books, I’ll take the other side, just for fun.

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