Saturday, 18 June 2016

There Was a Ghoul Dwelt by a Mosque (1996)

In the mid 1990s I was a regular contributor to Ghosts & Scholars, a journal of ghost stories that took the writer M.R. James as its chief inspiration and motivation. I wrote many stories that had a connection to his work. At the same time I did not wish to produce straightforward ghost tales. My more outré efforts in this regard tended not to make it into the journal (although some did) and ended up being published elsewhere, the following story, for example, which was inspired not only by M.R. James but also by William Beckford. It is, in fact, a continuation-of-sorts of Beckford's VATHEK. It was published in my book THE SMELL OF TELESCOPES.

This is the story about ungodly deeds which Vathek, the mad caliph in Beckford’s novel, was hearing from one of the new arrivals in Hell, when his mother flew in on the back of an afrit to chide him for not enjoying the pleasures on offer. The tale is not given; Vathek’s acquaintance was damned soon after without having a chance of resuming it. Now what was it going to have been? Beckford knew, no doubt, but I am not bold enough to say that I do. I will offer a new story: one you will think made from scraps of other fables. Everybody should sew a patchwork coat from the materials he likes best. This is mine:
There was a ghoul dwelt by a mosque. His name was Omar and he was a potter with a shop built from broken vases. His doorway looked out on the Kizilirmak, the longest river in Asia Minor, and from his roof he could lean over and touch the mosque with his elongated arms. His wheel and oven had belonged to a human craftsman who died without heirs and was buried with his tools, but (this was in Haroun al Raschid’s day) ghouls were allowed to keep any items they dug up. The creature filed his teeth to stubs to reassure his neighbours — but never mind what they thought of him; he was skilled enough at his trade to make a living from the travellers who passed through Avanos. He rarely overcharged for his products and this frightened people most of all.
Omar lacked humanity in other ways: he kept an attic full of hair clipped from the heads of his female visitors. There were women pilgrims and merchants even then and they were politely requested to give up a lock or two for his archive. The monster labelled them and secured them to the ceiling on hooks, where they exuded a musty odour and shivered in the shifting air currents. Omar liked to imagine his attic was a cave beneath a garden — a garden of vegetable girls whose roots were pushing through into his subterranean kingdom. This unusual custom has persisted through the centuries; next time you are in Avanos, ask for the house of Master Galip and you will see what I mean. His modern collection is also illuminated by a single lamp.
The ghoul had a mother no less grotesque in her habits. She helped him collect the red clay from the river-bank, bringing him a supply each morning. Instead of cutting the clay into blocks, she would roll it in her hands and present it to him like a freshly-exhumed intestine. Then he would divide it with a pair of shears and they would gather round the wheel with excited giggles, as if they were grilling sausages instead of preparing to throw another plate or saucer.
The attic was also the place where the ghoul kept all his rejects, the warped and flawed work. Heavy urns, twisted over like slaves; cups with no handles, or too many; pitchers with clamped mouths or leaking sides; shapeless mounds as tall as men which should have been coffins but were unusable, save for lepers; pipes with stems which curled back into the bowl; teapots without spouts, or spouts which poured tea into the lap of the drinker. All these, Omar packed into his attic, loathe to discard them. With the hair above and the failures below, the room became a sort of museum of imperfection — the former lacking complete substance; the latter lacking complete form.
One day, a cowled traveller called at the shop. Veiled from head to foot, she betrayed her femininity by her poise and sibilant voice. She had come far and was taking her first holiday in many years. Her sisters were keen on stone figures for their garden and she had promised to take some back as gifts. But sculptors were rare in Asia Minor, the prophet had forbidden such art, and so, to make the best of a bad thing, she had decided to purchase pottery as a substitute. She wondered if she might view Omar’s most decorative examples.
“Well, my work is functional, not fine art,” said the ghoul. “But you’re free to look round. I’m self-trained and you mustn’t expect too much in the way of aesthetic gratification.”
“Come, these pots betray a certain flair,” cried the visitor. “Lead me through your shop and I will choose something.”
So he guided her along racks of ceramic utensils, which she studied with a slight wave, as if to indicate they were not quite suitable. When the conventional rooms were exhausted, they reached the attic. “The work in here is not really for sale,” apologised Omar, “but if you will enter and allow me to snip a strand of your hair...”
The visitor seemed about to refuse, but the door was swinging open and when she caught a glimpse of the mutated wares she forgot to voice an objection. Stepping forward in joy, she squealed: “Perfect! They are so delightfully strange. And this one is the oddest of the lot! I must have it at any price!” And she moved to the end of the attic and seized the ghoul’s mother, who was sleeping on a stool.
At this point, several things happened at once. The ghoul mistook his visitor’s cry for compliance with his request, and he reached across the room with his elongated arms to sever a lock with his shears. But the mother had jumped up in alarm, knocking over and smashing the single lamp. In pitch darkness, Omar felt under his visitor’s veil and detached it with clumsy fingers, whereupon he snipped the lock. While he groped his way to a hook to hang it up, his mother struck a flint in an attempt to relight the lamp; the attempt was unsuccessful, but the long spark which winked in the gloom was enough to illuminate the visitor, who was still bending over the mother. Then darkness came again, more intense for the momentary light: there was a groan, something brushed past the ghoul and clattered out through the shop.
When Omar’s slitted eyes had adjusted, he saw he was alone in the attic. No: his mother was there as well, but she was changed. Her arms flung up as if to cover her face, her body twisted away as if from some dreadful apparition, she was literally petrified. She had always had a stony expression; now it was real. Omar looked at the ceiling and his hearts raced madly; in place of a lock of hair was a very angry snake, hissing and writhing on its hook.
Well, he gnashed his filed teeth for many a moon, I can assure you. Without a mother, a ghoul is lost, like a bridge without a river or a pot without a price. Luckily, he dwelt by a mosque and the local muezzin was a sorcerer who made no secret of his skills. Standing on his roof at night, just after the evening call to prayer, Omar hailed the muezzin on his minaret and made a pact. He would sell part of his soul, the human part, to Eblis — the devil — in exchange for the return of his mother. So the muezzin lowered a glass tablet inscribed with arcane symbols on a gold thread and told Omar to place it between his mother’s granite lips, whereupon she would spring to life.
As he stumbled through the attic with this talisman, Omar happened to brush the snake, which bit him on the shoulder. He growled in pain and his great hands came together, crushing the glass tablet to powder. The sparkling shards flew up and settled on the warped and twisted pots. With a hideous scraping sound, they came alive — the urns, the pitchers, the cups, the coffins — tumbling awkwardly, snapping their lids, grating against each other, whistling, crowding round the ghoul like dogs round a master, or jackals round a corpse. With his fists and feet, he smashed them to pieces, then he went down and returned with the potter’s wheel, which he rolled among the wounded ceramics, reducing them to fine dust. The one place the magic glass had missed was the mother, who remained as motionless and igneous as before.
Unable to bear the loss of his soul for naught, Omar left his shop disguised as a minor prince and went searching for his visitor. But he succeeded only in passing into the domain of Hell. By now, his fears had altered. He was more frightened that another sorcerer would manage to reanimate his mother: she would be furious at being kept so long in such a condition and would berate him. Better to be damned, he decided, than to suffer the ill-will of a ghoul’s mother, who would be certain to bend him over her knee and smack......
At this juncture, Vathek’s acquaintance slapped off his turban to reveal the horns of a ghoul. His forked tongue poked out over his filed teeth. Vathek fell back with a cry of pity and alarm, but recovered soon enough and, tapping his nose, asserted that he knew another mother quite three times as dreadful as that one, but lacked enough horrid words to describe her. Indeed, at that very moment she was trying to dethrone one of the pre-Adamite sultans. More tangibly, in Avanos there is a curious statue standing in the square, waiting for something, a backward glance from an earlier tourist, I do not know; but it is a fact that Gorgons no longer go to Asia Minor for their holidays.

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