Monday, April 11, 2011

Incunabula vol III: Necropolis, Necromancy and the Walking Dead

By Mr. VI

'I am the police, and I say, "Don't move" Snow White. You move, you're dead. Eric'
'And I say, "I'm dead," and I move.' - The Crow

(This is the third of a series of linked posts - one and two.)

A necropolis is a city of the dead; it is a settlement and home for those who have undergone a shift from the processes of life into the processes of unlife. Make no mistake, just as the living have their movements, their currents, so do the dead. They shift from the movements of life to the apparent stillness of death.

In truth that stillness is a lie, and we know that deep down in our hind-brain. That stillness is a counterfeit thing, wearing the face of someone we once knew. Bacterial replication and liquefaction, putrescence and decay – all these occur under the guise of the still, until we are forced to acknowledge the alien nature moving under the skin of familiar features.

Is any wonder we transport the dead, either literally or figuratively? If they remain amongst us, they become possessed, animated by a kind of inhumanity. But if we send them on their way, they settle with their new kind, joining with the rank upon rank of serried ancestors.

Or so we hope.

The necropolis is a place where they can move how they like, doing their dead-things. They're not possessed there, they're in the right place, slowly descending downward, settling out. Maybe, just maybe, if they want another chance at life, they mix into the underground flows of the Deep Below and emerge as part of the welling stream that gives us new life.

It's the same with a graveyard – a bounded space that is the place of the grave. The dead exist; it's only modern Western culture that says you cease post-mortem. I'm not even talking about some metaphysical afterlife – quite simply, in Western culture, the dead as a conceptual idea and/or space have become something to be ignored and deliberately avoided because of the implication that you *will* become one of them; your life and all its important constructions, shall pass away, all your investment is hence more than a little foolish.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – if you don't take it out and use it, it's going to rust.

And that is what has happened to the dead as a concept. As a mythological space, they have atrophied, and I believe our culture is poorer for it. Sure we have vampires, the walking dead and shambling zombies – but the zombie is purely a shambling unstoppable thing, an expression of unending consumption and the vampire now a glamorised sexual predator.

Our culture is obsessed with the notion of remaining vital; with husbanding the resources that make us prime physical specimens, and yet because of this, the population of the elderly is steadily increasing. More humans are thinking about their impending doom than ever before, and yet it is a blank wall. What could be a creative space enabling society to evaluate and learn from its experiences is, in essence, a no-go zone.

But for those in crisis conditions, the veneration of the dead and death itself provides a grounding which allows a re-apprehension of life – for example the cult of Santa Muerte in Mexico, supposedly a fusion of Mesoamerican and Catholic belief.

This of course makes sense because for those under relatively affluent conditions, the status quo perpetuates the myth that it it is unceasing, and that change and transition are threatening.

In actuality, this produces a climate of denial – the dead are denied because they illustrate transitions and enable the thought that everything is precarious. Indeed, our bodies are filled with the furious replication of bacteria when we are alive; the flesh is a veritable ecosystem of strange organisms – just see James' post on the strange world of the Puppet Masters for examples.

The dead are not seized by an alien external unlife - they merely reveal what was already present within us all along; the skull as momento mori, the caput mortuum or death's head.

Strip away the pretty flesh, the rouge, the make-up; the muscle, the manicure and the moisturiser and you have the slick grin that never shifts in its mirth, the shining glory that is your essence.

And here's where we bring in the incunabula again. I bet you were waiting for them, no?

Because the incunabula use myth like ordinary humans use food – it is broken down and rearranged to incorporate it into their bodies, cut into their texts. So the dead actually provide them with sustenance; they make them stronger and more vital.

“More Human Than Human.” to quote White Zombie!

After all, the larger one's hunting ground, the more chance of gaining the necessary resources for existence – this is the essence of hunter-gathering; to move on before things are depleted. What then stops you from arriving at the necropolis and feasting with the dead?

Imagine this:

The sun has disappeared beyond the horizon, an azure twilight which smoothly flows into the gloaming; the shadows lengthen and the quiet descends like a veil. The landscape is obelisks and angels – black stone amidst the Arcadian green that's now bleaching out in the night.

Your feet guide you along moss-furred paths, a warm breeze brushing your cheek until you find yourself ringed by three small buildings – each with chapel-doors resting in porches floored with uneven slate.

You might pause, or stride boldly on – eventually you take the curving left-hand path, rising up above the town that stretches below, dimly aware of leafy whispers in the distance. It draws you in, a warm greenness that speaks of spring evenings long gone.

And yet, beneath that is the faint scent of rust, of earth and rot. Even the stone smells; damp and old and gritty. Perhaps there's a weariness there too, an enduring knowledge of the effort it took to get there, to be brought up from beneath the earth and also, the knowing that some day soon, they will fall back, to be covered again.

Eventually, you come to the monument, lured in by a tiny gleaming lantern. Rank upon rank of names now barely perceptible in the dark, all waiting.

In Memoriam...

When the blindfold comes, it's looped swiftly, tied with brusque efficiency, and you are firmly pressed downward to the grass; the hardness of earth reaching through the verdant carpet to touch smooth bone beneath skin and muscle.

Almost immediately, the light goes out, and the silence stretches for a space. The fabric across your face stretches, a kiss of silky sensation, but there is no sight. By rights, it should be your hearing that sharpens first, but it's your skin that comes alive even before that. The breeze has dropped, but you can feel the air as if you were immersed in water, shifting in the face of minute unconscious movements.

Just what is it that you are breathing? When you become aware of the flow of breath, the scent comes with it; thick and rich with dark spice – frankincense and myrrh coils in your brain as charcoal fizzes and burns in an unseen censer.

Weaving around you, in and out of your sphere of perception, a presence moves; it prowls and slinks – muttering strange syllables that are guttural and liquid all at once. One moment the voice is oily, eeling blindly across your awareness like some obscene sightless thing, and the next it seems ripped from the meat of the speaker's throat – vocal cords scraped raw and bloody by knives of obsidian and pitted meteoric iron from a time of cold and frozen winds.

And when the piping begins, it rises and falls like a wail; arrhythmic and atonal as grief, a dirge-like procession of notes that somehow still seem to leap and posture in some grim dance of death. Night-birds call weirdly in the pauses, registering their presence at this annunciation.

Without thought your fingers curl into the protective mudras, mind running the litany of mantras on a loop as the sense of anticipation rises in your chest, the pulse of joyful dread twisting in your guts.

You know something is coming when the sound of drums thuds out; you try to orient yourself, work out where the drummer is located but the skirling notes of the pipe lead you onward down some twisted path...

An abrupt silence– the sound is cut off jaggedly, its edges flap limply in the dark, fading into silence.

Yet in that silence, you can hear the drums still pounding, for your heart has taken up the refrain, the unending beat driving blood through you, vitalising and giving you strength. Your vision, your senses; all these are lit by the blood-glow, the scarlet lamp which illuminates your life.

Unbidden, the sensation of a vast gulf arises with you at the centre, a burning crimson star expanding the sphere of your perception, incorporating all within it into yourself. A red giant, swollen and vast, consuming and growing still larger; the red-shift of light as the universe expands, galaxies racing far apart.

And yet, as this occurs, the awareness comes to you that as the universe expands, the spaces between the stars grow ever larger; the cosmic gulfs expand like hungry maws, cold and dark as the stars burn and fuse and then gutter; they swell and then collapse to frozen black cores, lightless and invisible – all alone in the night.

What of the blood-glow then, the lantern of life? The heart must cease to beat; the inexorable fact assails you, the notions of escape crushed by the knowledge that to flee from this place would be a blind flight which would only hasten exhaustion and probably bring naught but pain.

And almost as if your thoughts were as visible as those ancient constellations, there is a scrape on stone and you realise the drums have taken up their beat again. Again and again, something strikes stretched skin – setting it to vibrate and tremble as you imagine the strange percussionist squatting upon the base of the obelisk.

What kind of thing makes such music, what weird grin might it be sharing with that awful piper; a thing of teeth and permanent mirth born of deathly knowledge? What kind of presences does it call, draw up from the grave-dirt; what happens to features and shapes so long interred?

And in your imaginings, your dread-limned thoughts as you sit there in the place of the dead, you wonder what stirs, just out of sight. You are blind, bound and waiting in the spaces of those no longer made of mortal flesh and human breath.

The stray into your awareness slowly at first, creeping and flittering, scampering and chirruping like the night-birds of before, only now you are not so sure they were ever birds at all. The first touch is a might-be – something brushes you with cobweb softness.

The second is more obvious.

Behind the blindfold, you imagine the hand that strokes your cheek; long-nailed and leperously pale, belonging to some elongated thing of tenuous, tenebrous existence. Lambent eyes blaze darkly, luminous and vast in the night – hollow voids of cold and icy illumination.

There is huffing; a hiccoughing noise as it snuffles disturbingly close, drinking in your scent, spiced with subtle fear. Then, from another direction, something seizes a wrist and lifts your arm high above your head, stretching the joint painfully.

Something long, wet, and muscular flicks across the skin of the limb, and you would flinch away, except somehow, all your muscles have frozen solid, hard as iron and twice as agonising under the,strain of it.

The pain is a dull fire and flickers around the edges of things like the colour of a particularly vile bruise, greenish-purple, a sickly shade of virulent yellow as you are frozen in place, your body no longer your own.

More presences come then, from all sides, plucking and pulling, testing and teasing with implacable curiosity that id far worse than any cruelty. Your breath becomes your anchor, its movement a familiar touch-stone in the face of what must come.

Because the consideration is over far too suddenly. Wordlessly, there's more agony as needle-sharp teeth sink into your arm, and as if in some response to an invisible signal, they fall upon you; these demons of the dead rip and rear and tear at your flesh, they pare flesh from bone and bury their inhuman muzzles in wounds, faces lit with feral joy and bathed in scarlet baptism.

And through the pain, through the horror, you breathe, for this is what you have come to deliver. You have come to feed the hungry dead, and as you breathe, your awareness climbs the bone-column of your spine, the pain like fuel for a rocket as your consciousness erupts from the top of your head, and all goes white – the urge to transcend this, to escape into the unfurling lotus of transcendence, beyond all pain, is beautifully potent.

But such an escape is selfish, and ultimately uninspiring. As you watch your body is dragged down, ribcage cracked open and heart torn from your chest, placed neatly aside as a ghul tears your head off and suckles greedily on the spinal fluid.

Another swiftly skins the skull and strikes off the top with inhuman strength, consuming the brain in moments, scrabbling inside the the bony casing with gory paws, and then smiles with a red mouth, pushing its way through its fellows to scoop up a skull-cup full of your hot and steaming blood.

And now you can see shapes arising from that blood, writhing and twisting like smoke, plastic and fluxing, rapid one moment, and the next languorous – as luxuriating in the variety of forms. The scent of it reaches you, the glory of flesh revealed as meat, as nourishment for all things.

It draws you downward to the feast, and there amongst the viscera, you spy faces with half-familiar features; the shared cast of face and form distended by time and shaped by the clear light of final transition. A distant kinship lies in these monsters, these creatures and dwellers in the realms of death – ageless ancestors joyously partaking of kin.

There, you see the cup-holder sniff the air, raise its inhuman face to meet your disembodied gaze, and then with a peculiar gait, it lopes over to the steaming knot of muscle, hormone and chemicals which still somehow pulses weakly, spattering stone and ground with the last of life.

It snatches up your heart, and with an awful swiftness offers it and the skull cup to you. This then, is the moment you have been waiting for – the communion.

You are drawn to the heart by an irresistible gravity, the emotions and contexts of your life encoded as chemical messengers – the Ancient Egyptians knew the heart was the centre of the being, after all.

And as you contemplate it, you begin to feel awareness shift into physicality, accreting and coagulating – the body which was the centre no longer belongs to you. It is a gift to all those feasting here.

As what was, is broken down and devoured, you somehow can feel your fingers, curled in those mudras, but now they have moved and shifted – lengthened into claws, spread out into flexible paws with opposable thumbs, perfect to rend and tear.

Where your face would be, you feel your awareness flow and shift, lips drawing back, senses sharpening as sight becomes clearer than any human night-vision has any right to be, and the scent of food washes over you.

From a place beyond thought, old and primal, you shiver hard and things flow like water as you devour your own heart, experiencing its piquant richness in a way you never knew before, as you are unbound from association, and all – be it bad or good – nourishes the primordial thing that you have become.

Wolfing down the heartsflesh, you take up the cup and stare into the darkness of your own blood, the pool of all that allowed you to become, and you sip.

It is like the finest wine, the most wonderful intoxicant. It thrills you, and you wonder how it is that you never felt such a thing as this before – that from a sip, you are granted access to worlds of possibility. A momentary regret then, that you held such an intoxicant inside you for all your human life, and could not comprehend its use, and then you stare into the pool, seeing patterns and shapes of wisdom, welling up from that fundamental fluid.

Time passes with deathly grace, kairotic and eternal, until at last your scrying is done, and you have witnessed all that is needful. Draining the cup, you are led to the feast, where the corpse have been stripped of flesh, and an ancient ghul hands you a knife.

Instinctively you set to, carving strange sigils onto the hollow bones, charms born of the accumulated wisdom of these dwellers in the necropolis, charms that shift and writhe in moonlight, gleaming darkly in ivory whiteness.

You work for as long as needful, until at last each of the bones has been inscribed and laid out neatly. Then by some unspoken signal, the old monster raises up a flute and begins to play, a high, weird piping that sets the heart you have consumed to beat in your gut.

And with that pulse, form flows, and strange muscles move – for the appearance of humanity is now yours to wear, your skin can be worn like a cloak when you travel amidst the living. By the blood-magic and the communion, the calling of like to like, you feel your new bones burning with charm, and a smile crosses your lips.

So as the blindfold falls away, consider communion. Consider the partaking and sharing of resources, and how one may move in ways that go beyond the ordinary ideas about flesh and blood.

Remember the body as text, the blood as ink. Remember the ghul and the giving, the creation and the making.

Be seeing you.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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